Canada Implements Conscription After Months of Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Canadian lawmakers avoided introducing conscription, or the draft, until the final year of World War II. The political struggle was intense, and when the measure was finally enacted, it resulted in significant social unrest.

Summary of Event

The bicultural nature of Canada may be seen both as a great strength and as a threat. When New France was defeated on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City by the forces of the British Empire in 1759, a large segment of the population began to feel like a conquered people. Flexible rule by the British, followed by a spirit of compromise and consensus-building developed by Canadian leaders after confederation in 1867, enabled the country to thrive. Periodic crises continue to arise, however, when English and French Canadians come to see events in very different ways. A good example is the conscription crisis that erupted in the final months of World War II. [kw]Canada Implements Conscription After Months of Crisis (Nov. 22, 1944) [kw]Conscription After Months of Crisis, Canada Implements (Nov. 22, 1944) [kw]Crisis, Canada Implements Conscription After Months of (Nov. 22, 1944) Conscription Crisis of 1944 World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Canadian draft Draft, Canadian Canada;French Canadian dissent Canada;military draft Conscription Crisis of 1944 World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Canadian draft Draft, Canadian Canada;French Canadian dissent Canada;military draft [g]North America;Nov. 22, 1944: Canada Implements Conscription After Months of Crisis[01310] [g]Canada;Nov. 22, 1944: Canada Implements Conscription After Months of Crisis[01310] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 22, 1944: Canada Implements Conscription After Months of Crisis[01310] [c]Military history;Nov. 22, 1944: Canada Implements Conscription After Months of Crisis[01310] [c]World War II;Nov. 22, 1944: Canada Implements Conscription After Months of Crisis[01310] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 22, 1944: Canada Implements Conscription After Months of Crisis[01310] King, William Lyon Mackenzie Ralston, James Layton McNaughton, Andrew Laurendeau, André

Conscription, also known as the draft, had been introduced during World War I and led to four deaths during the Easter riots of 1917 in Quebec City. The draft also ruined the Conservative Party, Conservative Party, Canadian which had been the dominant force in Canadian politics. The Conservatives would lose that power in 1921 and fall into eclipse, controlling the government in Ottawa for only five of the next thirty-six years. One astute observer of the first conscription crisis and the effect it had on the Quebec electorate was William Lyon Mackenzie King, who became the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1919 and took over as prime minister in 1921. Prime ministry, Canadian;William Lyon Mackenzie King[King]

After two brief periods in opposition, King was again prime minister in the years preceding World War II. In the spring of 1939, as war drums were building to a feverish pitch, he observed that the prospect of Canadian involvement in another European war seemed to many a nightmare and sheer madness. In addition to the massive destruction and loss of life, King also was concerned about the threat such an involvement could have on Canadian unity. When the war started in September of that year, King repeated the pledge he had made the previous spring: that his administration would never introduce conscription for overseas service. Most Quebecers did not want to fight and die for the British Empire, and so rewarded King’s sensitivity with a massive Liberal Liberal Party, Canadian vote in the election of the spring of 1940, Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1940 returning him to the prime minister’s office.

Conscription for home defense, however, was a different question. After the fall of Belgium and France in May of 1940, Canada established a national service system through the National Resources Mobilization Act National Resources Mobilization Act (1940) (June, 1940). Women were also required to register. Exemptions were granted for judges, clergymen, police officers, firefighters, some farmers, prison and mental-institution workers, and conscientious objectors such as the Doukhobors and the Mennonites. King did indeed keep his pledge, though, by reserving overseas combat duties strictly to volunteers. Conscripts were held in reserve in Canada in case of foreign invasion, which seemed very possible early in the war.

English Canada was more and more in favor of full conscription as the war continued. They demanded equity of sacrifice, and the Conservative Party came out in favor of it in November, 1941. The defense minister, Colonel James Layton Ralston, was also quietly in favor of this change. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii less than one month later, King found himself under intense political pressure. His solution was to call a plebiscite (national referendum) on the issue in April, 1942.

André Laurendeau organized the forces against conscription for overseas service by founding La ligue pour la défense du Canada (League for the Defence of Canada League for the Defence of Canada ). This umbrella organization included the St. Jean Baptiste Society, the Montreal Catholic Labour Council, the Voyageurs of Commerce, and several youth and farm groups. Its media mouthpiece was the Montreal-based French-language newspaper Le Devoir. Devoir, Le (periodical) The plebiscite carried across Canada by more than 64 percent of the vote, but 80 percent of French Canadians voted against it.

King now considered that he had a clear popular mandate releasing him from his “no conscription” pledge, but he still hesitated to use this power. He feared that it might rip the country apart. For the next two and a half years his only concession to the proconscription lobby was to discuss the use of home-defense forces against any attack in the Western Hemisphere, not just against Canada. English Canada became bitter, and home-defense conscripts were derisively called “zombies” because they were believed to lack a full commitment to the life of Canada. Within the armed forces, conscripts were under increasing informal pressure to volunteer for overseas duty.

King walked a fine political line, declaring that his policy was “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.” As long as the number of volunteers met the perceived requirements for duty overseas, conscription could be avoided. The Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy on June 6, 1944, was successful, and the war seemed practically won during the summer of that year, but a final German counteroffensive brought the conscription crisis to a climax in Canada. In October, Colonel Ralston returned from a fact-finding mission to Europe with a report that shocked the prime minister. The report stated that the required Canadian reinforcements could not be found without using conscripts.

This change was supported enthusiastically by the Conservatives and the third party in Canada, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, Canadian , but King still hesitated. Rather than resort to full conscription, he accepted the resignation of Ralston as minister of defense (who had submitted his resignation earlier). General Andrew McNaughton, who was opposed to the draft, was appointed in his place. McNaughton believed that he could find the necessary forces for overseas duty without resorting to compulsion.

Unfortunately, McNaughton was wrong. Only three weeks later, he was forced to report his failure back to King. King had no choice but to authorize sixteen thousand home-defense forces for immediate service overseas. One thousand home-defense forces rioted in Vernon, British Columbia. Civil unrest;Canada At Terrace, British Columbia, soldiers of Les Fusiliers du St. Laurent, with some men from the Prince Edward Island Highlanders and Prince Albert Volunteers, took control of the camp in protest and held it for several days. Sporadic sit-down strikes and rioting erupted throughout Canada. One soldier was reported to have thrown his kit bags and rifle into the sea while boarding the troop ship to head overseas. He became a symbol of the resistance.


Close to thirteen thousand conscripts were shipped overseas, and nearly twenty-five hundred joined the First Canadian Army in northwestern Europe. Sixty-nine were killed and more than two hundred were wounded. Their performance on the battlefield was considered comparable to that of the volunteers.

The German army finally collapsed in the spring of 1945, making it likely that the Canadian conscripts had not been needed after all. In the ecstatic glow of Allied victory in Europe, the crisis subsided quickly. King and the Liberals won yet another majority government in the election of June, 1945.

During the first years of the Cold War through the early 1950’s and the United Nations’ action in Korea, there was again some agitation in Canada for conscription. These efforts, mostly from members of the Conservative Party, did not get very far. Louis St. Laurent, a gifted politician from Quebec, appeared as if he was to take the reigns of power from King when he stepped down in 1948. Under the Liberal leadership of Prime Minister St. Laurent, as well as prime ministers Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau later, Canada moved into a long era of demilitarization. The possibility that conscription could again be implemented was nearly unimaginable for the remainder of the twentieth century. Conscription Crisis of 1944 World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Canadian draft Draft, Canadian Canada;French Canadian dissent Canada;military draft

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodal, Lian. William Lyon Mackenzie King: Dreams and Shadows. Montreal, Que.: XYZ, 2003. A general biography especially suitable for younger readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Granatstein, J. L. Conscription in the Second World War: A Study in Political Management. Toronto, Ont.: Ryerson Press, 1969. An in-depth analysis of those in favor of the draft and those opposed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Granatstein, J. L., and J. M. Hitsman. Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada. Toronto, Ont.: Oxford University Press, 1977. An overview of the draft issue throughout the history of Canada; focuses on the two world wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keshen, Jeffrey A. Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004. Investigates the less glamorous side of Canada’s involvement in World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, William Lyon Mackenzie. The Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Library and Archives of Canada. The diaries of King relevant to the conscription crisis have not been published in book form, but the complete set has been made available on this Web site, provided by the library and archives of the Canadian government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stevenson, Michael D. Canada’s Greatest Wartime Muddle: National Selective Service and the Mobilization of Human Resources During World War II. Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. A study of the effects of World War II-era national service on particular populations, including Native Canadians, university students, war-industry workers, coal miners, longshoremen, meatpackers, nurses, and textile workers.

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Categories: History