In 1917-1918 Quebec experienced problems similar to those Russia is experiencing after Putin’s decision to call up 300,000 men for military service in Ukraine. Here it was the British Army that needed cannon fodder for the battlefields of France and Belgium.
In early 1917, Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden, of the Conservative Party, was returning from a trip to Britain where he was told the British wanted 500,000 men to replenish their decimated front in Europe.
The absurd counterattacks ordered by old generals, as incompetent as they were obstinate, caused horrific hecatombs.
A whole generation of young Englishmen was mowed down by German machine guns.
Borden announces that to make up for the lack of volunteers, his government will introduce a bill introducing conscription.
In fact, Canada was considered suitable for military personnel who were 150 cm tall, one-eyed, and flat-footed, those who had lost the use of an ear, had amputated a finger or two, or as many toes.
Quebec, alone on his side
After long and bitter debates, the law was passed on July 6, 1917 by 118 votes to 55. The vote split Canada in two: Quebec on one side, and the eight English provinces on the other.
File Photo, City of Toronto
In early 1917, Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden (pictured left) introduced legislation introducing conscription, which passed on July 6 by a vote of 188 to 55.
All but three French Canadian Conservatives voted with Liberal Wilfrid Laurier against conscription. Outside of Quebec, there were only 10 votes against conscription, including several from French Canadian and Acadian MPs.
When the draft law was announced on August 10, 1917, a riot broke out in Montreal: the crowd attacked soldiers and shots were fired.
Photo courtesy McCord Museum
In 1917 there was a demonstration against conscription in Montreal. The crowd attacked soldiers and shots were fired.
The following day there were reports of fighting between the English and French in Phillips Square. The police intervene harshly. Result: four police officers injured, one dead and many injured among the demonstrators.
After unsuccessfully attempting to form a coalition cabinet with Laurier, conservative Borden managed to persuade the West Liberals to betray their leader and join his Union government.
Conscripts want an exemption
When the first conscripts were called up in October 1917, the government faced a new problem: a large number of them were demanding exemption.
The English Canadians, who vociferously advocated conscription in words, were not much more willing to accept it than the French Canadians.
According to American historian Mason Wade, out of a total of 125,750 registered men in Ontario, 118,128 had applied for the exemption. In Quebec, out of a total of 117,104 registered persons, 115,707 had also applied.
In the December 17, 1917 elections, Borden was restored to power. It was a conservative tide, except in Quebec, where Laurier’s Liberal Party won 62 of the 65 seats.
The three Conservatives elected are Anglophones. To those who feared Quebec’s absence from the Borden cabinet, Henri Bourassa replied that it was not necessarily a misfortune, that the appointment of ministers in Quebec was a source of weakness rather than strength.
He points out that the French Canadians recruited into the federal cabinets have never served anything but to put their compatriots to sleep, cover retreats and make humiliating concessions. Forward-looking acumen.
English Canada regards the outcome of the Quebec election as yet another intolerable manifestation of the insolence of the vanquished of 1763.
Disgusted by this outburst of hatred, Lotbinière’s Liberal provincial MP, Joseph Napoléon Francœur, encouraged by Prime Minister Lomer Gouin, submitted a motion to the Legislative Assembly on December 21, 1917, proposing Quebec’s secession from the Canadian Confederation.
The scavenger hunt
In early 1918, federal authorities in Quebec set out to hunt down deserters and draft evaders.
“Spotters,” a type of bounty hunter, often habitual criminals or police informants, roam the cities and countryside in search of rebels.
On Maundy Thursday, March 28, 1918, federal agents arrested a young man in Quebec City who did not have his exemption certificate with him. When he is taken to the police station, he proves that he is in good standing.
News of his arrest spread around town; Angry people, some say 2000, attack the police station with stones, bricks and rotten eggs.
The Army Registration Office, housed in what is now Le Capitole, was looted and set on fire by rioters, encouraged by a crowd of 20,000 who had gathered at Place d’Youville.
As the situation worsened, Prime Minister Borden sent 1,000 Toronto troops as reinforcements.
Everything seems to be back to normal over the Easter weekend, but the hustle and bustle picks up again on Monday. A contingent of 2,000 soldiers from Ontario and Nova Scotia joined the federal forces.
Machine guns are deployed at Place Jacques-Cartier. Cavalry patrols, carbines over their saddles, keep a lookout and summon suspects in English to prove their identity and their exemption from military service.
It is easy to imagine the effect these English-speaking soldiers had on Quebecers. For the first time since 1759, an English army in arms and battle dress occupied Quebec.
The soldiers, monolingual as they should be, behave like conquerors. The tension grows.
Innocent people killed
On April 1, there was a confrontation between federal troops and demonstrators in the Saint-Roch neighborhood. The crowd refuses to disperse. Soldiers are injured. Shots are said to have been fired by rioters.
Despite the protests of Mayor Henri-Edgar Lavigueur, repression is carried out with violence. With the machine gun, the Ontarians will take revenge on their five wounded soldiers. Result: Four civilians killed, including a 14-year-old boy, mowed down by machine gun fire and around seventy wounded.
Photos courtesy BAnQ
On April 1, 1918, Alexandre Bussières (aged 25), newly married Édouard Tremblay (aged 23), student at the Technical School, Georges Demeule (aged 14), son of a worker, and Honoré Bergeron (aged 49), father of six children, is killed by explosive projectiles in Quebec.
Senator Philippe Auguste Choquette listens from his window as a Toronto officer orders his men to shoot to kill. The Quebecers are as hostile to them as the Germans.
They are even more hostile because they are considered traitors. For years the English press had called for the use of force against them.
On April 4, the commanding general of the federal forces, François-Louis Lessard, declared martial law and suspended the civil rights of the capital’s citizens.
None of the civilians killed took part in the riots, as the coroner’s inquest would show: one had gone out to look for his children, the others just walked by.
After a five-day hearing on April 13, the coroner “blamed the military authority for the deaths of four men during a riot provoked by its lack of tact and lack of wisdom.” He demands compensation for the families of the victims.
A retroactive law
In order to block possible legal remedies, the federal cabinet rushed to issue a very special ministerial decree retrospectively, in accordance with the War Measures Act of 1914, which legalized the actions of the military. No compensation was paid to the survivors.
The parents of Quebecers killed by the army under extra-legal conditions will never see justice. The denial of compensation was upheld by a majority vote in the House of Commons in 1921.
The war ended on November 11, 1918. Arthur Meighen succeeded Borden as Prime Minister. The Conservatives were ousted from power in 1921. It would take them 50 years to reestablish some base in Quebec.
FRANÇOIS-LOUIS LESSARD, GENERAL OF MARRITAL LAW
Photo courtesy Canadian War Museum
Francois Louis Lessard
Prime Minister Robert Borden had entrusted Major General François-Louis Lessard, the army’s senior French-speaking officer, with the task of restoring order in Quebec.
He had distinguished himself against the Boers in South Africa and had been used against Louis Riel’s Métis uprising. The perfect example of French Canadian devotional service to the English.
As soon as he arrived in Quebec, he had unilaterally declared martial law.
He had usurped full powers without asking for the approval of Quebec’s premier or the city’s mayor, with the sovereignty bestowed by the repressive power of his machine guns.