Whenever we Canadians think of grand scale referendums, or in reality – plebiscites, inevitably most of us muse upon recent history and the two failed popular consultations on Quebec independence. The first of these two was held in May of 1980 and consisted of an amazingly long, 106-word question that paradoxically avoided both the terms ‘independence’ and ‘country’. The second, conducted in October of 1995, was likewise circumspect yet equally unsuccessful, despite the closeness of the final tally.
Of course, other provincial polls have been conducted in Canada such as those held earlier this century in British Columbia, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island – all three of which dealt with one form or another of electoral reform.
Obviously, there have been plebiscites organized by the federal government as well. Three in particular come to mind. The national poll (excluding Quebec, which administered its own) arranged by Ottawa in October of 1992 in its search for approval of the Charlottetown Accord on the constitution. The clear rejection of this agreement, which ironically illustrates the dangers plebiscites sometimes pose for the politicians who call them, ultimately led to the resignation of the then prime minister, Brian Mulroney.
A much earlier public consultation took place in the late 19th century on the ever contentious issue in those days of prohibition. Six provinces (there were seven at the time) and one territory voted in favour of going ‘dry’ while Quebec overwhelmingly opposed the idea. Despite a slim overall victory for the prohibition forces, the Laurier government never acted on the question.
In so far as the third federal plebiscite is concerned, it took place exactly 75 years ago today and was perhaps as difficult an exercise for the country as any other electoral event before or after. The factious issue was that of compulsory national military service.
Initially, when the Canadian Parliament declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939, there was widespread support for the combat effort. Nevertheless, many citizens vividly recalled the deep divisions created in the country by the 1917 conscription crisis during the Great War. No one really wanted to repeat that unpleasant experience in another conflict. In fact, earlier in 1939, both major political parties committed themselves to fighting any future hostilities with volunteers only. However, the rapid defeat in 1940 of both Belgium and France unnerved many and made that earlier promise appear troublesome.
By 1942, owing to the second great war showing no sign of coming to a quick end, ungrudging volunteers had begun to dwindle in number. With the bloody struggle in a critical stage, the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King found itself under increasing pressure to introduce mandatory military service to bolster Canada’s engagement on the various fields of battle.
Accordingly, King, the consummate procrastinator, devised a scheme to buy time – a national consultation on the issue, which would be held on April 27, 1942. A rather convoluted 26-word question was formulated and put to the Canadian people for their consideration: “Are you in favour of releasing the Government from any obligations arising out of any past commitments restricting the methods of raising men for military service?”
The intention of Mackenzie King to proceed in this fashion was first announced on January 22, 1942, in the Speech from the Throne. The wily P.M. encapsulated his approach as: “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”
While there were opponents to obligatory military service in English Canada (the first leader of the CCF, pacifist J. S. Woodsworth, comes to mind), the strongest and most vociferous opposition came from the Province of Quebec where the plebiscite campaign was at times particularly nasty.
In that regard, perhaps no other happening was more significant than that which occurred on February 11, 1942 when an anti-conscription political rally rapidly degenerated into a violent confrontation with Montreal police.
On that day, Quebec nationalist leader Henri Bourassa spoke to several hundred people in the city’s St. James Market. The fiery veteran politician assailed the desire of the Canadian government of the day to introduce conscription in order to meet troop requirements for the war effort. Also present on the same podium were future Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, and many other well-known nationalists of the period.
An estimated 10,000 people were outside the building as well. Most were young and easily influenced. In the due course, the agitated crowd headed through the streets of the city wreaking havoc in their path. In all, twelve policemen were injured, $3500 in damages occurred, and 17 people arrested – one only 16 years of age.
In the end, 71 % of eligible voters participated in the April 1942 plebiscite with about 65% voting in favour of the government’s appeal. However, with Quebec registering a 72% ‘No’ vote and with few actually desiring a repetition of the 1917 imbroglio that had strained national unity to the breaking point, Mackenzie King chose to proceed tentatively.
Consequently, the first Canadian conscripts were sent overseas a mere six months before the end of the war. Of their total number, 69 were ultimately killed in action.
Below, Prime Minister Mackenzie King voting in the 1942 plebiscite –