Skip to main content

One hundred years ago Sunday, on Dec. 17, 1917, Canadians went to the polls in the ugliest national election in the country's history. It's worth remembering not only the election, but how anxious, fraught and divided Canadians were throughout 1917, if for no other reason than to gain some perspective on 2017.

Today, we worry about the treatment of women in society, about the debt owed to Indigenous people, about free trade and U.S. President Donald Trump and the rise of populism in liberal democracies – all legitimate concerns deserving attention.

But in 1917, the issues were more stark and deadly. So hostile were the opposing factions of the electorate that Canada's political cohesion teetered on the brink of failure. Canadians had been fighting and dying in the First World War for three years, and by 1917 there was still no end in sight to the awful stalemate on the Western Front. The victories at Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 had brought home good news in the spring and summer, and much deserved acclaim for Canadian soldiers. But those battles also added thousands of names to the casualty lists. In September and October, the fighting at Passchendaele only added to the country's sorrows.

Across Canada, families lived in fear of a messenger's knock on their front doors, carrying a telegram with news of sons or husbands killed or missing in action. By the end of 1917, a staggering 50,000 Canadians had been killed since the start of the war and more than 100,000 wounded.

In the spring, Conservative prime minister Robert Borden had visited injured and shell-shocked Canadians at military hospitals in France and Britain. Moved by what he saw, he returned home determined to renew the country's commitment to the war, even if that meant conscripting citizens to fight.

Canada had assembled an impressive volunteer army at the beginning of the war, but by 1917 voluntary recruitment had almost dried up. If Canada was to remain in the fight, conscription seemed the only way to replace the dead and maintain its battalions at the front.

The conflict had already divided Canadians. While much of English Canada was solidly in favour, large numbers of French Canadians were opposed or ambivalent. Meanwhile, farmers across the country, desperate for manpower to bring in harvests and maintain output, were warning Ottawa against any action that would further restrict the labour pool.

Knowing the political risks, Borden invoked conscription anyway. In the summer, his government introduced the Military Service Act, requiring a compulsory draft of men for overseas service.

As riots ensued in Quebec, Borden attempted to co-opt the Liberal opposition by inviting Wilfrid Laurier and his members into a coalition government, with equal seats at the cabinet table. Laurier refused, but a number of pro-war Liberals accepted the offer and in October, the pro-conscription coalition known as the Union Government was born.

Borden then proceeded to rig the voter rolls for the coming election. Canadian servicemen had previously been banned from voting in federal elections while on duty, but the government waived the ban, allowing 400,000 men in uniform, even those underage, to vote. The government also passed legislation allowing women to vote for the first time in a federal election – but only those who had relatives serving overseas. Instantly, two large new constituencies of voters, almost all supportive of the war and conscription, were enfranchised for the coming election.

Borden's opponents were furious at his crafty manoeuvring, but it was tough to argue against giving soldiers – and their wives and mothers – the right to vote. The subsequent "khaki" election, as the conscription campaign was called, was the angriest Canadians have ever known. As historian Tim Cook has noted, the campaign "mirrored the war overseas." It was "vicious, unrestrained and with blood everywhere."

Liberals were attacked as friends of the German Kaiser. In Quebec, pro-conscription Union candidates were physically assaulted. Farmers condemned both sides, and were themselves accused of war profiteering from high food prices.

In the midst of this rancour, on Dec. 6, the Halifax Explosion destroyed much of Borden's hometown and killed nearly 2,000 people, including hundreds of children. Eleven days after the disaster, eligible Canadians voted, handing Borden's Unionists a comfortable majority of 153 seats, but only three seats in Quebec.

In the new year, Ottawa started conscripting people into uniform. Meanwhile, the war dragged on for another 11 months, killing and maiming tens of thousands more Canadians. And the bitterness of 1917 that so deeply divided people along linguistic lines would remain and haunt the country for decades.

It was the most dangerous time in our history, darker than anything confronting Canada today.