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Canada and the Empire, World War I

British authority, war profiteering, massive resistance, national conflict, military conscription

Although Canada had governed its own domestic affairs since the 1840s, it had no independent foreign policy when World War I began in August 1914. Britain’s declaration of war on Germany meant that the entire empire, including Canada, was at war. The strength of the imperial tie was demonstrated in Canada’s ready response. After a massive recruiting effort, the first contingent of 32,000 men went overseas in October. In April 1915 the Canadians suffered 6,000 casualties and endured the war’s first poison-gas attack at Ieper, Belgium. Canada increased its commitment to 150,000 men. In 1916 Borden promised a half-million-man Canadian army, all volunteers, from a population still under 8 million. Canadian soldiers achieved notable victories, particularly at Vimy Ridge in the spring of 1917. Canada’s army was overwhelmingly English-speaking but included some French Canadian units, notably the distinguished 22nd Battalion. Many Canadians also served in the Royal Flying Corps (a separate Royal Canadian Air Force was created in 1918). The small Canadian navy served mostly in home waters.

As the war went on, it began to demand enormous efforts not only from Canadian army recruiters, but also from industry and agriculture. The government coordinated industrial production for military needs, and scandals erupted over corruption and war profiteering. To help pay for the war, the federal government introduced the first Canadian income tax as a “temporary” measure in 1917. The war effort encouraged social changes, too. Women took over men’s places in industry and agriculture. Women’s groups often supported the war effort vigorously. In 1917 women secured the right to vote in federal elections if they had close relatives in the armed forces; in 1918 they got that right without restriction. In the provinces, women gained the vote between 1916 (Manitoba) and 1940 (Quebec).

The war provoked increased tension between English- and French-speaking Canadians. Bourassa had helped elect Borden’s government, but the nationalists and the imperialists were odd allies. Quebec became increasingly cool to what seemed to be an imperial crusade rather than a Canadian cause. Relations became worse in 1917 when national conflict arose over Ontario’s attempt to limit French education for its French-speaking minority.

Borden, meanwhile, was demanding more Canadian participation in planning and directing the imperial war effort. With so many Canadians fighting and dying, deference to British authority became difficult to support. Gradually Canadian forces were consolidated into a Canadian Corps with Canadian commanders, answering to the Canadian government.

To achieve and hold that authority, however, Canada had to provide the troops, and the army could not recruit enough volunteers to meet its needs. In 1917 Borden proposed forming a coalition government with the opposition Liberal Party in order to introduce military conscription. Most of the English-speaking Liberals joined the coalition; most of the Quebec Liberals, including Laurier, did not, and the Liberal Party was split. Helped by the votes of soldiers and their newly enfranchised female relatives, the coalition won the 1917 wartime election, and conscription began early in 1918.

Although conscription provided few troops for the war effort, it split the country. It was overwhelmingly unpopular in Quebec, where there was massive resistance to military service. It left a lasting conviction in Quebec that in a crisis the English-speaking majority would ignore French Canada’s views, no matter how strong they were. Meanwhile the Canadian Corps, commanded by Canadian general Arthur Currie, helped spearhead the final advances of Britain and its allies before an armistice ended the war in November 1918.

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