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”
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