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Henri Bourassa, French Canada, and the Conscription Crisis

December 18, 2010

Henri Bourassa, French Canada, and the Conscription Crisis

Joseph-Napoléon-Henri Bourassa (1868-1952) was a French-Canadian political figure and Member of Parliament from Quebec. Bourassa was a member of the Liberal Party and an independent under a National Party. Bourassa believed in a very particular kind of Canadian nationalism, which consisted of the two races of Canada, French and English, living harmoniously as one nation, French and English from coast to coast. Bourassa also had very particular ideas when it came to issues such as conscription. By examining the events of the Conscription Crisis of 1917, such as how the government responded to the crisis as well as their motivations for doing so, one can see the total rejection of Bourassa’s nationalism, as well as the future turn away from ideas of French Canada to ideas of French Quebec.

Henri Bourassa presents Canadians with a unique form of Canadian Nationalism, which he hoped would be able to unite our country. Before addressing what exactly Bourassa’s concept was, it would be useful to look at the elements which influenced it. One of the biggest impacts upon Bourassa’s thought was “the impact upon Canada of the new imperialism, opening up prospects of direct involvement in imperial wars, in an age of mounting imperial rivalries.”[1] Canada had been asked to join imperial wars in Africa, such as the Boer War, and to produce a navy, to help forward imperialist goals. Two other things which had a great influence on Bourassa was the speed in which the western provinces of Canada developed following the turn of the century, as well as the “whole complex of adaptations – ideological, moral, economic, and social – being made in response to the coming of North American urban industrialism to the province of Quebec.”[2] These three elements would greatly shape Bourassa’s form of nationalism by identifying what exactly he wanted to work against, which was British imperialism, and the English-Canadian cultural imperialism which was at work.

To reach his goal, Bourassa became an independent MP, and formed the basis of a national party which would follow his political programme. Bourassa’s national movement was based on three particular ideas, all of which address the previous concerns mentioned. The first idea was to slow the pace of industrial change in Quebec. The second idea was “to fight imperialism and to foster the maximum independence of Canada compatible with remaining under the crown…[and] orient Canada’s defence policy into the direction of neutrality in wars of the Empire.”[3] The third idea was to speak for a union of French and Anglos throughout Canada “requiring the spread of French-Catholic groups into English speaking provinces with the provision therein of Catholic education and general bilingualism.”[4]

The first idea addresses the third concern Bourassa had, about Quebec changing into an urban industrial society, whereas the second idea addresses Bourassa’s concern over British imperialism and imperial wars. The third idea, was to address the way the western provinces had grown rapidly into being all English speaking by law, where Bourassa wished to have bilingualism. Bourassa, responding to a critic, Jules Paul Tardivel, said “Our nationalism is a Canadian nationalism founded on the duality of the races and the distinctive traditions that duality implies.”[5]

For Bourassa, it was important to “repudiate the concept of the ‘Quebec reservation’ that is the view of 1867 that Quebec would be the French province and the other provinces would be English.”[6] Bourassa believed that French Catholic communities, like “little provinces of Quebec” placed throughout Canada would help unite the two peoples, as well as address the concern over the United States of America converting away the culture of Canadians. Bourassa argued that this would grant the rest of Canada a kind of homogeneity, where the whole country would be French or English, but still living together in the same country.  Bourassa saw the way the French were labelled French-Canadian, while the English just considered themselves to be Canadian without a hyphen. However, as Robert Bothwell points out “Henri Bourassa and those who thought like him – including some English Canadians as well as Laurier – tended to believe that English Canadians were the ultimate hyphenated nationality”[7] Bourassa believed that if one could eliminate the empire, then “perhaps a real sense of common Canada would finally emerge.”[8] Bourassa’s idea of Canadian nationalism was based on the idea of all of Canada being French and English, as well as being our own peaceable kingdom under the Crown. Under this kind of system, the default when one thinks of a Canadian would no longer be exclusively an Anglophone.

Bourassa’s view on conscription was shaped greatly by his views on Canadian nationalism, in particular his anti-imperialism. Bourassa was not against all forms of conscription, he had no problem with Canada contributing to the war effort to help England and France as long as “Canada participate ‘as a nation’ or even as a ‘human community’; that is she think of her ‘relations with the world at large’; that is, that she intervene on other then imperial grounds.”[9] This represents a much more progressive view of Canada’s place in the world then was represented by the federal parties. Edward Porritt, writing in 1918, says “the war had been the dominating factor in Canadian politics since the autumn of 1914; and for seventeen years before the war.”[10] The war became the biggest issue in Canada after it started and this lead to the question of whether Canada would conscript soldiers to send to war.

Bourassa believed that Canada should only conscript its soldiers if it served the end term goal of achieving independence from England and its foreign policy. Bourassa said that “Canada could even have used its participation in the war as a means to increase freedoms, merely by obtaining from England and her allies an acknowledgement of its fully independent role.”[11] Without achieving greater freedoms from England, Canada would be making too great a sacrifice for the gains it could receive. Richard writes that “Bourassa … had come to believe instead that the country could do no more, having already fielded a larger proportion of its population (six percent of the population) than England, France and the United States.”[12] When it looked like it was a sure thing for the conscription bill to pass through the House of Commons, Bourassa and others tried to insist on a plebiscite to be help to determine the way the government would act. Bourassa

“believed that a direct popular vote was the best strategy to ensure social peace and order, and, more importantly, to rebuild national unity on a fresh basis. He wagered that ‘if conscription is accepted unreservedly by an absolute majority of all voters, French Canadians will accept it.’”[13]

We can see by what Bourassa says that he feels it is very important to maintain national unity, as well as his ability to accept conscription if it would increase the greater good. Bourassa also had to deal with the threat of violence in reaction to conscription in Quebec. Garth Stevenson writes “In Quebec mainstream nationalism after the Act of Union became closely associated with Catholicism, conservatism, and hostility to revolutionary violence.”[14] The question this quote raises is to what extent were the actions of the people of Quebec in response to the enforcement of conscription could be considered revolutionary violence. Bourassa encouraged a policy of non-action, and hoped that it would be enough, as he did not want to advocate unlawful actions.

The French public’s reaction to the Military Service Act has been labelled by some as the Easter Riots, which began on March 28th, 1918. The riots were started by the heavy handed enforcement of the MSA by two dominion police officers who arrested a young man when he was unable to produce his exemption certificate. [15] A large group of people, angry at the conduct of the police, followed the officers to the station, where they attacked the building and beat several officers. The next day rumours circulated that the rioters planned to attack government buildings. There was trouble at first getting an adequate response to the crowds, but by the second day of rioting the Canadian government had planned a response, Martin Auger writes “Borden decided to invoke the wide-ranging provisions of the War Measures Act … and declared that the federal government would now be in charge of the preservation of law and order in Quebec City.”[16] This lead to the deployment of Canadian soldiers to the streets of Quebec to restore order.

One way this was done was by sending English speaking soldiers from Ontario while keeping the French speaking soldiers in their barracks. The government was afraid that the French soldiers would join with the rioters and lead to even greater chaos, or possibly even revolution, as had just occurred in Russia. Auger gives other reasons why the government acted as swiftly as it did such as “the near collapse of Italy, and widespread mutinies in the French Army, to name but a few events that occurred in 1917, raised serious concerns about an Allied victory.”[17] There also was concerns from the English, that the people of Quebec could follow the Irish example and engage in an armed uprising. Another major concern was the different parts of the military-industrial complex which were in Quebec and necessary for the war effort to continue. Quebec housed “an important communication and transportation centre with dockyards and railway facilities, as well as vital telegraph and telephone lines connecting eastern and western Canada.”[18] as well as small arms factories and as well as important ship building infrastructure.

Quebec already had a recent history of terrorist activities, the dynamitards, who had blown up the residence of the owner of a pro-conscription newspaper. Auger writes that the “Canadian authorities then learned that the dynamitards planned to bomb other targets, including the Canadian Parliament, and to assassinate Prime Minister Borden and top government officials supporting conscription.”[19] This gave the government many different ideas of how the situation in Quebec could go wrong, and how catastrophic it could be. The Canadian government acted on the fears of what the Easter Riots could potentially become, instead of what actually was occurring. Examples of this can be found easily. One such case features fears of the mob gathering firearms and other weapons, the government ordered all hardware store owners “to move their firearms, ammunition, and explosives to safer locations, such as the Citadel, with the assistance of soldiers. About four hundred troops were used for that purpose that afternoon.”[20] The soldiers felt threatened and General Landry had his 980 soldiers “patroll the streets on foot, horseback, and in motorized vehicles, and stand guard at strategic locations. Machine guns were placed at several locations around the city, particularly near federal buildings.”[21]

The culmination of these events occurred on Monday, April 1st, when over a thousand soldiers from Ontario where on the streets of Quebec City. Before long, certain areas had too many people for the soldiers to control. They ordered the people to disperse, but the people then “reassembled and hurled stones, snowballs, ice, and bricks at the soldiers. Later, some armed rioters began shooting at the troops from rooftops, side streets, alleyways, snow banks, and other places of concealment.”[22] The soldiers opened fire with their weapons and the crowd then dispersed. Many rioters and soldiers were injured, with exact counts unknown. These events “marked the end of rioting in Quebec City. Overall, the Easter Riots caused more than 150 casualties and an estimated $300,000 worth of damage.”[23]

The end of the rioting, however did not lead directly to the English speaking soldiers leaving Quebec. The Government of Canada was nervous regarding the end of the violence, and many feared worse would happen, “including Prime Minister Borden, worried that the upheaval might signal the beginning of ‘unrest,’ ‘insurrection,’ ‘rebellion,’ and even ‘civil war’ in Quebec. Accordingly, Borden firmly supported a strong military intervention.”[24] This led to the introduction of the War Measures Act, which enabled the government to legalize the use of the military to stop any riot or insurrection which took place, it allowed for martial law to be imposed in the affected area, and finally it suspended habeas corpus rights. “declaring that any person captured, arrested, or taken into military custody for participating in any riot or insurrection would be detained without bail until released by direction of the minister of militia and defence.”[25] English soldiers would be in Quebec until the end of the war, as the Borden government could not let go of their fears that the violence in Quebec was not over.

By the time the war was over, Henri Bourassa’s vision of Canadian nationalism had been totally shattered. The greater two requirements of Bourassa’s nationalism, its anti-imperialism and idea of a French-English Canada, were shown to be totally disregarded by the federal Unionist government. The Unionists not only blatantly participated in England’s imperialist war, they had done so with a gusto, even going as far as to chastise Quebec for not matching its volunteer rate. The Unionist government also engaged in the war without any of the guarantees which Bourassa wanted from England, such as a formal recognition of Canada’s independent role.
More importantly however, it destroyed any chance of the French and English being equal partners in Canada. The government had shown that it could run the country with enough votes from English Canada that French Canada could be discarded if it did not agree. Bourassa believed that by having the Canadian national identity be based around being both French and English was the only way to protect Canadian culture from being subsumed by the United States of America. English Canada alone either might not resist the American culture enough to stay independent or be strong enough to resist. The change in language laws in provinces like Ontario and Manitoba signalled to the French Canadians that their language and culture was not welcome in the western provinces, which left them only with Quebec. This helps explain the shift from French Canadian nationalism to Québécois nationalism, as outside of their own province they had no real say in how things were governed. The Federal government, from the Québécois perspective, always ends with the English triumphing over the French everywhere expect Quebec, and so Quebec must be protected.

Henri Bourassa’s Canadian Nationalism offers a chance to see how French Canadians saw their place in Canada at the beginning of the twentieth century and why it changed from French Canadian to Québécois in nature. Bourassa’s policies of anti-imperialism, French-Catholic settlements throughout Canada creating a harmony between peoples, and his idea of slowing urban industrial growth were all shown to come up short. Canada gained its independence through engaging in England’s imperialist war, and the urbanization of Quebec as inevitable. Bourassa’s idea of a more harmonious Canada, which is French and English in every province represented a way for Canada to include the French Canadians as equal partners in our country, and had policies along this line been followed, then there is a chance that Quebec would not want to separate from Canada. It is too late for this policy to work, but the encouragement of greater bilingualism may help reach some of the desired effect. Henri Bourassa would want to be remembered not as a Québécois, or a French Canadian, but simply as a Canadian.


[1] O’Connell, M.P.. “The Ideas of Henri Bourassa.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science / Revue canadienne d’Economique et de Science politique 19, no. 3 (1953): 361

[2] O’Connell, M.P.. “The Ideas of Henri Bourassa.” 361

[3] O’Connell, M.P.. “The Ideas of Henri Bourassa.” 362

[4] O’Connell, M.P.. “The Ideas of Henri Bourassa.” 362

[5] O’Connell, M.P.. “The Ideas of Henri Bourassa.” 363

[6] O’Connell, M.P.. “The Ideas of Henri Bourassa.” 372

[7] Bothwell, Robert. Canada and Quebec: One Country Two Histories. 2 ed. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998. 55

[8] Bothwell, Robert. Canada and Quebec: One Country Two Histories. 55

[9] O’Connell, M.P.. “The Ideas of Henri Bourassa.” 375

[10] Porritt, Edward. “The Coalition Government at Ottawa.” The American Political Science Review 12, no. 3 (1918): 504

[11] Richard, Béatrice. “Henri Bourassa and Conscription: Traitor or Saviour?.” Canadian Military Journal 7, no. 4 (2006): 76

[12] Richard, Béatrice. “Henri Bourassa and Conscription: Traitor or Saviour?.” 78

[13] Richard, Béatrice. “Henri Bourassa and Conscription: Traitor or Saviour?.” 78

[14] Stevenson, Garth. “The Politics of Remembrance in Irish and Quebec Nationalism  .” Canadian Journal of Political Science 37, no. 4 (2004): 914

[15] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” Canadian Historical Review 89, no. 4 (2008): 508

[16] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 511

[17] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 512

[18] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 512

[19] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 507

[20] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 517

[21] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 517

[22] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 518

[23] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 520

[24] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 524

[25] Auger, Martin. “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots.” 525-526

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