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Naturally enough it was the young men of British birth who first responded in large numbers to the recruiting officer's appeal. A military background, vivid home memories, the enlistment of kinsmen or friends overseas, the frequent slightness of local ties, sent them forth in splendid and steady array. Then the call came home to the native-born, and particularly to Canadians of English speech. Few of them had dreamed of war, few had been trained even in militia musters; but in tens of thousands they volunteered. From French-speaking Canada the response was slower, in spite of the endeavors of the leaders of the Opposition as well as of the Government to encourage enlistment. In some measure this was only to be expected. Quebec was dominantly rural; its men married young, and the country parishes had little touch with the outside world. Its people had no racial sympathy with Britain and their connection with France had long been cut by the cessation of immigration from that country. Yet this is not the complete explanation of that aloofness which marked a great part of Quebec. Account must be taken also of the resentment caused by exaggerated versions of the treatment accorded the French-Canadian minority in the schools of Ontario and the West, and especially of the teaching of the Nationalists, led by Henri Bourassa, who opposed active Canadian participation in the war. Lack of tact on the part of the Government and reckless taunts from extremists in Ontario made the breach steadily wider. Yet there were many encouraging considerations. Another grandson of the leader of '37, Talbot Papineau, fell fighting bravely, and it was a French-Canadian battalion, Les Vingt Deuxiemes, which won the honors at Courcelette.
When the war first broke out, no one thought of any but voluntary methods of enlistment. As the magnitude of the task came home to men and the example of Great Britain had its influence, voices began to be raised in favor of compulsion. Sir Robert Borden, the Premier, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier alike opposed the suggestion. Early in 1917 the adoption of conscription in the United States, and the need of reenforcements for the Canadian forces at the front led the Prime Minister, immediately after his return from the Imperial Conference in London, to bring down a measure for compulsory service. He urged in behalf of this course that the need for men was urgent beyond all question; that the voluntary system, wasteful and unfair at best, had ceased to bring more than six or seven thousand men a month, chiefly for other than infantry ranks; and that only by compulsion could Quebec be brought to shoulder her fair share and the slackers in all the provinces be made to rise to the need. It was contended, on the other hand, that great as was the need for men, the need for food, which Canada could best of all countries supply, was greater still; that voluntary recruiting had yielded over four hundred thousand men, proportionately equivalent to six million from the United States, and was slackening only because the reservoir was nearly drained dry; and that Quebec could be brought into line more effectively by conciliation than by compulsion.
The issue of conscription brought to an end the political truce which had been declared in August, 1914. The keener partisans on both sides had not long been able to abide on the heights of non-political patriotism which they had occupied in the first generous weeks of the war. But the public was weary of party cries and called for unity. Suggestions of a coalition were made at different times, but the party in power, new to the sweets of office, confident of its capacity, and backed by a strong majority, gave little heed to the demand. Now, however, the strong popular opposition offered to the announcement of conscription led the Prime Minister to propose to Sir Wilfrid Laurier a coalition Government on a conscription basis. Sir Wilfrid, while continuing to express his desire to cooperate in any way that would advance the common cause, declined to enter a coalition to carry out a programme decided upon without consultation and likely, in his view, to wreck national unity without securing any compensating increase in numbers beyond what a vigorous and sympathetic voluntary campaign could yet obtain.
For months negotiations continued within Parliament and without. The Military Service Act was passed in August, 1917, with the support of the majority of the English-speaking members of the Opposition. Then the Government, which had already secured the passage of an Act providing for taking the votes of the soldiers overseas, forced through under closure a measure depriving of the franchise all aliens of enemy birth or speech who had been admitted to citizenship since 1902, and giving a vote to every adult woman relative of a soldier on active service. Victory for the Government now appeared certain. Leading English-peaking Liberals, particularly from the West, convinced that conscription was necessary to keep Canada's forces up to the need, or that the War Times Election Act made opposition hopeless, decided to accept Sir Robert Borden's offer of seats in a coalition Cabinet.
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The Canadian Dominion -by- Oscar D. Skelton