Canada and the First World War

On the occasion of the centenary of the end of World War I, TML Weekly has been producing an excellent series of informative Supplements on the war and related matters of concern. This is the second in the series. Click for No. 1 (How the First World War Out); No. 2 (Canada and the First World War); No. 3 (British Movement of Conscientious Objectors); No. 4 (Contributions and Slaughter of Colonial Peoples in World War I);  No. 5 (Steadfast Opposition to the Betrayal of the Workers’ Movement); No. 6 (Poems on the Occasion of the Centenary of the End of World War I – Moments of Quiet Reflection.

• Opposition to Conscription in Canada and Quebec
• The Case of Ginger Goodwin
• Recruitment of Indigenous Peoples
• Black Construction Battalion

• The War Measures Act and Internment of Canadians

Independent Labour Politics
• Registration, Conscription, and Independent Labour Politics, 1916-1917 – Martin Robin


Opposition to Conscription in Canada and Quebec


Montreal rally in Victoria Square on May 17, 1917 was one of many opposing conscription during WWI.

In August 1914, Britain declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Canada, as a dominion of the British Empire, was automatically bound to take part.

Robert Laird Borden, then Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, was eager to participate in the war. By Sunday, August 9, 1914, the basic orders-in-council had been proclaimed, and a war session of parliament opened just two weeks after the conflict began. Legislation was quickly passed to secure the country’s financial institutions and raise tariff duties on some high-demand consumer items. The War Measures Act 1914, giving the government extraordinary powers of coercion over Canadians, was rushed through three readings.[1]

Businessman William Price (of Price Brothers and Company – predecessor of Resolute Forest Products) was mandated to create a training camp at Valcartier, near Quebec City. Some 126 farms were expropriated to expand the camp’s area to 12,428 acres (50 square km). “From the start of the conflict, a range of 1,500 targets was built, including shelters, firing positions and signs, making it the largest and most successful shooting range in the world on August 22, 1914. The camp housed 33,644 men in 1914.”[2] At the time Valcartier was the largest military base in Canada.

Early in the war, Prime Minister Borden had promised not to conscript Canadians into military service.[3] However, by the summer of 1917, Canada had been at war for nearly three years. More than 130,000 Canadians belonging to the Canadian Expeditionary Force had been killed or maimed.[4] The number of volunteers continuously declined with the growing refusal to serve as cannon fodder for imperialist powers and as a result of the profound impact of the war efforts on the country’s economy. There was pressure on all the commonwealth countries and British colonies to continue providing troops for the British imperial war effort, yet the government was not able to provide a convincing argument for working people to agree to sacrifice their lives for the British Empire.

1917-Canada-AntiConscriptionMeetingThe lack of enthusiasm for the war was such that the Borden government imposed conscription through the Military Service Act August 29, 1917. It stipulated that

“All the male inhabitants of Canada, of the age of eighteen years and upwards, and under sixty, not exempt or disqualified by law, and being British subjects, shall be liable to service in the Militia: Provided that the Governor General may require all the male inhabitants of Canada, capable of bearing arms, to serve in the case of a levée en masse.”

The law was in force through the end of the war.

Borden also decided that the best way to bring about conscription was through a wartime coalition government. He offered the Liberals equal seats at the Cabinet table in exchange for their support for conscription. After months of political manoeuvring, he announced a Union Government in October, made up of loyal Conservatives, plus a handful of pro-conscription Liberals and independent members of Parliament.

Borden was in his sixth year of his first term. In the months just prior to the election he engineered two pieces of legislation, stacking the Unionist side.

Under previous laws, soldiers were excluded from voting in wartime. The new Military Voters Act allowed all 400,000 Canadian men in uniform, including those who were under age or were British-born, to vote in the coming election.

The second piece of legislation, the Wartime Elections Act, gave women the right to vote for the first time in a federal election – but only women who were the relatives of Canadian soldiers overseas. With these two laws, a vast new constituency of voters, the majority of whom supported the war effort and conscription, were suddenly enfranchised in time for the election. Borden’s Unionists won that election with a majority of 153 seats, only three of which were from Quebec.

Posters to mobilize women for imperialist war. Poster on left calls on women eligible to vote under Wartime Elections Act to vote for the Union government. 


Conscription went into effect January 1, 1918. Exemption boards were set up all over the country, before which a high percentage of men appealed their call-up for service.

Besides Quebeckers, who as a whole opposed conscription, many Canadians across the country were also opposed, including anti-imperialists, farmers, unionized workers, the unemployed, religious groups and peace activists. By February 1918, 52,000 draftees had sought exemption across the country. The lack of support for the war was reiterated by the fact that of more than 400,000 men called up for service, 380,510 appealed through the various options for exemption and appeal in the Military Service Act.

Ultimately, some 125,000 Canadians – just over a quarter of those eligible to be drafted were conscripted into the military. Of these, just over 24,000 were sent to Europe before the war’s end.

Many Canadian men simply did not show up when they were called to report and join the army. Winnipeg was second only to Montreal in the percentage of men who did not report or defaulted – almost 20 per cent of those conscripted compared to around 25 percent in Montreal, according to reports published in the Winnipeg Telegram at the time. These men were pursued by the police and could receive heavy jail sentences if caught and tried.

Opposition to the war and conscription in Quebec

Examples of the Canadian state’s clumsy Anglo-Canadian chauvinist attempts to recruit Quebeckers to its unjust cause of imperialist war, exhorting them to enlist on the basis of loyalty to the old colonial power, France; opposition to tyranny by supporting the new colonial power, Britain; or protecting themselves from foreign invasion.

On October 15, 1914, the 22nd Regiment was officially created to bolster French Canadian involvement. As the only combatant unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) whose official language was French, the 22nd (French Canadian) Infantry Battalion, commonly referred to as the “Van Doos” (from vingt-deux, meaning twenty-two in French), was subject to more scrutiny than most Canadian units in the First World War. After months of training in Canada and England, the battalion finally arrived in France on September 15, 1915.[5]

In April 1916, the Van Doos participated in one of the unit’s most dangerous assignments of the entire war, the Battle of St. Eloi Craters. St. Eloi was fought on a very narrow Belgian battlefield. A fierce battle ensued with heavy casualties. Following St. Eloi, the battalion prepared to take the French village of Courcelette in the Somme sector of France. The battalion suffered hundreds of casualties. To many it showed just how violent war could really be. In the months following the Somme operations, the battalion began suffering from desertion and absence without leave. According to battalion officers, the months following Courcelette witnessed a complete breakdown in troop morale. In the next 10 months, 70 soldiers were brought before a court-martial (48 for illegal absences) and several were executed by firing squad.[6]

Despite the establishment of the Van Doos, the people of Quebec, expressing their anti-war sentiment, were at the forefront of the opposition to conscription. The Canadian establishment at the time blamed Quebeckers for the “the lack of French-Canadian participation in the war.”[7]

In Quebec, of the 3,458 individuals from the City of Hull called-up by military authorities who had not been granted an exemption, 1,902 men did not report and were never apprehended, for a total conscription evasion rate of 55 per cent. This was the highest evasion rate of all Canadian registration districts, followed closely by Quebec City at 46.6 per cent, and Montreal at 35.2 per cent. Further, 99 per cent of those called up by the City of Hull applied for an exemption, the highest application rate in all of Canada.[8]

War Measures Act Invoked

Quebeckers organized militant protests against attempts by the Canadian government to use its police powers to impose conscription on the working people and youth of Canada and Quebec. The Borden government responded by invoking the War Measures Act to quell this opposition. The government proclaimed martial law and deployed over 6,000 soldiers to Quebec City between March 28 and April 1, 1918.

On the evening of March 28, 1918, federal police raided a bowling alley and arrested the youth there. Faced with the arbitrariness and violence of the police, 3,000 people besieged the police station and continued their demonstration in the streets during the night.


Thousands of demonstrators march to Place Montcalm on March 29, 1918.

The next day, a crowd of nearly 10,000 gathered in front of the Place Montcalm auditorium (currently called Capitole de Quebec), where the conscripts’ files were administered. The military, with bayonets and cannons, were called in and shortly after the Riot Act was read, giving them permission to fire.

Within the conditions of the day, the ruling elite in Canada found a wall of resistance among the working people of Quebec to being forcibly sent to war. The aspirations of the Québécois for nationhood had been put down prior to Confederation through force of British arms. Along with the subjugation of the Indigenous peoples and the settlers in Upper Canada, the basis was laid for the establishment of an Anglo-Canadian state and Confederation. It is not hard to imagine that the Quebec working class would not look favourably on being mowed down on the battlefields of Europe in the service of the British Empire.


  1. “Sir Robert Laird Borden,”
  2. “Les débuts du camp de Valcartier et d’une armée improvisée de toutes piéces,” Pierre Vennat, Le Québec et les guerres mondiales, December 17, 2011.
  3. Richard Foot, Election of 1917, August 12, 2015, Canadian Encyclopedia.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Maxime Dagenais, The “Van Doos” and the Great War, November 5, 2018, Canadian Encyclopedia.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “The First World War,” Sean Mills (under the direction of Brian Young, McGill University), McCord Museum website.
  8. Claude Harb, Le Droit et l’Outaouais pendant la Premi re Guerre mondiale, Bulletin de l’Institut Pierre Renouvin, 2017/1 (N 45), éditeur: UMR Sirice.

The Case of Ginger Goodwin


Twenty-four hour Vancouver General Strike was held to coincide with Ginger Goodwin’s funeral, August 2, 1918.

Ginger (Albert) Goodwin was a coal miner from England who immigrated to Canada in the early twentieth century. He worked in coal mines in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia and Michel, British Columbia before settling in Cumberland on Vancouver Island in 1910 or early 1911. He worked in the Dunsmuir coal mine in Cumberland and participated in the strike of 1912 to 1914. He was active in the United Mine Workers of America and in 1914 became an organizer for the Socialist Party.

GingerGoodwinCrIn 1916 he moved to Trail in the interior of BC where he worked for some months as a smelterman for the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada Limited. He was the Socialist Party of Canada’s candidate in Trail in the provincial election of 1916, coming in third, and in December of that year was elected full-time secretary of the Trail Mill and Smeltermen’s Union, a local of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW). The following year he was elected as vice-president of the BC Federation of Labour, president of IUMMSW’s District 6 and president of the Trail Trades and Labour Council. He was proposed by the union as deputy minister of BC’s newly founded Department of Labour, but not selected. This was a proposal supported by the trades and labour councils of both Victoria and Vancouver.

Ginger Goodwin opposed World War I for political reasons on the grounds that workers should not kill each other in economic wars. “War is simply part of the process of Capitalism. Big financial interests are playing the game. They’ll reap the victory, no matter how the war ends,” he said. Nonetheless, he registered for conscription as the law required and was classified as unfit. However, not two weeks following the start of a strike in Trail for the eight-hour day, which Goodwin led, he was ordered to undergo a medical re-examination and this time was classified as fit to serve.

His appeal against conscription was rejected in April 1918. Ordered to report to army barracks he refused to compromise his conscience and hid out with others resisting conscription in the hills near Cumberland where people from the town ensured they had food and supplies.

Goodwin was shot and killed on July 27, 1918 by Constable Dan Campbell of the Dominion Police, one of three members of a team that was hunting men who were evading the Military Service Act. The anger of the people of Cumberland and workers throughout the province was such that on August 2, 1918 there was a mile-long funeral procession in Cumberland, and BC’s first general strike the same day in Vancouver.


Ginger Goodwin’s funeral, Cumberland BC, August 2, 1918.

On June 24, 2018 in honour of Ginger Goodwin, labour martyr and war resister, on the 100th anniversary of his death, the Cumberland Museum along with the BC Federation of Labour and local unions, artists, musicians and actors, re-enacted the funeral procession as part of the annual Miner’s Memorial events held from June 22 to 24. On July 23, 2018, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Goodwin’s death, the BC government erected a monument at nearby Union Bay, the coal port that served the Cumberland mines, in honour of Ginger Goodwin for his fight for workers’ rights and his opposition to conscription. A section of highway near Cumberland was named “Ginger Goodwin Way” in 1996 in his honour.

Recruitment of Indigenous Peoples

WWI-AboriginalsoldiersCrWhen the First World War broke out on July 28, 1914, Canada had no official policy on the recruitment of Indigenous peoples into the army because they did not have status as citizens. However, in 1915, as the casualties began to mount, the British government directed the Dominions to begin recruiting Indigenous people for the war effort. Australia and New Zealand, along with Canada, recruited Indigenous soldiers to fight on the side of British imperialism in the war. It is estimated that 4,000 Indigenous men and woman served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War out of a total of some 600,000 troops from Canada. It is estimated that a third of “Status Indian” men between the ages of 18 and 45 served in the War. There are no known statistics for Métis and Inuit because the Canadian government only recognized “Status Indians” in the records.

Many First Nations, which were the main source of Indigenous recruits along with a much smaller number of Métis and Inuit, protested against the attempt to recruit them into the Canadian colonial army and opposed the arrival of recruitment officers and the Indian Agent on their reserves. Other First Nations refused to participate unless they were accorded equal status as sovereign nations and dealt with on a nation-to-nation basis by the British Crown with which they had signed their treaties.

Some Indigenous leaders and elders also reminded the government that they had received reassurances at the time of the signing of the numbered treaties with the Crown that their youth would not be serving in any wars, specially those abroad.

As well, many Indigenous women wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs demanding that the Canadian government keep its hands off their sons and husbands and that they were needed at home.

Many reasons are given for the participation of Indigenous people in the First World War. One of the reasons was the promise of a regular paycheque, another was the argument that within the First Nations, warrior societies should play their role in assisting the Crown as their relations were with the Crown, not Canada. Another argument was that after making their contributions, Indigenous relations with the Canadian state would improve when they returned.

Indigenous soldiers took part in all the major battles that the Canadian army participated in and distinguished themselves as scouts, snipers, trackers and as front line fighters winning the admiration and respect of their non-Indigenous comrades and officers. At least 50 Indigenous soldiers were decorated for bravery and heroism. In the course of the war, some 300 lost their lives and many more were wounded and others died after returning home from the effects of mustard gas poisoning, wounds that they suffered, and diseases they had contracted in Europe such as tuberculosis and influenza.

The Military Services Act passed by the the Borden Conservative government in 1917 introduced conscription including for “Status Indians.” Conscription was not only broadly opposed in Quebec, but also by Indigenous peoples who denounced this manoeuvre by the government to disregard their status as Indigenous peoples. In response to this opposition, the government was forced to grant Indigenous peoples an exemption from serving overseas.

Other injustices were also imposed on Indigenous peoples. In 1917, Arthur Meighen, Minister of the Interior as well as head of Indian Affairs, launched the “Greater Production Effort,” a program intended to increase agricultural production. As part of this scheme, reserve lands that were considered “idle” were taken over by the federal government and handed over to non-Indigenous farmers for “proper use.” After non-Indigenous and First Nations protested that this was a violation of the Indian Act, the government amended the Indian Act in 1918 to make these illegal actions legal.

Post-war brutality against Indigenous veterans

At the end of the war, returning soldiers, including Indigenous veterans, held high hopes that their contributions to the war effort would translate into a better future for themselves and their communities. Indigenous veterans thought that their status as “wards” of the state would be over and that they would be treated as equals. Instead they found that nothing changed and the racism and colonial attitudes of the Canadian government remained intact.

Many Indigenous veterans returned with illnesses such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and influenza which they had contracted overseas. Those who had suffered poison gas attacks returned with weakened lungs and became more prone to tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses. Like their non-Indigenous fellow soldiers, Indigenous veterans suffered from the trauma of the war – which in today’s terms would be called post-traumatic stress disorder – and other illnesses such as alcoholism, which wrecked their lives and caused many problems for their families and communities. In fact, the overall standard of living in Indigenous communities declined in the years following the war as returning veterans found it extremely difficult to keep regular work and to return to their pre-war lives. In the face of these complex problems, Canada provided little support to Indigenous veterans.

Benefits and support for veterans from the Canadian government through the Soldiers Settlement Acts of 1917 and 1919, such as land and loans to encourage farming, did not extend to Indigenous veterans. To add insult to injury, through the Acts the federal government confiscated an additional 85,844 acres from reserves to provide farmland for non-Indigenous veterans.

The racist Canadian colonial state’s aim of exterminating Indigenous people by assimilating them was alive and well as expressed by the notorious Duncan Campbell Scott, architect of the Residential School System in Canada and Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, who wrote in a 1919 essay:

These men who have been broadened by contact with the outside world and its affairs, who have mingled with the men of other races, and who have witnessed the many wonders and advantages of civilization, will not be content to return to their old Indian mode of life. Each one of them will be a missionary of the spirit of progress… Thus the war will have hastened that day,… when all the quaint old customs, the weird and picturesque ceremonies… shall be as obsolete as the buffalo and the tomahawk, and the last tepee of the Northern wilds give place to a model farmhouse.

FrederickOgilvie Loft-IndianLeague of Canada-biographi.cacr

Haudenosaunee veteran Frederick Loft  founded League of Indians in 1919.

The neglect of Indigenous veterans and other abuses of Indigenous peoples by the Canadian state, led Haudenosaunee veteran Frederick Loft, a Mohawk from Six Nations on the Grand River who had served as a lieutenant overseas in the Forestry Corps, to form the League of Indians of Canada in 1919.  Before his return to Canada, Loft had met with the King and Privy Council in London to express his concerns about the way Indigenous peoples in Canada were being treated. Under his leadership, the League of Indians fought to protect the lands and treaty rights of Indigenous peoples.

In particular, the League fought to preserve Indigenous rights and led the battle against the “involuntary enfranchisement” changes to the Indian Act, orchestrated by Duncan Campbell Scott and passed in 1920, aimed at extinguishing Indigenous title by giving “Status Indians” the vote, while at the same time working to undermine and sabotage the work of the League of Indians and isolating and criminalizing Loft. The League also mounted legal challenges to establish Indigenous claims to hunting, fishing and trapping rights among other things.

The League of Indians was the first attempt by Canadian Indigenous peoples to form a national organization to resist the Canadian colonial state’s assault on their rights and claims and subsequently inspired the formation of other Indigenous political organizations to battle the colonial Canadian state and its racist policies.

(With files from Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Canadian Encyclopedia, Veterans Affairs Canada and Library and Archives Canada.)

The Black Construction Battalion


While Blacks were used by the British colonialists as cannon fodder to suppress the struggles for rights of others, their own legitimate rights and claims were marginalized and denied.

WWI-CanadaNo2ConstructionCompanyRecruitmentPosterWhen the First World War broke out, Blacks in Nova Scotia and other places tried to enlist but faced racist obstacles and justifications to keep them out. The Chief of the General Staff of the Canadian Army at the time asked in a memo: “Would Canadian Negroes make good fighting men? I do not think so.”

When a group of about 50 Black Canadians from Sydney, Nova Scotia, tried to enlist they were advised, “[T]his is not for you fellows. This is a white man’s war.”

In the face of repeated opposition to this state racism and discrimination, the Canadian government permitted the formation of No. 2 Construction Battalion (also known as the Black Battalion), based in Pictou, Nova Scotia. It was a segregated battalion that never saw military action because they were not permitted to carry weapons. Five hundred Black soldiers volunteered from Nova Scotia alone, representing 56 per cent of the Black Battalion. It was the only Black battalion in Canadian military history.

The Battalion was sent to eastern France armed with picks and shovels to dig ditches and construct trenches at the front, putting themselves in grave danger. They also worked on road and rail construction. Following the end of the War in 1918, the members of the Battalion were repatriated and the unit was disbanded in 1920.

According to Veterans Affairs Canada, another some 2,000 Black Canadians served in the front lines of World War I through other units, some with the armies of other countries.

Once returned, the Black veterans of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, and other returning Black veterans found that nothing had changed at home and that not only were their contributions to the war effort ignored, they continued to face racism and discrimination in employment, veterans’ benefits, and other social services.[1]


1. The Canadian state likes to portray the participation of Blacks in the Canadian military in the most self-serving manner. Veterans Affairs Canada notes

“The tradition of military service by Black Canadians goes back long before Confederation. Indeed, many Black Canadians can trace their family roots to Loyalists who emigrated North in the 1780s after the American Revolutionary War. American slaves had been offered freedom and land if they agreed to fight in the British cause and thousands seized this opportunity to build a new life in British North America.”

A rosy picture, but far from reality. The slaves that sided with the British colonialists during the U.S. War of Independence, numbering some 30,000, escaped to the British side and served as soldiers, labourers and cooks. When the British were defeated, the British evacuated some 2,000 of these “Black Loyalists” to Nova Scotia with the promise of a better life and opportunities as free people. Others were thrown to the four winds landing in the Caribbean Islands, Quebec, Ontario, England and even Germany and Belgium. Those the British outright abandoned in the U.S. were recaptured as slaves.

Many of the Black Loyalists landed at Shelburne, in southeastern Nova Scotia, and later created their own community nearby in Birchtown, the largest Black settlement outside Africa at the time. Other Black Loyalists settled in various places around Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Far from finding freedom, and new opportunities, most of the Black Loyalists never received the land or provisions that they were promised and were forced to make their living as cheap labour – as farm hands, day labourers in the towns or as domestics. In 1791, in order to solve the “Black problem,” the British Colonial authorities repatriated about half of these Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Sierra Leone, Africa.

Those Blacks who remained were used by the British colonial state in the War of 1812 to fight the Americans. Blacks in Ontario and also from other places were part of a colonial militia called in to suppress the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837.

(With files from Veterans Affairs, CBC and the Canadian Encyclopedia.)

The War Measures Act and Internment of Canadians


Internment camp in Banff, Alberta.

Upon Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, the Borden Conservative government enacted the War Measures Act, in August 1914. The law’s sweeping powers allowed the government to suspend or limit civil liberties and provided it the right to incarcerate “enemy aliens.”

The term “enemy alien” referred to the citizens of states legally at war with Canada living in Canada during the war.

From 1914 to 1920, Canada interned 8,579 persons as so-called enemy aliens across the country in 24 receiving stations and internment camps. Of that number, 3,138 were classified as prisoners of war, while the others were civilians. The majority of those detained were of Ukrainian descent, targeted because Ukraine was then split between Russia (an ally) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an enemy of the British Empire. Some of the internees were Canadian-born and others were naturalized British subjects, although most were recent immigrants.

Most internees were young unemployed single men apprehended while trying to cross the border into the U.S. to look for jobs – attempting to leave Canada was illegal. Eighty-one women and 156 children were interned as they had decided to follow their menfolk into the only two camps that accepted families, in Vernon, BC (mainly Germans) and in Spirit Lake near Amos Quebec (mainly Ukrainians).


Internment camp in Fernie, BC.

Besides those placed in internment camps, another 80,000 “enemy aliens,” mostly Ukrainians, were forced to carry identity papers and to report regularly to local police offices. They were treated by the government as social pariahs, and many lost their jobs.


Monument to those interned at the Castle Mountain camp in Alberta.

The internment camps were often located in remote rural areas, including in Banff, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Yoho national parks in Western Canada. Internees had much of their wealth confiscated. Many of them were used as forced labour on large projects, including the development of Banff National Park and numerous mining and logging operations. They constructed roads, cleared land and built bridges.

Between 1916-17, during a severe shortage of farm labour, nearly all internees were paroled and placed in the custody of local farmers and paid at current wages. Other parolees were sent as paid workers to railway gangs and mines. Parolees were still required to report regularly to police authorities.

Federal and provincial governments and private concerns benefited from their labour and from the confiscation of what little wealth they had, a portion of which was left in the Bank of Canada at the end of the internment operations on June 20, 1920.

A small number of internees, including men considered to be “dangerous foreigners,” labour radicals, or particularly troublesome internees, were deported to their countries of origin after the war, largely from the Kapuskasing camp in Ontario, which was the last to be shut down.

Of those interned, 109 died of various diseases and injuries sustained in the camp, six were killed while trying to escape, and some – according to a military report – went insane or committed suicide as a result of their confinement.


Internment camp in Petawawa, Ontario.

(Canadian War Museum, Calgary Herald, Wikipedia.)

Registration, conscription, and independent labour politics, 1916-1917



Before Canada experienced the full impact of the war, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada [T.L.C.] contented itself with passing resolutions declaring that wars were fought purely in the interests of the capitalists and that since the capitalists waged wars, it was their duty to do the fighting. A resolution was passed as early as 1911 at the Calgary convention supporting a general strike to prevent the outbreak of war, “so that the workers may see the pitiful exhibition of fighting of those capitalists who seem so fond of it.” A year later the Congress reiterated its opposition to war: “the only result that a war between Germany and Great Britain would achieve would be the degradation of the toilers.”

[…]When the Congress met in Vancouver in 1915, […] The recommendation of the executive committee calling for “unchangeable opposition to all that savours of conscription either here or in the empire” was unanimously endorsed. The anti-conscription resolution was reaffirmed the following year.


[Under] increasing pressure for National Service within the T.L.C. President Watters sent out a circular on April 29, 1916 asking the various affiliated central trades councils and unions whether they were willing to endorse the Vancouver resolution calling for “unchangeable opposition to all that savours of conscription.” Watters also sounded [out] the unions on the advisability of calling a general strike: “To prevent anything that savours of ‘conscription’ . . . are you prepared if every other means should fail, to use the most effective and almost the only weapon within your reach . . . Or should occasion require it, are you prepared to simply register a protest?”

In August 1916, the government passed an Order-in-Council authorizing the appointment of a National Service Board with general power of supervision over security and labour selection. A Director-General of National Service was appointed, charged with the duty of directing and coordinating the work of the directors of National Service to be appointed in each military district. R.B. Bennett, the newly appointed Director-General met with his directors in November and devised plans for an inventory of Canadian manpower. Bennett and his colleagues decided to distribute a series of registration cards to be filled out by workers throughout the dominion in order to gather basic information as to manpower location and distribution.

[…] The industrial element of Canada was deeply affected by this call for service, yet organized labour was granted no representation on the National Service Board. […] Labour leaders feared that employers would use the registration movement for the purpose of interfering with union labour and establishing an open shop. It was strongly felt too that behind registration was an intention on the part of the government to bring in conscription.

[…] Borden and Bennett toured the country from Montreal to Vancouver in December 1916. […] Watters suggested that the British Columbia labour men interview the Prime Minister when he came to the coast and a meeting was arranged in Vancouver. […] The delegation sought an assurance from Borden and Bennett that conscription would not be instituted. No assurance was forthcoming. Following the interview, a joint meeting of the coast officials of the Federation and the executive committees of the trades councils of Victoria and Vancouver was held, at which the delegates presented their unanimous opposition to the registration proposal.

Following the tour, Borden and Bennett met with the leading Congress officials in Ottawa. The Congress executive asked for an assurance that under no circumstances would conscription be undertaken or carried out. Borden again declined. […] Despite Borden’s failure to disavow manpower conscription, or support the conscription of wealth, the Congress executive issued circulars to all labour unions following the meeting urging their cooperation in making National Service Week a success.


Trade Union leaflet against imposition of conscription. Click image to enlarge.

The executive recommendation met with agreement in the east, and a storm of protest throughout the west. […] The trades councils of Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Guelph, Saint John, Peterborough and St. Catherines supported the executive recommendation. But western labour leaders bitterly opposed both the registration measure and the recommendation of the Congress executive. On December 21, 1916, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council took the lead and appointed a committee to oppose registration. President Harry Veitch openly declared he would not sign the National Service cards. […] An anti-registration committee was formed by the central bodies in Winnipeg and Transcona. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council recommended that the cards not be signed.

The New Westminster, Victoria and Vancouver central councils also served notice to the Congress executive of their opposition to the registration scheme, considering it a step towards conscription. At a meeting on January 4, the Vancouver council emphatically expressed its opposition to the National Service scheme and reiterated the demand that wealth be conscripted and basic industries nationalized. The central councils of Victoria, Regina and Saskatoon reaffirmed their opposition and the Calgary council called for a special Trades and Labour Congress convention to consider the matter. At the Revelstoke Convention of the British Columbia Federation of Labour in January, the delegates went on record against registration and conscription and censured the executive of the T.L.C. for violation of the expressed opinion of the last convention. It further demanded that conscription not be put into effect before the matter had been submitted to a referendum and that electoral reforms be introduced to widen the franchise. […]

When Sir Robert Borden announced on May 18, 1917 that conscription was imperative, […] The Alberta Federation of Labour, which claimed the affiliation of 70 local unions and represented 7,000 workers, adopted a resolution protesting the conscription of manpower until the wealth of the nation had first been conscripted. At a special meeting of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council on May 30, the delegates voted by a 90 per cent majority to resist “by any means” in their power the passage of a conscription law and instructed the executive of the British Columbia Federation of Labour to take an immediate referendum regarding the calling of a general strike in the province in the event of the passage of a conscription law. Mass protest meetings, addressed by members of the Socialist Party of Canada, were held throughout the province and on June 13 a meeting was held in the Empress Theatre in Vancouver under the joint auspices of the Socialist Party of Canada and the Trades and Labour Council. The executive committee of the British Columbia Federation of Labour submitted a proposal to the membership throughout the province to down tools in the event of conscription, and in August voted unanimously to call a special convention of the provincial body to consider the results of the general strike referendum and to plan the future course of action. The convention met on September 1 when it was announced that the referendum had passed by a large 5 to 1 majority. The delegates voted, however, to keep the down tools policy in abeyance. The executive was given full power to call a general strike should it deem the course imperative. A strong recommendation for political action passed by a large majority.

The Trades and Labour Councils of Victoria, Trail and New Westminster reacted the same way as the Vancouver council and the provincial federation and passed heated resolutions against conscription as did the Prince Rupert council which declared for the conscription of wealth production before the conscription of manpower. The Lethbridge, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat councils all entered emphatic protests. The Calgary council joined in the opposition […] The Winnipeg council adopted a resolution on May 31 against conscription and demanded that the question be submitted to the people as a referendum. A vote of the affiliated unions on the question of a general strike, provided similar action was adopted in all other cities, was later taken, and out of 54 unions supplied with ballots returns were received from 23, the result being 1,787 in favour and 736 against.

Ontario labour leaders were equally adamant. They had supported the Congress executive’s recommendation not to oppose registration, but now stood strongly opposed to the conscription of manpower without the conscription of wealth. Soon after Borden’s announcement of the conscription measure, the Toronto Trades and Labour Council passed a resolution in favour of the conscription of wealth with manpower. The Ottawa, Kitchener, Guelph and South Waterloo councils urged the conscription of all sources of wealth while the London council demanded the “nationalization of all the resources of the Dominion.” The central councils in Niagara Falls, Brantford and Sault Ste Marie also opposed conscription. At a meeting on May 25 of the Ontario Labour Educational Association, the only province-wide federation of trade unions and central labour councils in Ontario, resolutions were passed favouring the nationalization of “the industries in the country which are necessary to the successful carrying out of the War – the wages and conditions of the workers to be guaranteed by the government” and nationalization of the banks of Canada.

The strong opposition to the proposed conscription measure met with the support of the Congress executive. […] The executive council of the T.L.C. shortly thereafter summoned a meeting of 80 international trade unions including the Railway Brotherhoods and the Federation of Letter Carriers. The convention met June 1 to 4 and demanded drastic changes in the conduct of the war.

[…] Representatives of the machinists, carpenters, plumbers and steamfitters, sheet metal workers, and many other organizations declared that the wages and conditions of labour on the work under the control of the Imperial Munitions Board were a scandal and a disgrace. […] The delegates declared themselves emphatically opposed to the proposed conscription measure and urged the workers to oppose “by every means in their power the enactment of such legislation.” […] The joint committee composed of the Congress executive and representatives of the Railway Brotherhoods reported an intense feeling that “the time of petitioning the government is about passed, and action throughout the country by organized labour is necessary and that now is the time to decide what to do.”


The question of a national general strike was considered at the Trades and Labour Congress convention in September. Conscription was already the law of the land and the Wartime Elections Act had passed the House of Commons in preparation for the approaching federal election.


Resuming where the congress left off in 1906, the executive recommended and the delegates endorsed the formation of a national labour party to contest the approaching federal election and express labour’s opposition to the war policy of the Borden régime.


The new emphasis was on the cooperation and recognition of “organizations having similar objectives as those affiliated with the British Labour Party.” Socialists, trade unionists, farmers and other progressives were invited to sink their differences in a new partnership. The “dominating political organization” in each province was urged to call a conference of “the respective organizations entitled to partnership in such a Labour Party and proceed to cooperate for political action.”

The main support for direct action came from the Winnipeg and Pacific Coast unions. The initiative for political action came from Ontario. Western radicals were not opposed to political action. The leading coast unions had supported it at the special convention of the British Columbia Federation of Labour in September. But, like the Winnipeg unionists, they were equally determined to play with the general strike idea. Both political action and direct action were endorsed at the British Columbia provincial convention as protest weapons against conscription, although the latter was to be kept in abeyance until the former had been tried. Ontario unions were uniformly opposed to a general strike protest and were optimistic about the possibilities of independent political action. By 1917, the centre of gravity of independent labour and socialist politics had shifted from British Columbia, where it flourished preceding the war, to Ontario.


Political unity in Toronto was achieved on November 13, 1916, when representative of the various labour groups in Toronto met and formed the Greater Toronto Labour party. […]

The founding convention of the Ontario Independent Labour party on July 2, 1917, was attended by 16 branch locals […]. When the Greater Toronto Labour party was formed in November, 1916, only two other similar organizations [existed] in the province – in London and Hamilton. By mid-June there were 13 local parties with seven more in the process of formation. […] The constitution provided for direct membership. Although no member of the party could be a member of any other political organization, the convention endorsed cooperation with “other bona fide parties which are clearly not capitalist organizations.” […] The object of the new party was “to promote the political, economical and social interests of people who live by their labour, mental or manual, as distinguished from those who live by profit upon the labour of others.” The organization would act “in cooperation as far as possible with independent political organizations of the farmers and the producing class for the purpose of electing men or women who will stand by the democratic principle of a working class movement with all that the term implies.”


The political activists in British Columbia decided to continue the policy announced at the special convention of the British Columbia Federation of Labour in September. The provincial federal assumed the functions of a political party and nominated, sponsored and financed independent candidates. […] The election manifesto issued by the executive of the federation included the repeal of the Military Service Act, extension of the franchise to all adult citizens irrespective of sex, state care and increased benefits for soldiers and their dependents, and the abolition of the “root cause of all wars, the capitalist system.”

None of the Labour Party candidates was returned in the election. Strong showings were made in Hamilton and Temiskaming, where labour candidates gained approximately 30 and 40 per cent respectively, of the vote. But labour candidates were unable to poll more than 20 per cent of the vote in the 27 constituencies contested in English speaking Canada

[…] Articulate protest against the war policies of the union government emanated from the organized section of the working class but this group comprised only 2 per cent of the Canadian population in 1916.

Martin Robin is a Professor Emeritus from Simon Fraser University. 

(Martin Robin, Registration, Conscription, and Independent Labour Politics, 1916-1917, The Canadian Historical Review, University of Toronto Press, Volume 47, Issue 2, June 1966, pp. 101-118.)



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Filed under Canada, History, Indigenous Peoples, Working Class

One response to “Canada and the First World War

  1. Pingback: On the anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, a war crime: The organization of the city as a war port is the ‘business’ best adapted for profit | Tony Seed's Weblog

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