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Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada

III: Figuring out the Facts: Readings:

1) Letter from Laurier to Rowell, Liberal Leader in Ontario
A Sad Meeting
Prime Minister Mackenzie King's Diary
King and Conscription: A Later Day Assessment

1) Letter from Laurier to Rowell, Liberal Leader in Ontario

The following is an extract of a letter from Sir Wilfrid Laurier to Mr. N.W. Rowell, Leader of the Liberal Opposition in Ontario, written on June 3rd, 1917, during the negotiations concerning a possible coalition government.

My Dear Rowell,

.....You will tell me, why should I not agree to Conscription?
Here are my reasons.
The people, I have no doubt, can be reconciled to the sacrifice, here as elsewhere, if they are properly educated to it. It is not only the people of Quebec who are opposed to conscription, but my correspondence satisfies me that in every other province there is amongst the masses an undercurrent [indicating] that they will be sore and bitter if at the present moment a conscription law is forced upon them. Remember that from the beginning of the war, though the Prime Minister, the government affirmed and re-affirmed that there would be no conscription; and one of the ministers, Mr.Crothers, if I mistake not, stated with the elegance peculiar to him that any such statement was a "Grit lie". To have all of a sudden, without preparation, without a word of warning, launched the policy of conscription was, you will admit, with me, a singular want of foresight on the part of the government. This is the general idea. Now as to my own self...
When I introduced the Naval Policy, with the full approval of the Conservative Party, as you will remember, I was assailed, viciously assailed by the Nationalists of Quebec that this Canadian navy-Canadian in peace time, Imperial in war time-was nothing short of a national crime (...) that it was the first step to conscription. (...) I had to face the issue, and faced it stating (...) that Canada was free country and might if it so chose, fight for England, as in certain circumstances it certainly would, that the navy was in no sense a first step towards conscription; that enlistment for the naval service would be voluntary, as enlistment for land service. I fought the issue on those lines, always protesting that I was against conscription.
Now if I were to waver, to hesitate or to flinch, I would simply hand over the province of Quebec to the extremists. I would lose the respect of the people whom I thus addressed, and would deserve it. I would lose not only their respect but my own self-respect also (...)
The only solution seems to me this: have an appeal to the people, have it right away, either in the form of a referendum or an election..."

(Taken from Oscar Douglas Skelton's The life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Volume II. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1921.)


  1. What is Laurier's position on conscription?
  2. What reasons does he offer for this stand? One historical issue in particular allows him to defend the integrity of his position. What is it? Where did Laurier stand then, and how does this compare with his stand in the conscription crisis of 1917?
  3. What is Laurier's solution to the political impasse surrounding conscription?

2) A Sad Meeting

On August 29th, 1917, after much debate, the Military Service Act passed into law. In the fall of 1917, a general election confirmed the mandate of the Pro-Conscription Union Government comprised by Robert Borden's Conservatives and the Pro-Conscription Liberals. If the Nationalist forces backing Henri Bourassa suffered a major defeat, the blow was all the more crushing to the moderate forces marshaled by Laurier. As his biographer Joseph Schull recounts, the Old Chief never quite recovered from the blow.

"On the morning of October 18th, Laurier stepped out to his veranda in the brisk autumn sunshine. A flurry of aides withdrew into the shadows of the doorway as a streetcar stopped at the corner. Bourassa got down, turned into the walk, and climbed the steps. It was confrontation again, a meeting carefully maneuvered by his own friends and Laurier's. As the old man's pale, veined hand went to each of his shoulders, Bourassa stood for a moment looking up. He himself was grey-haired now, a man who took streetcars because he could not afford automobiles, a man of forty-nine with nowhere else to go. "Bourassa is a man of great ability, but his ability is negative and destructive. He will never accomplish anything constructive or of benefit to any cause he may espouse." Laurier had written the words not a year before. They counted for little ugly accumulations of a hundred and fifty years, prejudice, privilege, hostile power and greed. There was still nobility in his dreams and detestations, he was still of the heart's blood. The two turned in at the doorway and climbed the stairs together. For the first time in almost ten years, they stood facing each other in the study. Nothing was forced between them, nothing was lacking in warmth, nothing was left undone to assuage wounded pride. Nothing remained at the end but to complete the rift in the country. For the benefit of the English, Bourassa promised with a smile, he could still throw a few boots' at Laurier. They would not hurt and they would not help. He was an ally now in Quebec where none was needed. He was an albatross through all of English Canada.

Bourassa went and collapse came to Laurier..."

(taken from Joseph Schull's Laurier: The First Canadian Toronto, Macmillan, 1965.)


  1. Are the two enemies reconciled? What unites the nationalist Bourassa and the moderate Laurier?

3) Prime Minister Mackenzie King's Diary

Taken from the entry for January 6th, 1942. On that day, he had given a speech to his cabinet reaffirming the government stand against conscription for overseas service. These paragraphs represent Prime Minister King's perspective on the discussions that followed his speech.

"Ralston then...said that he was prepared to take his stand against conscription on the score that it would divide the country and might impair our war effort in that way. He added that he had already stated that twice and thought he was the only member of the Cabinet who had said publicly a word to that effect. McDonald (Minister of Naval Services) also said that he was prepared to oppose conscription on the score that it would divide the country. Neither of them, however, wished to be committed to the Government's not having the power at any time to advocate conscription if they believed the necessity had arisen...

Ralston did say he hoped he would not have to be put in the position of being a follower of Meighen (the Leader of the Opposition). Seeing the position as King or Meighen, puts everyone in a spot in regard to their support. I took the view that every member of the Cabinet, except the last two (St-Laurent and Mitchell) came into a government which was committed to no conscription for overseas."

(From the Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King, as quoted in the Jack Pickersgill's The Mackenzie King Record. Volume I: 1939-1944. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960.


  1. Does Mackenzie King's position on conscription appear to be an intractable one? What signs are there that circumstances might alter his stand?
  2. What lesson has he learned from Sir Wilfrid Laurier's experience with the same issue?
  3. Which ministers dissent from the official position on conscription and why? Why is this a delicate stand to be taking?

4) King and Conscription: A Later Day Assessment

"The war was now a total struggle for survival. If Britain fell, if the Royal Navy came under Hitler's control, North America was open to attack. That didn't happen, but the North Atlantic became a hunting ground for Nazi U-boats and there were sinkings in the St-Lawrence. The situation was grave and King's government abandoned limited liability. There would be a vastly expanded Air Training Plan that eventually produced 131,000 aircrew, a large navy that played an increasingly important role in the North Atlantic convoy war, and a bigger army than in the Great War.

Britain's peril also emboldened the conscriptionists in the country and Cabinet, and King fought a long rearguard action to stave off the inevitable. The first concession came when the National Resources Mobilization Act of June 1940 authorized home defense conscription for thirty days, a term that over time, stretched to cover the war duration. In November 1941, a conservative meeting made Meighen the party leader once again, and the conscription tom-toms began to beat insistently. King countered with a plebiscite that without mentioning the word conscription, asked for release from the government's pledges of 1939-1940. The government won, though French Canadians voted heavily non. The NRMA was duly amended, but its King's pledge that the change meant "not necessarily conscription, but conscription is necessary", the classic embodiment of Kingian ambiguity. Defense minister J.L. Ralston almost resigned and one Quebec minister did so, but King held the party together until heavy infantry casualties in Italy and Normandy created a reinforcement crisis in the autumn of 1944.
King had almost managed to avoid conscription through brilliant delaying tactics. Now he demonstrated he could move decisively: desperate to keep the country united with the war almost won, King ruthlessly sacked Ralston and appointed General Arthur McNaughton, the former commander of the First Canadian army overseas, to take his place. McNaughton tried but failed to persuade home defense conscripts to volunteer for the front and, after an agonizing three weeks, King reversed course and ordered 16,000 conscripts overseas. Quebec reeled, but King prevailed in the House of Commons: "If there is anything to which I have devoted my political life, it is to try to promote unity, harmony and amity between the diverse elements of this country," he said in a great speech. "My friends can desert me, they can remove their confidence from me, they can withdraw the trust that they placed in my hands, but never shall I deviate from that line of policy... I feel that I am in the right, and I know that a time will come when every man will render me full justice on that score." Influenced by Quebec lieutenant Louis Saint-Laurent, who calmly accepted the need for conscription, Quebecois eventually concluded King had done his best to hold off compulsory service."

(Taken from the chapter entitled "William Lyon Mackenzie King" in Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer. Toronto: Harper Collins 1999. P.95-96)


  1. What circumstances caused the conscriptionists to put more pressure on the federal government?
  2. What was the result of the government plebiscite on conscription? What events were triggered by this vote? In light of these circumstances what did Prime Minister King decide to do?
  3. Describe the events of 1944 and explain how they contrived to precipitate the application of conscription?