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Conscription and the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots

For the week of Monday, March 30, 2015

On April 1, 1918, the Quebec Easter riots came to an abrupt end. Soldiers dispersed a mob from the streets of Québec City after three days of protests against Prime Minister Robert Borden’s decision to enforce conscription during the First World War. Conscription meant that all eligible Canadian men could be drafted for compulsory military service. Disagreement came from across Canada, but in Quebec opposition had the support of civic leaders.

Protesters holding a peaceful anti-conscription parade in Victoria Square, Montreal, on May 24, 1917
© Library and Archives Canada / C-006859

Borden initially promised to avoid conscription, but by 1917, recruitment efforts had stalled. The number of casualties in the trenches of Europe exceeded the number of men who were voluntarily enlisting. After visiting Canadian soldiers in more than 50 military hospitals during a wartime trip to Britain, Borden became convinced that conscription was necessary. In August 1917, conscription became law with the Military Service Act. It was immediately controversial and it divided the nation. While some supported conscription, many across the country did not, including farmers, labourers, and conscientious objectors. Most of the opposition came from Quebec on the grounds that Canada was sacrificing its men for Britain’s war and interests. Claims for exemption were made in each province, but more were granted in Quebec. Henri Bourassa, a Quebec politician and journalist, and Wilfrid Laurier, the first Francophone Prime Minister of Canada (1896-1911) and the leader of the Opposition during the First World War, disagreed with Borden’s decision and pushed for a country-wide referendum.

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French-Canadian officers of the 22e Battalion, c. 1914-1919
© Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022751

On March 28, 1918, a small crowd in Québec City protested the arrest of a man under the Military Service Act. By the next day, this escalated into a full riot. The growing mob destroyed property, looted buildings, and attacked police officers. Tensions peaked and by April 1, the riot had turned bloody. Borden, worried that this would spark anti-conscription rebellions elsewhere, ordered suppression using military force. Troops were told to open fire on the mob, which brought an immediate end to the demonstration. Dozens of citizens were injured, with four fatalities. Fearing resurgence, Borden maintained pressure on Quebec by making organizations that he saw as subversive illegal.

In the end, thousands of French-Canadians fought in the war. The French-Canadian 22e Battalion, formed from volunteers in 1914, fought at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, and elsewhere. In June 1921, it was granted the title "Royal" by King George V in recognition of its feats. In 1928, it was given the French name it now bears, the Royal 22e Régiment.

Vimy Ridge is a National Historic Site in France and the Battle of Passchendaele is an Event of National Historic Significance. Sir Robert Borden is a Person of National Historic Significance.

This is the second year of the centennial anniversary of the First World War! To learn more about Canada’s contributions in the First World War, please read August 1914: Canada Prepares for War and United at Vimy Ridge. To read more on Borden, click Defending our Nation: Sir Robert Laird Borden in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. Also, click here to learn about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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