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Conscription Debate

At the outset of the war, Prime Minister King promised Canadians that his government would not resort to conscription to maintain or bolster the ranks of the military. During the early stages of the Second World War, most Canadians gave the matter little thought. This sentiment began to change as Hitler’s forces occupied one European country after another.

The first step toward mandatory service occurred in June 1940 when the Canadian government passed the National Resources Mobilization Act. This piece of legislation granted the government the authority to “conscript men for [the purpose of] securing public safety and defending Canada.” The Act provided for 30 days of military training but limited any subsequent service to Canada. This component of the legislation was critical in easing the concerns of Canadians, especially French-Canadians in Quebec, many of whom opposed the nation’s involvement in the war.

Much changed from the outset of the war to the end of 1941; support for compulsory service among Canada’s Anglophone population swelled. In an attempt to avoid a divisive national debate about conscription, Prime Minister King opted to put the matter to the voters by way of a national plebiscite. To help smooth over the outcome of the vote and dampen expectations on both sides of the issue, King began touting the slogan, “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.” In short, he would only authorize the conscription of manpower for overseas military service as a last resort. The results of the plebiscite held in April 1942 were as follows: 2.95 million Canadians supported conscription; 1.64 million opposed the initiative. Seventy-three percent of Quebecers voted against conscription. The vote divided the nation along ethnic and geographic lines. The majority of Quebec’s French-Canadian population felt betrayed by the government, and the rest of the nation heaped anger and scorn on that province’s Francophone population.

As was his practice when faced with difficult political issues, King delayed implementing conscription as long as possible. The military campaigns in Italy (1943–44) and Normandy (1944) finally forced the King government to act in late 1944; there simply were not enough trained soldiers to keep the Army’s numbers at the strength required to maintain effective operations throughout northwest Europe. Faced with a dwindling number of volunteers and pleas from Canada’s military leaders for fresh troops, the government agreed in November 1944 to send conscripted soldiers overseas to Europe. Thousands of troops were authorized for deployment. Under the National Resources Mobilization Act, 13,000 sailed for Britain in January 1945. The war in Europe came to an end on 7 May 1945, limiting the number of conscripted troops who saw action to a few thousand.

The conscription debate was a contentious issue: its relevance among Canadians grew as the war progressed.

Reference

Byfield, Ted. “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription,” in Alberta in the 20th Century: The War That United the Province: 1939–1945, ed. Ted Byfield. Edmonton: United Western Communications, 2000.


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