Parliament and the First World War – 3. Quagmire

Jean-Rodrigue Paré
Legal and Social Affairs Division

No peace in sight

By the time Parliament was prorogued on 15 April 1915, about 33,000 Canadian soldiers had crossed the Atlantic. When the following session began on 12 January 1916, 60,000 were in the trenches, 60,000 were in England, and another 120,000 were preparing to make the crossing. The $250 million war appropriation for fiscal year 1916–1917 was double the Government of Canada’s total revenue in 1914–1915. At the front there were massive losses, with 25,000 dead or wounded, and good news was hard to come by.

In his New Year’s speech for 1916, Prime Minister Robert Borden pledged to increase enlistment to 500,000 men. Opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier feared that this announcement was setting the stage for conscription, which had just been instituted in Great Britain. Borden reassured the House: “In speaking in the first two or three months of this war I made it clear to the people of Canada that we did not propose any conscription. I repeat that announcement today with emphasis.”

Laurier announced at the same time that the opposition would not be as forgiving toward the government as it had been since the start of the war:

All measures which have for their object the successful prosecution of the war we are prepared now, as in the past, to support. … But, Sir, to all wrongs, to all frauds, we shall offer determined opposition – these cannot be condoned, they must be exposed, and, when exposed, they must be treated accordingly.

The Conservative MP for Nicolet, Paul-Émile Lamarche, summed up the atmosphere at the opening of the new parliamentary session: “This year’s address of His Royal Highness the Governor General of Canada has now occupied our attention … and, in the course of the debate, what is known as the political truce has been largely disregarded.” The adversarial spirit that may sometimes permeate the Canadian parliamentary system was back in force.

On 3 February 1916, a fire destroyed the Parliament Building, where Centre Block stands today, thus increasing the tension during this contentious period. Some MPs, believing the rumours reported in American newspapers, suspected German spies of starting the fire, stoking fears of German action in Canada.

The highs and lows of a black sheep minister

In January 1916, the opposition launched a series of attacks, some of them aimed squarely at the Minister of Militia and Defence, the Honourable Sam Hughes. He was accused of cronyism, of having helped his friends profit from lucrative Shell Committee contracts. Until the fall of 1915, this committee, created by Hughes, had been in charge of negotiating munitions procurement in Canada for the allied governments.

Even some members of his own Conservative caucus complained about his handling of contracts, claiming – not without partisanship – that most of the contracts in their ridings went to Liberal suppliers. Hughes felt persecuted: “I get knocked on this side, I get knocked on that side, and all I can do is to settle down and keep going ahead on an even keel.”

Borden, who was forced to establish a Royal Commission on 3 April 1916, sourly remarked: “There never was a Royal Commission recommended and granted, for inquiry into the conduct of a minister of the Crown, that was based on such slender and slight foundation of charge.”

Hughes’s troubles were not over. On 13 May 1916, a censure motion was introduced against him regarding a small arms ammunition contract that, according to the Auditor General, was irregular because it had not received order-in-council approval.

These criticisms were in addition to earlier and more troubling complaints that stemmed from Hughes’s insistence on promoting the use of the Canadian-made Ross rifle. During the fighting in spring 1915, many soldiers had complained that the rifle would jam after firing only a few rounds. Despite that, Hughes had obstinately refused to withdraw the rifle until he was forced to do so by the British military authorities in the summer of 1915. The minister continued to defend his decision, despite frequent accusations in the House that his stubbornness made him responsible for the death of the soldiers whose rifles had malfunctioned.

In the end, Hughes was cleared of any wrongdoing, but his tendency to act alone and his confrontational style began to weigh heavily on the government’s credibility. In the fall of 1916, Borden established the Ministry of Overseas Military Forces, making George Perley its minister, essentially stripping Hughes of all authority over troops deployed in Europe. Hughes resigned resigned in November 1916 and publicly released much of his correspondence with Borden. This correspondence revealed differences of opinion between the two, which the opposition wasted no time in exploiting.

The leader of the opposition was not spared

Near the end of the previous session, on 8 April 1915, Laurier had already angered the government by opposing a bill that would have allowed soldiers to cast ballots without having to register on voters’ lists.

He had felt that since men working far from home were not able to register to vote, there was no reason why soldiers should be given special treatment:

Between the soldier, the lumberman, the fisherman, the farmer and any other class, there is no difference whatever in this respect; all are subject to the same laws and all are equal before the law. … The man who digs in the trenches of a railway is just as much entitled to favour as the man who digs in the trenches in France.

But this time, he was criticized for quite another matter. Between August 1914 and December 1916, it was estimated that about 3.5% of enlisted men were francophone, whereas francophones made up about 25% of the Canadian population. Laurier was accused of not doing anything to encourage men to enlist.

Furthermore, former minister Hughes stood in the House and quoted a letter he had sent to Borden on 5 July 1916: “Laurier has played on [the prejudices of Canadians from the province of Quebec]; he has kept them at home to form a solid phalanx should an election occur.”

So when Parliament was prorogued on 18 May 1916, there was tension between what were referred to at that time as “Canada’s two races.”

Borden’s eye-opening journey and his reversal

Parliament returned on 18 January 1917. Borden announced that he had been summoned to the Imperial War Conference in London. Laurier offered to immediately approve war appropriations and to adjourn Parliament for two months, which Borden accepted.

Before departing, the Prime Minister tried to revive hope:

The third year, upon which we have now entered, will be the year of action, of victory and of peace. Then Canada with loftier ideals, more inspiring memories and more glorious traditions will take up her peaceful task anew, upbuilding the splendid structure of her national life upon the eternal foundation of her devotion and sacrifice.

In Europe, Borden went to see the 30,000 Canadian soldiers who were preparing for the assault on Vimy. Between 9 and 14 April 1917, 3,500 of them lost their lives.

Parliament resumed on 19 April. The United States had been at war for two weeks.

A month later, on 18 May 1917, the very day U.S. President Woodrow Wilson introduced conscription by signing the Selective Service Act into law, Borden told the House of Commons:

I bring back to the people of Canada from these men [soldiers] a message that they need our help … that reinforcements must be sent to them. … I should feel myself unworthy of the responsibility devolving upon me if I did not fulfill that pledge. … I realize that the responsibility is a serious one but I do not shrink from it.

Therefore, it is my duty to announce to the House that early proposals will be made on the part of the Government to provide, by compulsory military enlistment on a selective basis, such reinforcements as may be necessary to maintain the Canadian army today in the field as one of the finest fighting units of the Empire.

So began one of the most serious political crises in Canada’s history.