Unending Seige

Canada’s Participation in the War

Political Divisions

In 1917, French and English Canadians were already firmly rooted in their positions. Francophones were indifferent to a war being fought far from home, for an outcome that was unlikely to affect them. For French Canadians, the struggle for their own survival had to be waged, and it had to be waged at home, on their own soil. Meanwhile Canadians of British extraction volunteered in large numbers, accusing the Francophones of not pulling their weight. This position overlooked a number of important facts. For example, nearly 70 percent of the first volunteer contingent was made up of young men born in the British Isles; without the conscription of 1917-18, it is likely that more than 50 percent of the volunteers Canada sent overseas would have been men born outside Canada. Also, the United States would remain aloof from the deadly game of war until the spring of 1917. The reaction of the French Canadians, who had been settled for generations in North America, was similar to that of their southern neighbours - a fact that many of their countrymen refused to acknowledge.

When conscription was announced, Quebec Conservatives hastened to point out that this policy would come at a heavy cost to them personally and to their party. When the bill received first reading, on 29 August 1917, the government stonewalled Laurier's demand for a referendum on the issue. Facing the backlash that swept the country, mainly in French-speaking Quebec, Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden suggested to Laurier that they form a coalition government. Despite the inclination of certain Liberals to accept this offer, the former prime minister refused. A Union cabinet would finally be formed, comprising 15 Conservatives, nine pro-conscription Liberals and a worker representative.

The Union government won the general election of 17 December 1917, taking 153 of 235 seats. Quebec isolated itself by giving 62 of its 65 seats to Laurier's Liberals. Borden offset this outcome by naming a French-Canadian senator to his cabinet. Canada might have escaped the ravages of war, but the conflict divided it politically.

From 1914 to 1918, Canada taxed its physical strength to the limit. Cultivated farmland doubled and industrial production saw remarkable expansion, mainly through growth in the wood products and paper sector as well as munitions plants, shipyards and aircraft factories. Canada's financial effort was considerable as well: Its national debt rose from $336 million to $3 billion. War expenditures amounted to $1.5 billion.