Chantier Politique

March 28, 2018

English Edition, No. 5

100th Anniversary of Demonstrations Against Conscription in Quebec

Not A Single Youth for Imperialist War!
Make Quebec a Zone of Peace!


The Canadian state sends thousands of soldiers to quell the anti-conscription protests in Quebec City, April 1, 1918. They open fire on protestors, killing five people.


100th Anniversary of Demonstrations Against Conscription in Quebec
Not A Single Youth for Imperialist War! Make Quebec a Zone of Peace!
March 28, 1918: Anti-Conscription Protests in Quebec
- Geneviève Royer -


100th Anniversary of Demonstrations Against Conscription in Quebec

Not A Single Youth for Imperialist War!
Make Quebec a Zone of Peace!

March 28, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the anti-conscription protests in Quebec at the time of World War I. The anti-conscription movement in Quebec expressed the staunch opposition of the Quebec people to war and empire. The First World War was a war of division between the empires of the day to secure sources of raw materials, cheap labour, zones for the export of capital and strategic influence. It was an imperialist slaughterhouse that the ruling elite of today in Canada and Quebec still describe as a defining moment for Canada's "coming of age."

The people of Quebec have consistently expressed their peace-loving credentials. This has found expression many times, amongst others during the 1960s against the Vietnam War and in recent decades against invasions and attempts at regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as well as Syria. Today, Canada uses Quebec as a base to train soldiers for war. It is being integrated into the U.S. imperialist war machine and its aggressive aims at an ever-increasing pace. As a member of NATO and NORAD, it is actively involved in ground, sea and aerial military exercises in various parts of the world in the service of that war machine. Its military propaganda and recruiting activities are being stepped up daily, with the military virtually being portrayed as a humanitarian aid group -- alongside so-called Canadian values -- to recruit our youth as cannon fodder for aggressive aims. To further this agenda, the Canadian government is preparing to resort to its police powers to brand opposition to war and aggressive alliances like NATO as a threat to national security. This must not pass!

On the occasion of this 100th anniversary of the anti-conscription protests, Chantier politique is publishing an article by Geneviève Royer on the 1918 protests. Chantier politique calls on the people to take up the slogans that express the deep aspirations of the people to make their contribution to peace in the world and oppose all participation in wars of aggression, occupation and threats against the sovereignty of the peoples: Not a single youth for imperialist war! Make Quebec a zone of peace!

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March 28, 1918:
Anti-Conscription Protests in Quebec

The end of March and beginning of April this year mark the 100th anniversary of the militant protests by Quebeckers against attempts by the Canadian government to use its police powers to impose conscription on the working people and youth of Canada and Quebec in the First World War.

Within the conditions of the day, the ruling elite in Canada found a wall of resistance among the working people of Quebec to being forcibly sent to war. The aspirations of the Québécois for nationhood had been put down prior to Confederation through force of British arms. Along with the subjugation of the Indigenous peoples and by subjugating the settlers in Upper Canada, the basis was laid for the establishment of an Anglo-Canadian state and Confederation. It is not hard to imagine that the Quebec working class would not look favourably on being mowed down on the battlefields of Europe in the service of the British Empire.


Demonstration against conscription in Square-Victoria in Montreal on May 17, 1917

Canada's Entry into the War

In August 1914, Britain declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Canada, as a dominion of the British Empire, was automatically bound to take part.

Robert Laird Borden, then Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, was eager to participate in the war. By Sunday, August 9, 1914, the basic orders-in-council had been proclaimed, and a war session of parliament opened just two weeks after the conflict began. Legislation was quickly passed to secure the country's financial institutions and raise tariff duties on some high-demand consumer items. The War Measures Bill, giving the government extraordinary powers of coercion over Canadians, was rushed through three readings.[1]

Businessman William Price (of the Price Brothers and Company -- predecessor of Resolute Forest Products) was mandated to create a training camp at Valcartier, near Quebec City. Some 126 farms were expropriated to expand the camp's area to 12,428 acres (50 square km). "From the start of the conflict, a range of 1,500 targets was built, including shelters, firing positions and signs, making it the largest and most successful shooting range in the world on August 22, 1914. The camp housed 33,644 men in 1914."[2] At the time Valcartier was the largest military base in Canada.


Examples of the Canadian state's maladroit Anglo-Canadian chauvinist attempts to recruit Quebeckers to its unjust cause of imperialist war, exhorting them to enlist on the basis of loyalty to the old colonial power, France; opposition to tyranny by supporting the new colonial power, Britain; or protecting themselves from foreign invasion.

The number of volunteers continuously declined with the growing refusal to serve as cannon fodder for imperialist powers and as a result of the profound impact of the war efforts on the country's economy. The threat of compulsory military service hung over the country. The people of Quebec, expressing their anti-war sentiment, were at the forefront of the opposition to conscription. The Canadian establishment at the time blamed Quebeckers for the "the lack of French-Canadian participation in the war."[3]

By 1917, the lack of enthusiasm for the war was such that the government resorted to conscription of soldiers. On August 29, 1917, the Act Respecting Military Service was passed. It stipulated that "All the male inhabitants of Canada, of the age of eighteen years and upwards, and under sixty, not exempt or disqualified by law, and being British subjects, shall be liable to service in the Militia: Provided that the Governor General may require all the male inhabitants of Canada, capable of bearing arms, to serve in the case of a levée en masse."

War Measures Act Imposed

In Quebec, demonstrations in opposition to conscription intensified. Dominion agents, known as "spotters," tracked down men who refused to sign up. Professor Béatrice Richard at Royal Military College Saint-Jean writes of these press gangs: "These agents had the reputation of being thugs in the employ of the federal government and were more interested in filling their pockets -- at a premium of $10 per refractory captured -- than enforcing the law."[4] Every arrest further inflamed the people's anger. Quebec historian Jean Provencher writes that some young Quebeckers, whose applications for exemption were pending in court were "kidnapped in the street, and it took parents a week to learn that they were sent to the European battlefields."[5]

On the evening of March 28, 1918, federal police raided a bowling alley and arrested the youth there. Faced with the arbitrariness and violence of the police, 3,000 people besieged the police station and continued their demonstration in the streets during the night.

The next day, a crowd of nearly 10,000 gathered in front of the Place Montcalm auditorium (currently called Capitole de Quebec), where the conscripts' files were administered. The military, with bayonets and cannons, were called in and shortly thereafter the riot act was read, giving them permission to fire.


Thousands of demonstrators march to Place Montcalm on March 29, 1918

The next day, "General Landry received from Ottawa the directives he expected: the army will now have full powers to enforce law and order in Quebec City. [...] In concrete terms, this meant that public security would no longer come under the municipal authorities, as the police were now subject to military authority."[6] The demonstrations continued anyway and on March 31, demonstrators suffered gunshot wounds.

Borden, obsessed with sending Canadians to the trenches, gave special powers "with special instructions to quell unrest." Trains jammed with soldiers were hustled to Quebec City. For two days, between March 31 and April 1, no less than 10,000 men from Ontario and Manitoba converged on the capital.[7] The people confronted the army, not hesitating to surround the soldiers and chase them. Each time a demonstration was dispersed, it reassembled a few streets away.

On Monday, April 1, the military received the following instructions:

1. Any gathering is forbidden

2. Anyone who does not obey can be arrested on the spot

3. Soldiers can use any force necessary to make arrests.[8]

That same day, four civilians were killed. More than 50 were wounded and about 60 arrests were made.


Victims of the Canadian state's deadly criminalization of dissent against conscription in 
Quebec City on April 1, 1918.

On April 4, martial law was imposed on Quebec City under the War Measures Act. It legalized all intervention of the federal army "on or after the 28th day of March."[9]

Borden maintained the pressure on Quebec to crush the resistance to conscription. He also sought to prevent any risk of "revolutionary contagion." To that end, Ottawa made any association deemed subversive, be it trade union or political, illegal.[10]


March 21, 2018 - Members of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Québec commemorated those killed 100 years ago during the demonstrations against conscription at a monument in their honour.

The "conscription crisis" ended when the war itself was brought to an end on November 18, 1918. But before it was over, the unscrupulous sums being reaped by the rich from the war became so prevalent that Borden "had to fire his Minister of Militia and Defence, and deal with scandals involving graft and wartime profiteering."[11] The opposition of the people to the war was such that the Conservative Party "was wiped out for decades to come in the province of Quebec."[12]

Quebeckers' have expressed their opposition to imperialist aggression and war for the past more than 100 years. Today, every attempt is made to undermine their anti-war sentiment and movement with neo-liberal sophistry which claims humanitarian aims and the highest ideals such as defence of women's rights. The slogan guiding our people continues to be: Not a Single Youth for Imperialist War!

Notes

1. "Sir Robert Laird Borden," greatwaralbum.ca.

2. "Les débuts du camp de Valcartier et d'une armée improvisée de toutes pièces," Pierre Vennat, Le Québec et les guerres mondiales, December 17, 2011.

3. "The First World War," Sean Mills (under the direction of Brian Young, McGill University), McCord Museum website.

4. "Le 1er avril 1918 -- Émeute à Québec contre la conscription: résistance politique ou culturelle ?," Conférence de Béatrice Richard, professeur agrégé, directrice du département des Humanités et des sciences sociales au Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean, January 31, 2013.

5. Jean Provencher, Québec sous la loi des mesures de guerre -- 1918, Editions Lux, 2014.

6. "Le 1er avril 1918 -- Émeute à Québec contre la conscription: résistance politique ou culturelle ?," Conférence de Béatrice Richard, professeur agrégé, directrice du département des Humanités et des sciences sociales au Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean, January 31, 2013.

7. Ibid.

8. Jean Provencher, Québec sous la loi des mesures de guerre -- 1918, Editions Lux, 2014.

9. Ibid.

10. "Les débuts du camp de Valcartier et d'une armée improvisée de toutes pièces," Pierre Vennat, Le Québec et les guerres mondiales, 17 décembre 2011.

11. "Biography: The Right Honourable Sir Robert Laird Borden," Library and Archives Canada.

12. Biographical Dictionary of Canada.

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