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Martin Auger and the Conscription Crisis

October 6, 2010

Martin Auger in his article, On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots, argues that using the information available to them at the time, that the Canadian government’s military response was meant to suppress what they saw of the early stages of a popular uprising in Quebec.(p 538) He is successful in arguing his point concerning the information the Federal Government had, but I feel that at the end of the article, Auger undermines this argument.
The article begins with Auger discussing the initial reasons for the Military Service Act, which enforced conscription on Canadians. This act was in response to low voluntary enrolment in the army, especially in Quebec.(p 507) There was, however fears in the government that “dissatisfaction with conscription might ultimately culminate in a province wide uprising.”(p 505) Auger mentions previous examples of anti-conscription actions in Quebec, most notably the dynamitards and their bombing campaign against pro-conscription newspapers in 1917.(p 506)
When the Easter Riots began on Thursday, March  28th 1918, the primary cause was the enforcement of the MSA, in which a man was detained by two Dominion Police when he was unable to secure his exemption certificate. An angry crowd gathered, and proceeded to assault the police station, and beat several police officers.(p 508-509) Rumours were spread that the crowds intended to attack all federal buildings in Quebec City. (p 509) These rumours gave the Borden government what it needed to invoke the War Measures Act.

Auger lists several factors for why the Canadian Government reacted as promptly as it did to the Easter Riots.  First major factor Auger identifies is the over all war effort in late 1917 and early 1918. The Russian Revolution occurred in this time period, as well as their withdrawal from the war.(p 512) There was also concerns with the mutinies that were occurring in the French Army, as well as the beginning of German submarines sinking ships off of Canada’s coast.(p 513) There was major concerns of something like the Russian revolution occurring in Quebec, and Ottawa had to show this would not be possible.
The second major concern was due to the importance of  Quebec City to the Canadian war effort. Quebec City featured many industries important for  the war, such as rifle factories, ammunition plants, and ship building. Quebec City was also a point through which most supplies and soldiers passed through on their way to the east coast.(p 514) This meant that any major disruptions in Quebec City would end up causing disruptions in Europe and hurt the overall war effort.
The third concern is arguably the most important in Borden’s mind for the prompt action the Government took. Borden was worried that the riots would lead to a province wide insurrection and possibly a civil war. Revolutions followed by civil wars had occurred in Mexico in 1911, and in Russia in 1917.(p 515) There was also nationalist movements occurring in the British Empire at the same time, such as the Boer rebellion from 1914-1915, and the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916. It is possible that Borden feared the same thing happening in Quebec.(p 515)

Sir Robert Borden

Auger argues that the government with the information it had, was concerned with a province wide insurrection. Auger however offers evidence that the government chose not to use which went against their conclusions. For example the Department of Militia and Defence launched a report on secret organizations and the German connection. The report found that “There appears to be absolutely nothing to support the statement that has been made to the effect that a secret organization in Montreal was behind the recent troubles in the City of Quebec and likely to be the cause of further disturbance in the province.”(p 530)  Despite this Borden still feared secret organizations.(p 530)
Auger argues that the Canadian Government responded the way it did because of concerns that Quebec would enter a state of insurrection against the government. However, at the end of his article, Auger mentions the idea that the rioters were simply expressing their dislike of the federal government and in particular dislike of the Military Service Act.(p 539)

Auger successfully argues that the Government believed there was the immediate chance of an insurrection, however at the end of the article he undermines this point by mentioning the Department of Militia and Defence report, as well as the fact that the spies hired by the government were mercenaries, shows where the government got the idea that it did.  By ending his article with the coroner’s report showing the rioting was caused by the way the MSA was enforced shows that the Federal Government was wrong for why it acted. The idea of a insurrection, especially a socialist one, was a fear the Borden government had, likely because of the recent Russian Revolution. Borden greatly feared this happening in Quebec, which would greatly hinder the war effort. The fear of a Bolshevik revolution was a serious threat in Borden’s mind and he acted accordingly, if you agree with his reasoning.

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page number refers to Martin Auger, “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots” Canadian Historical Review, Dec. 2008, Vol. 89 Issue 4, p503-540

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