Parliament and the First World War – 2. Initial Enthusiasm

Jean-Rodrigue Paré
Legal and Social Affairs Division

Canada at war

From the moment Great Britain declared war on 4 August 1914, it was clear that Canada was also at war against Germany and its allies. Not as clear was the link between the state of war, the obligation to send troops and the responsibility for financing the undertaking.

In 1912, Wilfrid Laurier, Leader of the Opposition, had risen to speak on the issue, much to the scorn of several government members:

When England is at war, we are at war; but it does not follow that because we are at war, we are actually in the conflict … We can be in the conflict only through two things, namely, actual invasion of our soil, or, the action of the Parliament of Canada. That seems to arouse the hilarity of gentlemen on the other side of the House.

Laurier’s position appeared to be at odds with the principle, set out in section 15 of the Constitution Act, 1867, that the executive has absolute authority to command the armed forces without Parliament’s involvement. Drawing support from the debates surrounding Canada’s participation in the Boer War while he was prime minister, Laurier argued that this prerogative applied only to ensuring Canada’s defence at home, not to sending troops abroad, which would require Parliament’s approval.

In this context, and since Parliament was not sitting in early August 1914, two urgent decisions were taken by Prime Minister Robert Borden and his Cabinet. Given fears of an attack on Canada’s shores, the first decision was to mobilize the militia and navy in Canada’s defence, which, under the Militia Act, required Parliament to be convened within 15 days.

The second decision was to pass an order authorizing the government to send a separate militia and navy contingent overseas. Since there was some ambiguity as to whether such an order would be legal or constitutional, Borden secured the cooperation of the opposition in order that Parliament could endorse the decision retroactively. The executive’s authority to deploy troops abroad would be affirmed in 1917 with the Military Service Act and confirmed on many occasions afterward.

Parliament’s legislative powers delegated to the Cabinet

The emergency session of Parliament lasted only five days, from 18 to 22 August 1914. Borden was solemn:

In the awful dawn of the greatest war the world has ever known, in the hour when peril confronts us such as this Empire has not faced for a hundred years, every vain or unnecessary word seems a discord.

On 19 August, the Minister of Justice, Charles Doherty, tabled the resolution that would later become the War Measures Act. The bill passed unanimously in both Houses, and the new legislation came into force retroactively on 4 August, thereby confirming the legality of the orders passed by Cabinet at the start of the war. Parliament’s legislative powers with respect to anything related to the war or to the state of war were delegated to the Governor in Council.

The government had to continue acting in accordance with the law, but if a certain piece of legislation prevented the government from taking an action that it deemed necessary, it could amend that legislation by issuing an order, without Parliament’s approval, and if no legislation granted it an authority it required, it could simply issue an order to that effect. As Doherty acknowledged, “We are asking the people of Canada to entrust us with a very wide power.”

Under the new legislation, Parliament’s role was essentially limited to granting an overall appropriation for the war and receiving a full accounting of how that appropriation had been spent. Telegraph and telephone communications were subject to censorship, but the press was still granted a certain degree of freedom, with a call for its cooperation. The government also reserved the right to detain anyone who posed a threat, and it suspended the right to appeal the grounds for such a detention.

Liberal Member William Pugsley (Saint John, New Brunswick) and Senator James Kerr were the only two parliamentarians to express reservations. Senator Kerr believed that this measure was “going pretty far.”

The great crossing

Recruits were assembled at the new training camp in Valcartier, near the city of Québec. In late September, 31,000 men, including four MPs (Baker, Carrick, Currie and McLeod), boarded a convoy of about 30 ships that gathered in Gaspé Bay under escort by four aging English war cruisers. Dr. Henri Sévérin Béland, the Member for Beauce, was already in Belgium to be married. He served there as a physician and would remain a prisoner of the Germans for over three years.

The flotilla carrying the Canadian Expeditionary Force set sail on 3 October and arrived in Plymouth amid confusion 11 days later. Subsequently, the first division was dispatched to the Salisbury Plain, where it waited in camp. The first Canadian troops to be sent to France were a small unit tasked with establishing a permanent hospital, arriving on 6 November. The 1,000 soldiers of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, a privately established unit separate from the first division, joined the British Army and began occupying the trenches around Saint‑Éloi, south of Ypres, Belgium, on 7 January 1915 – by mid-May, fewer than 200 were still fit for combat.

The first division was finally inspected in England on 4 February after being on standby for close to four months in harsh conditions. The crossing to France was completed on 16 February. On 28 February, the Canadians began occupying the trenches around Fleurbaix, in northern Pas‑de‑Calais.

Parliamentary peace … or near peace

On 22 August 1914, Parliament was prorogued until 4 February 1915. Such long gaps between sessions were not uncommon at that time.

At the opening of the session, the opposition made clear efforts to restrain its criticism of anything related to the war, and it agreed to quickly vote special appropriations to finance the war effort. However, it was harshly critical of all other measures, including the 1915–1916 budget.

Liberal finance critic Alexander Maclean accused the government of using the war to conceal its mismanagement of public funds, and Laurier introduced a motion to overturn proposed tariff increases. The Minister of Trade and Commerce, George Foster, tried to calm the situation:

Until this war is determined, let us all in this House and in this country, as much as in us lies, bend our backs to the burden, putting behind us what is trivial and not of moment, and facing steadfastly the mighty issue in which the proudest and highest and best of the civilizations that the world has ever developed is fighting for its life and its continuance, in the trenches, and under circumstances of terrible difficulty and peril.

The opposition relentlessly questioned the government’s integrity in negotiating war supply contracts, with the Cabinet finally agreeing to establish a commission of inquiry. In hindsight, it can be said that the government was able to count on the opposition to cooperate on crucial issues, and that the government displayed a surprisingly high level of transparency in its reporting.

The end of innocence

As it became increasingly clear that the war would be a long one and would take a staggering human toll, everything became more difficult. On 29 March 1915, the Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, announced that a second division of 30,000 men would soon be ready to depart, and a third division was expected to be deployed in the following months.

Parliament was prorogued on 15 April 1915. Over the following three weeks, the First Canadian Division lost 6,000 men. It experienced the first poison gas attack in history, near Ypres and Saint-Julien, in Flanders Fields. Its fierce resistance earned it a reputation that would never again be denied.

Next: Parliament and the First World War – 3. Quagmire