The scars World War I left on French Canadians
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As part of ongoing events to mark the centennial anniversary of WWI, France’s defence ministry is organizing an international conference on the Great War’s impact on the French-speaking community of Canada.
Historians and international World War I experts are gathering at Les Invalides monument in Paris on Friday to debate Quebec’s role in the conflict, notably the unrest that conscriptions efforts sparked in the Canadian province starting in 1917. Many agree that the Conscription Crisis, a chapter of history few discuss outside Canada, had a lasting impact on relations between the country's French and English-speaking communities.
Britain still maintained control of Canada's foreign affairs when fighting broke out in Europe in 1914, so its declaration of war that year automatically brought Canada into the conflict. Volunteers were called upon across the country to join the Canadian Corps.
In two month’s time a first contingent of soldiers sailed toward Europe and the Western Front. A vast majority of the men were English speakers, and over 60 percent were recent immigrants who had been born in the United Kingdom and maintained strong links to the “motherland”.
On the other hand, French Canadians – residents of Quebec and other French-speaking areas of the country – were reluctant to join the war effort. “Official documents from that time mention that [French-speaking Canadians] accounted for less than 3.5 percent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s first contingent sent to England between September 29, 1914 and March 31, 1915. They made up 1,245 volunteers out of 36,267 overall,” Béatrice Richard, a professor at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, located near Montreal, told FRANCE 24.
Even if recruitment posters were plastered across the walls of Québécois cities, few French Canadians answered the call. According to Professor Richard, who is participating in the WWI conference in Paris, few French Canadians at the time felt a strong attachment to France, or felt compelled to defend it from Germany.
There were other, more practical reasons for the lack of conscripts from Quebec. “This was a predominantly rural population, so enlisting in a distant and prolonged war jeopardized their families’ finances. If all the able-bodied men left, who would work the fields?” Richard noted.
Furthermore, French Canadians hesitated to join a national army that was run by British authorities. Marcelle Cinq-Mars, chief archivist of the Library and Archives Canada, said training and orders were given almost exclusively in English. A rare exception was the Royal 22nd Regiment. “We can imagine the discomfort felt by some French Canadians who neither spoke nor understood English,” Cinq-Mars said.
The ‘real’ enemies
The year 1917 marked the death of voluntary enlistment in Canada and bore witness to the Conscription Crisis. The Battle of the Somme in northern France the previous year took the lives of 24,000 Canadian soldiers. The Battle of Vimy Ridge then stripped the Canadian ranks of another 3,000 men. Under pressure from the British government, conservative Candaian Prime Minister Robert Borden championed a new law to make military service compulsory.
The Military Service Act was adopted in August 1917, but exacerbated tensions between Canada’s rival linguistic communities. The English-language press blasted the French Canadians as “cowards”, and French Canadian leaders responded by joining the opposition.
Politician Henri Bourassa, who some have called the ideological father of French-Canadian nationalism, expressed what many felt at the time when he famously said: “The enemies of the French language, of French civilization in Canada are not the Boches [the Germans]…but the English-Canadian anglicizers.”
When the first 400,000 conscripts were called, only 20,000 showed up. While most of the absentees had legal exemptions, many chose to hide. “Sixty-eight percent of those who refused to submit to conscription were from Quebec… the men avoided the authorities by any means. Many hid out in lumber camps,” said Richard.
Five dead in Quebec
Tensions came to a head in the spring of 1918. The arrest of a young conscript led to several days of street protests in Quebec City. To quell the unrest, the government sent in over 1,000 troops from Ontario and other provinces. “After a few gunshots rang out, the troops opened fire on the protesters. Official reports from the time say 32 people were injured and 5 were killed, including a teenager,” said Cinq-Mars.
Calls for restraint poured in from across the country and calm eventually returned to Quebec. Unrest over forced conscription abated, and the French Canadian soldiers of the 22nd Battalion were even celebrated as heroes upon their return to the front in 1919. But the memory of the crisis remained ingrained in the memory of Québécois, with tensions resurfacing over conscription efforts during World War II.
For some historians, like the renowned scholar Desmond Morton, disagreements over the Great War transformed Canada into “a country of two nations”. Cinq-Mars said the notion of “two nations” coexisting within Canada existed long before the First World War, but agreed that the Conscription Crisis deepened that divide.
Despite the impact of these events on Québécois society 100 years on, the Great War remains a relatively unknown subject when compared to World War II. “With few exceptions, French-Canadian historians have only recently started writing about WWI," noted Richard. “Hopefully the centennial will encourage them to make up for lost time.”
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