Arthur Meighen on military conscription, June 1917

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 Meighen’s speech:

“A choice between fidelity and desertion”

I regard the forwarding of troops to the front as a necessity, as an all-out essential, as something we cannot shirk. Does anybody dispute that? 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 adopt. No one has seriously argued in this House—and I give every hon. Gentleman the credit of saying no one seriously believes—that we can dispatch 350,000 men overseas, commissioned by us to stand between our country and destruction, and leave them to be decimated and destroyed. The obligation of honour is upon us, it is the plainest obligation that was ever placed on a nation. The obligation of honour is fortified by the primary obligation of all people to protect the security of the state. There is no other way in which the honour or the security of the state can be preserved …

Who can contend, with justification, that the voluntary system has not been adequately tried in Canada, both as to vigour of effort and as to length of time? The member for St. John (Mr. Pugsley), if I understood correctly an interruption that he made yesterday, feels that the voluntary system is now doing enough. Well, for twelve months it has produced an average of 6,000 to 7,000 men a month, while the wastage in Canada and in England amounts to a very substantial portion of that figure. In the two months through which we have just passed, the voluntary system yielded us not one man for four of those who were casualties among our armies in France. Add casualties in France and wastage in England to wastage in Canada, and it is as plain as any rule of arithmetic that further reliance on the voluntary system will in time—perhaps in a very short time—so reduce our forces that we shall have no substantial representation in the war …

I pass on from that and proceed to take up certain of the contentions that have been advanced in support of the amendment moved by the leader of the Opposition. It had been a matter of great interest, and indeed of curiosity, to observe the wonderful collection of opinions that are massed behind this referendum amendment. The referendum amendment is really not an amendment at all. At all events it is not a policy: it is the negation of policy. Why is it adopted? Merely as an expedient to avoid facing the issue, and to collect behind the Opposition leader all support he can get. What are the opinions behind the amendment? It is seconded by the honourable member for Edmonton (Mr. Oliver), who complains that we have already waited too long on this matter: that we should have taken this course and had a referendum started a year ago. It is moved by the leader of the Opposition, who complains that we have dashed this Bill upon them too suddenly and too soon. What is the ground of the leader of the Opposition? He argues that the Bill is going to bring about disunion in this country, and will be met with opposition, if not with resistance on the part of French Canada. His amendment is seconded by the hon. member for Edmonton who wants a bill that will take all of these 100,000 men out of French Canada alone …

Do hon. gentlemen realize that the passing of this amendment will bring joy to friends of Germany in every part of the world? It will be welcomed at Potsdam. It would be supported, were he here, by the head of the German nation itself. It will be welcomed by every German newspaper on this and every other continent. It will be welcomed by every slacker all over Canada. That is the company the hon. gentlemen are in who support this referendum. The passing of this amendment would be a subject 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 the men who have nobly done their part to preserve the liberty, and uphold the honour, of Canada …

Let us rise to the level of our duty, let us not be afraid to lead. We have been execrated from end to end of Canada for failure of leadership and all the rest. Many of those men who have lagged behind but who ought to have gone to the front have lampooned the leader of this Government because of alleged failure of leadership. Newspaper after newspaper has thundered that out. Well, here is some leadership. Here and now is a chance to follow. Let us as a Parliament get in front; let those who lagged behind and cried for leadership walk up now, close the gap, and stand beside the Prime Minister. The people of Canada, we have oft been told, call out to the Parliament of Canada for strong and fearless leadership. Are we going to answer that call with our hands up in the air and cry out to the people: “For heaven’s sake, lead us.” Such is the amendment of the right hon. Leader of the Opposition.

It is all very well to deliberate upon something that is left for us to decide, but we have already decided on the carrying on of this war, and of carrying it on with all our might. 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 now to discharge the obligation …

I want to say something else, and I do so with special earnestness. It may be that in the heat of discussion I do not avoid animosities perhaps as carefully as I should; but I say this to those hon. Gentlemen opposite whose position with regard to this bill is surrounded by embarrassments much heavier than those that surround us, I say to them that this Bill is not designed and it is not framed to be unjust to the province of Quebec or to any other section of this country … We of English-speaking Canada have the kindest feelings towards our French Canadian compatriots. We realize that there are certain considerations having to do with this subject of recruiting that apply to them that do not apply with the same force to us. I want to say to the members from Quebec that this Bill as drafted is not intended to, and will not, if I understand the Bill, work unfairly to that province …

Surely the prosecution of this war with the whole might of Canada is not a subject which is now left to us to decide. That question has been passed upon. Its prosecution is now a matter only of good faith: 300,000 living men and 20,000 dead are over there, the hostages of our good faith. All that is left to us now is a choice between fidelity and desertion, between courage and poltroonery, between honour and everlasting shame …

We are told this action will result in disunion. I see no reason why it should produce disunion. It is framed to avoid disunion. But let no man deceive himself. We do not avoid disunion by dropping back to where we were, any more than we avoid disunion by going ahead with this measure. I see no more peril in the one course than in the other … While we would do almost anything to avoid disunion, we cannot purchase union at the cost of national disgrace …

I appeal to hon. Gentlemen opposite, and to hon. gentlemen around me, for party divisions as we once had them are not just the same today, I appeal to all hon. Members to take the course which, in my belief, alone can command the respect of this House, of Canada, and of the world.

   ♦♦♦♦♦

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: House of Commons. Debates, 12th Parliament, 7th Session: Vol. 6.  June 21, 1917, pp: 2529-2538.
URL: http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC1207_03/402?r=0&s=3
See page links 393-402.
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

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Dennis Gruending

Dennis Gruending is an author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament based in Ottawa, Canada.

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