Federal Election of 1917: Nation in Crisis

Coverage of the 1917 Canadian federal election in The Morning Bulletin

Federal Election of 1917: Nation in Crisis

A Union poster for the 1917 Canadian federal election
In 1917, the potential election of the Liberals would have been Canada’s first defeat in WW1, according to Unionist campaign rhetoric

Canada’s federal election of 1917 was a vicious, heated contest.  This speaks volumes considering the 1911 election had enough rhetoric, half truths and mudslinging to make a 21st century politician feel right at home.

The election was fought primarily with one issue in mind: conscription. For this reason, it also is known as the Khaki Election.

It was held Dec. 17, less than two weeks after the Halifax Explosion. The opponents were the Unionists (comprised of the Conservatives, some Liberals and a few Independents) and the Liberals.

The Unionists were led by Prime Minister Robert Borden who had been elected in 1911 when the Conservatives became the majority party. The opposition was led by former Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier.

Liberals who remained loyal to Laurier were referred to as Laurier Liberals. Those who aligned themselves with Borden were called Liberal-Unionists.

Military Service Act

Conservative/Unionist leader and Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden
Conservative/Unionist leader and Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden

By mid-1917, 130,000 Canadians had been killed or wounded in World War I. This staggering casualty rate, along with a sharp decrease in volunteers, meant it was becoming more difficult to replace the men who were lost.

Borden visited the troops overseas and became convinced the only solution was to enact conscription. This view countered an earlier promise to not make military service compulsory. It was, however, a view that was popular in the majority of the country.

French-speaking Quebec had been against the war from the beginning. When the Military Service Act was proposed, there were riots throughout the province.

Pro-conscription supporters in Quebec faced violence while farmers, who were against both parties, were accused of price gouging and profiteering.

Borden approached Laurier about forming a pro-conscription, coalition government, but Laurier refused. So, two months before the election, Borden formed the Union party.

The war ended before the Military Service Act could have its intended effect. Only 24,000 men would serve overseas of the 125,000 who were called up.

Wartime Elections Act

Liberal leader and former Canadian Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier
Liberal leader and former Canadian Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier

Another issue weighing on the public’s mind was the Wartime Elections Act.

The act:

  • Allowed soldiers to vote during wartime. They had previously been excluded.
  • Enfranchised women who were serving in the medical corps.
  • Enfranchised the mothers, spouses and sisters of men serving overseas.
  • Disenfranchised immigrants from enemy nations who had arrived in Canada from 1902 onward unless the immigrant had a brother, son or grandson serving in active service.
  • Disenfranchised anyone who would be exempt from conscription, primarily conscientious objectors who would be more likely to vote Liberal.

The Liberals opposed the tactics the Conservatives/Unionists used to gain votes, but were powerless to stop the act’s passage.

The act was repealed before Armistice. Women, however, were unaffected.  All women older than 21 permanently gained the federal vote.

Election Results

Coverage of the 1917 Canadian federal election in The Morning Bulletin
“Liberals carry Maritime provinces; Get 62 seats in Quebec; 10 in Ontario but only sure of two west of lakes”

Political advertisements and speakers presented the election as a choice between the current government and the opposition. A vote for the government, they said, was a vote for the soldiers and killing the Kaiser. A vote for the opposition, on the other hand, was a vote for slackers and an endorsement of the enemy.

The Unionists won nearly 57 percent of the vote. They took 153 of the 235 open seats. Only 20 Liberal seats were won outside of Quebec.

Half a million women voted for the first time.

The federal election of 1917 has been called Canada’s ugliest election.

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Updated:  20 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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