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Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada

II: Setting the Scene: Laurier House and Canada during the Two World Wars

Though its yellow brick walls and emerald trim presents a cheerful façade to the street, the house at 335 Laurier Avenue has known darker days. Twice during the past century it served as the theatre for some of the most agonizing decisions of war-torn Canada.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier and his wife Lady Zoé Laurier occupied the house from 1897 to 1921, both during his years as Prime Minister (1896-1911) as well as during his years in Opposition (1911-1919). The Laurier period was one of tremendous prosperity, marked by urban and industrial expansion, the addition of two new provinces and the arrival of nearly two million immigrants. Sir Wilfrid's years in Opposition proved no less eventful, as he had to contend with his own declining health and the political problems arising from the tumultuous events of the Great War (1914-1918).
In 1916, the heavy volume of allied losses on the Western Front raised the question of reinforcements. Prime Minister Robert Borden, returning from a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet in London, and fresh from a tour of conditions at the front, was resolved to introduce obligatory military service. From the beginning, recruitment had been slower in Québec, where the population felt no particular attachment to France and only a passive loyalty to the British Crown. Many French-Canadians did not feel this to be their war. To this was added the resentment Franco-Ontarians felt about Regulation 17, a provincial law that restricted the teaching of French in the province. Laurier, the great conciliator, spoke of duty at recruiting rallies in Quebec, and preached mutual understanding and bilingual instruction in the Commons. Sir Wilfrid Laurier opposed conscription, as he felt it would rent the fragile fabric of biculturalism. Borden was adamant and offered Sir Wilfrid the possibility of participation in a coalition government, whose purpose would be to pass and enforce Conscription. Laurier refused, but some of his own members supported conscription and the divisions in the Liberal Party mirrored the divisions in the country as a whole. The bitter debate carried on in both the House of Commons and the newspapers of Québec, where Henri Bourassa's Nationalist Le Devoir kept up a strong anti-conscription campaign. In spite of this controversy The Military service act passed into law on August 29th, 1917.

The lessons of this first crisis stayed with one particular Liberal by the name of Mackenzie King. A supporter of Laurier during the upheaval of 1917, Mackenzie King became leader of the Liberal Party in 1919. He inherited Laurier House from Lady Laurier in 1921, and became Prime Minister the same year. Prime Minister for nearly 21 years (1921-1930 and 1935-1948) his years in office spanned the prosperity of the twenties, the Depression and the Second World War (1939-1945). At the outset of the war, Mackenzie King had promised to avoid Conscription. In 1942, the situation in Europe became so dire that Mackenzie King was obliged to hold a referendum on the question of conscription. English Canada voted for it, and Quebec came out against it. King delayed the application of conscription and appointed General McNaughton, hero of the First World War, to launch a massive recruitment campaign. The campaign failed to bring in the necessary numbers. To this distress result was added the desperate need for reinforcements in Normandy. Mackenzie King, unable to do anything else, finally applied conscription in November of 1944.

(written by A. Raymond, Guide-Interpreter, Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada)

Sources for this account

J. Granatstein on "Conscription" in The Canadian Encyclopedia: Volume I. Edmonton, Hurting Publishers, 1988.

Joseph Schull's Laurier: The first Canadian. Toronto, MacMillan, 1965.

Oscar Douglas Skelton. The life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1921.

J.W. Pickersgill and D.F. Forster. The Mackenzie King Record, 1939-1948, Volume I trough IV. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1960-1970.

Chapter entitled "William Lyon Mackenzie King" in Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1999.

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