As he arrived at the packed Ottawa theatre, Sir Robert Borden had good reason to expect a rough welcome. Three thousand farmers, many of whom hadn’t slept for lack of beds, were milling around outside. Inside, their comrades were waiting to lambaste the prime minister.
It was May, 1918, and Borden had just broken his Union government’s promise to exempt active farmers from military service. He had been urging them to plant more crops and buy more equipment for the war effort, and now he wanted to draft their sons and workers, right at the start of the seeding period.
“The attitude of the meeting was extremely aggressive,” Borden wrote in his memoirs. For about two hours, every speaker, including Quebec’s minister of agriculture, attacked the government’s conflicting demands.
Borden waited through the harangues, then made a speech in which he refused to make any concessions. The Germans were attacking in France, he said, turning back the British Army and forcing an urgent new Allied recruitment. He predicted that the enemy might even try to invade Canada, and claimed to have support from the United Farmers of Alberta, although the UFA said any grain shortages would be the government’s fault.
The significance of Borden’s meeting that day reached far beyond the issue of swords versus plowshares. It would prove to be a watershed event in the disillusionment of Canadian farmers in general, and the West in particular, with mainstream federal parties.
Fuelled by resentments that had been simmering for decades, the “food or fight” conflict of the First World War prompted a series of alternative rural and western-based parties to bid for electoral power. Soon after the war ended, provincial United Farmers parties surged into office in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario, and in 1921 the Progressives became the second-largest party in the federal Parliament, smashing the old two-party system forever.
“The war showed the farmers they were a national force,” says Mourad Djebabla, an assistant professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada. It crystallized their realization that they could bypass the old-line parties and take rural and western concerns directly to Ottawa.
That disgruntled grassroots activism has been a constant in Canadian politics ever since, whether it calls itself Progressive or Reform or Wildrose. Whatever else the First World War meant for us as a nation, it had a profound and lasting effect on our domestic politics – and it all started with an argument about food.
The war effort drew many parts of Canadian society together, but in the countryside, battling the Hun also meant enduring a crossfire of demands and criticisms that enraged farmers. For them, the war experience was proof that the eastern urban parties would never understand their needs and wants.
Food was Canada’s first contribution to the Allied effort: 1.5 million sacks of flour were shipped to Britain soon after war was declared, along with 4 million pounds of Quebec cheese. The federal government immediately launched a series of propaganda campaigns that urged farmers to produce as much as possible for the troops.
But Borden also set escalating recruitment targets, and his minister of militias sent recruiting officers deep into rural areas to enlist farm workers. The farmers’ contention that they were doing their duty and obeying the government by working the land did not go down well in Canadian cities.
“All the papers [are] lamenting the fact that the rural districts are not contributing a satisfactory number of recruits to the war,” a Globe columnist wrote in January, 1915, before a single Canadian soldier had arrived at the Western Front. It was time to ask, he wrote, whether “patriotism of production [a play on the government’s first food campaign slogan] is real or only an excuse!”
It would be hard to exaggerate the social pressure to enlist, especially in the cities. At a patriotic rally in Toronto’s Riverdale Park in August 1915, “women paraded through the crowd with a torn pillow, presenting white feathers to men not in uniform,” writes Ian Miller in his history of Toronto during the war. But it wasn’t just the farmers’ courage that was challenged – they were also accused of grubbing for profits while others marched to the front.
“The farming population would greatly prefer to have their sons at home and engaged in producing large crops which could be sold at unusually high prices,” Borden confided to his memoirs. Stephen Leacock was more blunt, publicly accusing farmers of being “war drones” – profiteers living in high style.