“A choice between fidelity and desertion”
One hundred years ago, in 1917, there was a divisive debate in Canada over military conscription. It was led by Conservative cabinet minister Arthur Meighen. Brilliant, opinionated, and incisive, Meighen was one of Canada’s great parliamentary orators. Born in Ontario, he moved to Manitoba to practice law and was elected to the House of Commons in 1908. He served in the Borden government, where he was instrumental in drafting the legislation for conscription and other wartime measures.
Most Canadians believed the war in Europe would be a brief one, but it dragged on in trench warfare and sporadic large battles that cost tens of thousands of lives. Initially, the Canadian government was confident that it could provide troops through voluntary enlistment, but by 1916 there was a growing demand, particularly among Canadians of British ancestry, for the government to impose conscription to raise more troops. That enthusiasm was not shared in Quebec, where people had little allegiance to Britain. In 1916, Prime Minister Borden attended wartime meetings in London and visited with Canadians troops, particularly those wounded and in hospital. He was shocked and moved, and returned to Canada committed to conscripting men for compulsory military service. Meighen drafted the legislation, and he entered the debate on June 17, responding to an amendment proposed by Opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier that the legislation be deferred and put to a national referendum. Here is his speech:
I regard the forwarding of troops to the front on the scale now being undertaken as an all-essential, as something we cannot shirk. Does anybody really think otherwise? Whatever means are necessary to procure these men, they must be sent; and whatever action is necessary on our part to support our army at present in France, we must take. No one has seriously argued in this House, and in solemn truth no one seriously believes that we can dispatch, as we have done, three hundred and fifty thousand men overseas, commissioned by us to stand between our country and destruction, pledge them the undying fidelity of a grateful people, watch them through harrowing years of suffering, bathe ourselves in the reflected glory of their gallantry and devotion, and then leave them to be decimated and destroyed. Surely, an obligation of honour is upon us, and fortifying that obligation of honour is the primal, instinctive, eternal urge of every nation to protect its own security. There is no other way in which the security of our state can be to a maximum ensured, and certainly no other way in which its honour can be preserved . . .
I pass on to examine some contentions advanced in support of the amendment moved by the right honourable Opposition leader. It has been a matter of much interest, and indeed of curiosity, to observe the wonderful variety of opinions collected behind this referendum amendment. A referendum amendment is really not an amendment at all. Very definitely it is not a policy: it is a negation of policy. Why has it been adopted as party tactics? Merely as an expedient to avoid facing the issue, and to gather behind the Opposition leader all support, however incongruous, that can be got together. What kind of opinions are behind the amendment? It is moved by the leader of the Opposition, who complains that we have dashed this bill upon the House too suddenly and too soon. It is seconded by the honourable member for Edmonton (Mr. Oliver), who complains that we have already waited too long; that we should have taken this course and held a referendum a year ago. The leader of the Opposition argues that the bill will be met with opposition, if not with resistance, on the part of French Canada and will bring about disunion in our country. His seconder, the honourable member for Edmonton, wants in place of this bill another one which will take all of these one hundred thousand men out of French Canada alone . . .
Do honourable gentlemen realize where they are when they support this proposal? Do they recognize the company they are in? I make appeal to honourable gentlemen opposite, who at other times and under brighter skies may have felt there was some principle behind a referendum, to argue out for themselves whether that principle has any application in a crisis like this. Is the referendum peculiarly suited for war? Is it suited to a time when the best and most deserving of our electorate are overseas, shifting and surging along a battlefront of continental scale, and when only a mere fraction of their number may possibly be counted in the vote? Results of twelve months and more have proved that recruits in numbers anything like those required cannot be obtained by methods of the past.
The Toronto Globe has said that the voluntary system is as dead as Julius Caesar. Months ago the Liberal press of English-speaking Canada proclaimed that under it we could not get absolutely necessary troops. We have waited until we thought the public of Canada generally had realized that truth, and realized it with such overmastering conviction as to mean general consent to the enactment of a compulsory law. Why confuse the situation by a tricky referendum? Do not honourable gentlemen in their hearts admit that the passing of this amendment would bring joy to friends of Germany in every part of the world? It would be welcomed at Potsdam. It would be supported, were he here, by the head of the German nation himself. It would make headlines of elation in every German newspaper on this and other continents. Such is the company honourable gentlemen are in who support this proposal. Its passing would be a cause of rejoicing to every poolroom loafer, to every movie veteran, to every sporting fan, to all who have shrunk from duty; but it would be a subject of resentment, regret, and pain to men who have nobly done their part to preserve the liberty, and uphold the honour, of Canada . . .
We as a people have a right to deliberate, and in a constitutional way to vote, to negative, if we so desire, any policy which is still open for us to decide. But surely the prosecution of this war with the whole might of Canada is not in that category. That question has been passed upon. If there ever was a time for a referendum, which I deny, it was in August, 1914; it is not now. We have committed ourselves as a nation, we have signed the bond, it is for us to discharge the obligation. The prosecution of this war by every effective and honourable means is now a matter only of good faith: three hundred thousand living men and twenty thousand dead are over there, hostages of our good faith. All that remains for us is a choice between fidelity and desertion, between courage and poltroonery, between honour and everlasting shame.
We must rise to the level of our responsibilities. We must not be afraid to lead. Ministers of the Crown have been execrated from end to end of Canada for failure of leadership and all the rest. Many of those who have skulked at home, but who should be at the front, have lampooned the able and overburdened head of this government, crying out tiresome jargon about failure to lead. Newspaper after newspaper has done the same. Well, here is leadership. Let those who lagged behind and comforted themselves with this monotonous complaint—let them walk up now, close the gap, and stand beside the prime minister. The people of Canada, we have oft been told, call out to Parliament, to members of this House, for strong and fearless leadership. Are we going to answer that call with our hands in the air crying back to those people: “For heaven’s sake, lead us.” Such is the amendment we are now asked to support.
Lastly, the shadow of disunion is raised and we are pressed to turn back. One cannot help but observe that those who hold over us this threat are, one and all, opposed to the measure anyway, on other grounds. There will inevitably be difference of opinion, but quite plainly there will be nothing in the nature of schism unless honourable gentlemen are determined to create it. I am as confident as I have ever been of anything in my life that if members of this House, reading and studying this measure, and hearing it debated, will go to their constituents and tell them the meaning, purpose and spirit of this bill, there will be no possibility whatever of discord or resistance. Why should there be? There is not a clause that is unjust as between provinces, or races, or creeds. Very positively, and very obviously, there is neither intent, nor possibility, of unfairness to the province of Quebec. Never was more anxious care taken in drafting a law. The minister of justice, whose home is in Montreal, will be in charge of its administration . . .
I appeal to our friends opposite, and to those around me as well—for party divisions as we once had them are not just the same today—I appeal to all of every political faith to take the course which alone will command our self-respect, and which will entitle us to the regard of our own people, of our allies, and of generations to come.
Prime Minister Borden dissolved Parliament in October 1917 and announced a union government committed to conscription. Quebec was adamantly opposed and the country was divided in ways that have never entirely healed. Laurier refused Borden’s offer to participate in the government, although some of his Liberal members from English Canada did so. Meighen succeeded Borden in 1920 and on two occasions he served briefly as prime minister. He was later appointed to the Senate.
Source: Canada. House of Commons. Debates, June 21, 1917, 2529–38.