By The Canadian Press on April 18, 2017.
MONTREAL – Canadian mythology suggests the country earned its sovereignty from the British Crown in the First World War, after legions of soldiers from Victoria to Charlottetown gallantly stormed German defences along the Western Front and were instrumental in the Allied cause.
But as Canadians were fighting the Germans, back home the country was at war with itself.
Because for the first time since Confederation, Quebec politicians were explicitly suggesting French-Canadians might be better off alone.
“One can say 1917 was a turning point,” said University of Ottawa historian Pierre Anctil. “It instilled a sense of suspicion and distance. And I think it did irreparable damage.”
Before the two independence referendums of the ’80s and ’90s that nearly tore the country apart, there was the 1917-18 conscription crisis.
Historians warn against drawing direct lines between that time and Quebec’s independence movement, which began in the ’60s and still affects Canadian politics.
But historians also say these 100-year-old events made many Quebecers collectively recognize they would always be a minority within Canada — and, as such, alone in defending their cultural and linguistic rights.
Quebecers at the time were also regularly subjected to hostility and outright hatred in the Canadian media.
“They were cowards, traitors — probably German agents,” McGill University military historian Desmond Morton said, referring to English Canada’s view of francophone Quebecers, who were largely against sending their young men to die in Europe for the empire.
“In the eyes of Anglo Montreal and the rest of Canada, (French-Canadians) were worthless and evil.”
When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Canada was automatically at war, as a dominion of the British Crown. Thousands of young Canadians — many of them born in the UK — volunteered to fight.
The opposite was true in Quebec, where French-Canadians had no loyalty to the British and saw themselves as living in a sovereign country that wasn’t necessarily subservient to London.
Volunteer conscripts had success in the early years of the war, but the victories were costly.
Canada suffered more than 10,000 casualties at Vimy in 1917, and 24,700 Canadians and Newfoundlanders died or were wounded in the Somme.
“In 1917, the war was far from won,” said military historian Carl Pepin. “And the front was atrocious.”
These losses were not sustainable — especially with a volunteer war effort back home and dwindling enlistment.
In May that year, prime minister Robert Borden returned to Canada from Europe and decided the country couldn’t replenish the depleted battle lines without conscription.
By late summer the Military Service Act was law and all men between 20 and 45 were called to arms.
Borden’s decision would unleash one of the biggest crises in Canadian history, which would end with four men shot dead in the streets of Quebec City.
Regulation 17 and the Francoeur motion
Just like so many conflicts in Canada, the conscription crisis has its roots in a language dispute.
In 1912, the Ontario government decided to restrict the teaching of French in the first two years of school. The government cited a report claiming the bilingual schools in the province were performing poorly.
Quebecers — and their leaders — saw this as a direct assault on all French-Canadians, who were a growing minority in the anglophone province at the time.
“In the largest and the wealthiest province there was no tolerance for a French minority,” said Anctil. “And if there was no tolerance for a French minority in Ontario, where would there be?
“It was something the French-Canadians observed and internalized. And they developed, in large part, to count only on the forces of Quebec for their own survival.
Out of this, much later, in the ’60s and ’70s, came the sovereigntist movement.”
A major reason the desire to fight was less than tepid in Quebec can be traced back to Regulation 17, according to historians.
Public intellectuals in Quebec at the time, such as Henri Bourassa, came out strongly against the Ontario government in the schools battle.
Pepin said Bourassa had written in 1915, “Why go and get killed by Prussians in Europe when we are being persecuted right here by the Prussians in Ontario?”
And while the concept of Quebec independence didn’t exist in 1917, historians still see the beginnings of a burgeoning movement to defend the rights of francophones against an indifferent and sometimes hostile English Canada.
Shortly after the 1917 federal election, a member of the Quebec legislature, Joseph-Napoleon Francoeur, introduced a controversial motion.
“That this chamber is of the opinion that the province of Quebec should accept the rupture of the federal pact of 1867 if, in the other provinces, it is believed that Quebec is an obstacle to the union, to progress, and to the development of Canada.”
University of Ottawa historian Serge Durflinger says the Francoeur motion “is a symbol of a sentiment that existed more widely than we might expect.”
“For someone to say that in the legislature, it’s because there is an underlying and deep-rooted animosity that clearly indicates Confederation will always be the majority imposing its will against the minority,” he said.
The motion was eventually rescinded, but the point was made, and historians say that was likely the first time the issue of Quebec separation was formally and explicitly brought up by politicians.
Proud but ignored military history
Another major consequence of the conscription crisis is reflected in the current attitudes of Quebecers toward war and their own military history, argues Morton.
In September 1916, during the five-month mass slaughter that became known as the Battle of the Somme, a battalion of French-Canadians in the northern French village of Courcelette helped change the course of the war.
Most Quebecers have likely never heard of the word “Courcelette,” Morton said.
“It’s a military history of which anybody else would be proud,” he says, yet Quebecers are reticent to celebrate their bravery in the Great War and in subsequent conflicts.
Morton argues French-Canadians helped win the war for the Allies.
“Because they discovered, under their colonel, how to attack,” he said. “The key feature is — a bit like hockey — you don’t give a damn about people being killed, you just keep on plugging.”
Morton says British commander Douglas Haig “noticed the one success he had that day was when the French-Canadian battalion, the Royal 22nd Regiment, had performed.”
“Therefore, the Canadians would be allowed to have a try at Vimy Ridge.”
Universite de Montreal historian Carl Bouchard said Quebecers often speak of the First World War as “the forgotten war.”
Canadians, however, appreciate the Great War as a time of military triumph, where the country “was born and when Canada opened up to the world and started to develop.”
He said that narrative alienates Quebecers.
“As long as WW1 is seen as glorious in Canada, Quebecers won’t see themselves in it,” he said.
The Easter riots
Twenty-three-year old Joseph Mercier was hanging out with his friend Alfred Deslauriers at a bowling alley in Quebec City’s Saint-Roch district, on Holy Thursday, March 28, 1918.
Not far away were three members of the Dominion Police, officers named Plamondon, Eventurel and a man called Belanger — who would end his night with a fractured skull.
These police, described by newspapers at the time as “federal detectives,” were unaffectionately known to the public as “spotters” — men who would rough up anyone caught without conscription exemption papers.
Pepin said the police force was composed of often poorly trained men who committed abuses in their zeal to catch war dodgers.
“They were essentially given carte blanche across Canada to try and find people evading the draft,” he said.
Mercier was among the 90 per cent of Quebecers of fighting age to receive an exemption from the meat grinder in Europe, but his card was at home that night.
When Mercier couldn’t show his papers, the officers reportedly arrested him aggressively.
News reports say Mercier’s friend ran home to get his precious exemption card, which eventually secured his release, but it was too late.
Angered by the arrest, a crowd of thousands had gathered outside the police station and started to throw projectiles at the building.
“The mob badly damaged the police station,” read a report in the Montreal Gazette a day after the violence. “Plamondon was caught by the crowd … and the unfortunate officer was dragged all over the streets and roughly handled.”
On Good Friday, about 3,000 people gathered in the early evening in the Saint-Roch district. They sang “O Canada,” which was to become the national anthem but at the time was a patriotic hymn for French-Canadians.
By nighttime there were more than 10,000 people on the streets and they set fire to the auditorium, a Beaux Arts-style building in the old quarter that at the time housed the records of those who had registered for the war.
On the third day protesters attacked the Quebec City Armoury with rocks and pieces of ice.
Thousands of soldiers arrived from Toronto and Winnipeg on Easter Sunday, which only served to further provoke citizens.
Quebec City mayor Henri-Edgar Lavigueur, faced with what the Gazette reported as “the absolute breakdown of the civil machinery, largely due to the indifference or cowardice” of the police, called in the military to defend the town.
On Easter Monday, April 1, 1918, newspapers reported a thick fog hung over Quebec City.
Historian Jean Provencher, in his seminal book on the riots, published parts of the coroner’s report into the violence.
The coroner’s inquest was told soldiers reportedly told the crowd, “Come on you French sons of bitches! We’ll trim you.”
The Canadian Press reported that from 8:30 p.m. to midnight, “snipers fired revolvers haphazard at the military from doorways and snowbanks.”
Soldiers responded with fire from Lewis guns, a type of machine-gun used in the European war theatre.
When it was over four men were dead: Honore Bergeron, 49, Alexandre Bussieres, 25, George Demeule, 14, and Joseph-Edouard Tremblay, 23.
Morton says the conscription crisis and the Great War didn’t just spur sovereigntist sentiment in Quebecers — but in all of Canada.
“One of the outcomes of the war is a disenchantment with Britain and a desire to be self-governing,” he said. “Many people in Ontario before the war would say they were proud to be British. You don’t hear so much of that anymore.”
You must be logged in to post a comment.