When Canada went to war in 1939, Prime Minister Mackenzie King promised there would be no conscription for overseas service. But the war dragged on with no apparent victory in sight. In a speech carried on radio on April 7, 1942, King asked Canadians to vote in a referendum, not on conscription, but rather to relieve the government from its earlier promise. The speech was vintage King in its complex logic and tortured diction. He later described his position in his now famous quote, “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.”
“The government asks you to give it a free hand”
I wish to speak to you tonight, my fellow Canadians, on a matter which, at this time of war, is of first importance to the present position of our country, and to its future security; and, therefore, of real concern to the homes and lives of all. On Monday, the 27th of this month, you will be asked to give the government a free hand in the discharge of its duty in carrying on the war . . .
A pledge was given
The pledge from which the present government is asking to be freed is not related to any ordinary day-to-day matter of policy. It is a pledge which was made specifically in relation to the conduct of the present war. It is a pledge which was given, by government and Opposition alike, before and since the outbreak of the war, and to which, at the time it was made, no political party took exception. The present House of Commons was returned [in an election] in the light of that pledge.
The pledge to which I refer is, as you are all aware, that, as a method of raising men for military service overseas, resort would not be had to conscription. In other words, that voluntary enlistment would be the method by which men would be raised for service overseas . . .
The pledge not to impose conscription for service overseas was given in order to maintain the unity of Canada. Without this assurance, I do not believe that Parliament would have given, as it did, prompt and wholehearted approval to Canada’s entry into the war. It was the trust of the people in the pledged word of the government which then maintained our national unity.
We must never lose sight of the importance of national unity. National unity is, I believe, more essential to the success of the war effort of any country than most other factors combined. “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and a house divided against a house falleth” . . .
Why a plebiscite?
I come now to the question: why have the government and Parliament not tackled this question on their own responsibility without resorting to a plebiscite? The answer is very simple. Had the government taken the position that, as conditions had changed, it did not intend longer to be bound by any pledge, it would immediately have been said that the government had violated the most sacred undertaking ever given in its name.
It would most certainly have been said that, before so deciding, we should have referred the matter to the people in a general election, or a referendum, or as we are doing, by means of a plebiscite, and asked to be relieved from all past commitments. It would have been asserted that we were no better than the Nazis; that we had ceased to have regard for the will of the people and were now relying upon force to give effect to policies which were the direct opposite of those on which we had been returned to power . . .
Conscription as symbol
The truth, of course, is that our army today is just as large as it would have been if conscription for overseas service had been adopted. The absence of conscription for overseas service has not limited our war effort. The lack of power to impose such conscription has, however, placed our war effort in a wholly false light before our own citizens, and, what is worse, before our allies. In other words, conscription has been made the symbol of a total effort, regardless of all Canada is doing to help win the war.
The issue at present is not conscription; it is whether or not the government, subject to its responsibility to Parliament, is to be free to decide that question itself in the light of all national considerations . . .
The last thing I have been or would wish to be is an alarmist. I would, however, not be true to the trust the people of Canada have reposed in me did I not say that I believe the situation, for all free nations, is far more critical today than it has ever been. Canada’s position is by no means an exception. Look at what has happened in the past two and a half years of war; look at what is happening today, and ask yourselves what other view is possible. Practically the whole of continental Europe, except Russia, is under the domination of Germany, and is compelled to serve her war machine. Despite Russia’s magnificent campaign and the ground she has regained, much of her European territory is still in Nazi hands. Who can say what the outcome of the struggle between Russia and Germany may be? In the Middle East and in Africa, the situation is also desperately critical. In Asia and in the Pacific, Japan controls a large part of China, and has seized most of the strategic strongholds and territories formerly possessed by the Netherlands, France, Britain and the United States.
Across the Pacific, the tide of Japanese conquest has swept swiftly over thousands of miles of sea. A few weeks ago, it was Hong Kong, Singapore and the East Indies—attacked and taken; a little later, Burma and Australia attacked, with New Zealand also threatened. Today it is Ceylon and India . . .
A free hand
Aggression has followed aggression with such speed in so many parts of the world that no one can now predict what new areas the war may reach next year, next month or next week. Danger threatens us from the east and from the west. It is in the face of this peril that for the defence of our freedom and of our country, the government asks you to give it a free hand.
In the plebiscite that followed, 64 percent agreed to relieve the government of its pledge, but in Quebec only 28 percent were in support. When Canada did introduce limited conscription in 1944, there was rioting in Montreal, and several of King’s Quebec ministers resigned.
William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada and the war: national security plebiscite, Ottawa: Edmond Cloutier, 1942 [King’s Printer]
Canadian War Museum Canada and the War, Conscription
National Film Board: Mackenzie King and the Conscription Crisis, Erna Buffie, writer-director, 31 minute video
The Canadian Encyclopedia, Mackenzie King and the War Effort
Library and Archives Canada
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