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Henri Bourassa

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Portrait of Henri Bourassa in July 1917.

Henri Bourassa and Conscription: Traitor or Saviour?1

by Béatrice Richard

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The conscription crisis exposed a wide gulf in Canadian society between 1916 and 1918. During that period, Henri Bourassa became, through the force of his personality, the natural leader of all French Canadians opposed to compulsory military service. Bourassa, a grandson of the patriote Louis-Joseph Papineau, was the founder and editor of the independent daily Le Devoir, a former Member of Parliament, and a formidable polemicist. He believed that the forced “militarization” of the Dominion was only the first stage of an apocalyptic “imperialist revolution.” Needless to say, these pronouncements were seen as provocations at a time when thousands of Canadians were dying on the battlefields of the Western Front. The popular English language press never missed an opportunity to castigate the treachery of “Bourassa the Dirty, fomenter of strife, breeder of rebellion, hater of all things British, cowardly misrepresenter of facts, journalistic snake in the grass.”2 Even Sir Wilfrid Laurier,3 the Liberal leader who had been a friend of Bourassa, appears to have consistently seen him as a “fanatic and a mentally unstable individual in the pay of the Roman Catholic Church.”4 Was Henri Bourassa a traitor and a madman, as many of his contemporaries asserted? This article will attempt to demonstrate that despite appearances, and although possessed of a highly excitable temperament, Bourassa, in fact, exerted a moderating influence at the climax of the country’s most serious crisis.

Ontario’s Prussians 

By 1916, voluntary recruitment was yielding fewer and fewer enlistments. Up to that time, the majority of volunteers had come from English Canada, and anglophones resented being bled white while French Canadians were seen to be sparing their own sons. The proponents of conscription argued that compulsory service would bring order and equality to recruitment.5 Prime Minister Robert Borden announced, on 17 May 1917, the creation of a system of “selective, that is to say gradual conscription, with men being divided into a number of classes called up as needed.”6 Despite demonstrations involving thousands of opponents in the streets of Montreal, the Military Service Bill received third reading on 24 July 1917, with a majority of 58 votes.

Most Liberal MPs from English-speaking provinces voted with the Conservatives on the bill. However, despite the implosion of his party, Laurier steadfastly refused to join a coalition government. Borden took advantage of his opponent’s political isolation to call an election, but not before enacting a pair of bills designed to ensure his victory. First came the Military Voters Act, adopted by the Commons on 29 August 1917, that gave the vote to all British subjects in the Canadian armed forces and to the members of certain British military units stationed in Canada, and it provided for the casting of ballots overseas by members of the military. The Wartime Elections Act, adopted two weeks later, extended the franchise to close female relatives of soldiers, but took away the vote from Canadians who had emigrated from enemy countries, and also from conscientious objectors.7 As a final prelude to the campaign, on 12 October 1917, Borden created a Unionist cabinet which included dissident Liberals. During the election campaign that followed, Laurier could count only on the support of French Canadians. The contest naturally focussed on the conscription issue, with the Leader of the Opposition calling for a better organized volunteer system, or, at least, a referendum to confirm the legitimacy of conscription. The outcome of the poll, conducted on 17 December 1917, showed how divided the country had become, with the Unionist government winning 153 seats, and the Liberals, 82, including 62 in Quebec.

Henri Bourassa saw all the manoeuvring as an attempt to ram conscription through as the thin edge of an illegitimate autocratic and military regime that was splitting the country, threatening social strife, and violating the principle of military autonomy adopted at the time of Confederation.8 These intrigues were all the more outrageous since the rights of French Canadians were, at that very moment, being trampled upon in their own country, as evidenced by the prohibition on the use of French in Ontario’s Catholic schools under Regulation 17, adopted in 1912. Why, asked Bourassa, should his compatriots fight abroad to defend the freedoms of other peoples? In 1915, the charismatic French Canadian leader asked rhetorically: “French Canadians are being exhorted to fight the Prussians of Europe in the name of religion, liberty and loyalty to the British flag. But shall we allow Ontario’s Prussians to impose their domination at the very heart of Canada’s Confederation, aided and abetted by the British flag and British institutions?”9 Bourassa’s friend, the Liberal MP for Montmagny, Armand Lavergne, summed up the view of the vast majority of French Canadians in the following widely reported words: “We must stay here to conquer our freedom. It is not in the trenches of Flanders that we will regain the right to speak French in Ontario.”10

Wilfred Laurier

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The Right Honourable Sir Wilfred Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada from 1896 to 1911

The Blood Tax

A number of historians have written about the conflict between Canada’s two founding peoples during the Great War.11 Few, however, have dwelt upon the almost existential underlying issue: Should national emancipation12 be paid for in blood? This omission is all the more surprising since the issue of the “blood tax”13 – his term for conscription – pervades all of Bourassa’s writings on the subject. His answer, however, was clear: Canadians should only sacrifice themselves if Canada could act as an independent country, freed from colonial wardship.

“Canada could certainly have intervened in this war as a nation, with no more subservience to England than to France or Belgium, and reserving expressly its full freedom of action for the future. Canada could even have used its participation in the war as a means to increase its freedoms, merely by obtaining from England and its allies an acknowledgment of its fully independent role.”14

In Henri Bourassa’s eyes, national independence trumped human sacrifice. This was no mere rhetorical device, but rather, the only way he could see to plan the conduct of the war in order to achieve Canada’s aims. In English Canadian society, and especially in imperialist circles, by contrast, the terms of the bargain were turned upside down. As the historian Ian Hugh Maclean Miller explains in a study of contemporary Toronto society, Torontonians were convinced that their military commitment would be rewarded. In their world view, the Great War was a kind of purifying firestorm from which the British Empire would rise cleansed and strengthened. By having paid their tribute in men, Canadians would have earned the right to emancipation in the new order.15 This was at odds, to say the least, with Bourassa’s position: In his view, the war was a divine punishment meted out to Christendom for its “three great crimes” against the Catholic Church: “the Greek schism, Protestant anarchy and the French Revolution.”16 Most important, unlike his English Canadian contemporaries, Bourassa did not believe that the world would emerge renewed from the ordeal. In his mind, only an immediate cessation of hostilities, with the outcome of the conflict to be arbitrated by the Pope, would allow Christianity to be reunited and avoid the chaos of “godless, amoral, unprincipled cosmopolitanism.”17 Given that the war did not even have the same meaning, let alone the same political and religious dimensions, in either community, the advent of conscription could only exacerbate mutual resentments. The events of 1917-1918 harshly tested Henri Bourassa’s ideals. He well knew that the struggle against conscription that he was undertaking went to the very existence of the bi-ethnic, bilingual nation he had always defended as “the free and voluntary association of two peoples with equal rights in all respects.”18

The conscription bill had hardly been announced before the nationalist leader registered his fierce opposition in a series of articles published in Le Devoir from 28 May to 6 June 1917.19 “Committing Canada to war in Europe without the consent of the nation in August 1914 was already an abuse of power. Making overseas conscription compulsory would be yet another abuse of power.20 Conscription was to him the ultimate expression of British “militarism” and “imperialism” – two terms that he used interchangeably – and the unavoidable outcome of the ever-closer military links established between Britain and the Empire since the Boer War. He denounced this process as a betrayal of the aims of Confederation, which he believed included greater political and military autonomy for the Dominion. Even worse, he feared that the situation would ignite social chaos. By forestalling all parliamentary debate, the Unionist coalition in favour of the bill, he wrote, was extending nothing less than “a formal and irreversible invitation to insurrection.”21 His warnings to the federal government were clear: conscription equalled revolution.

“Weigh my words: for French Canadians, the advent of conscription would trigger a process that would soon transform what is now perhaps the most peaceful and most orderly people in the Americas into a revolutionary people. Once unleashed, this revolutionary spirit would rage not only against the military regime, but everywhere: in factories, in agriculture, in every area of industry, society and politics.”22

Borden and Churchill

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Sir Robert Borden and Winston Churchill, 1913

An Invitation to Revolution

Once the bill was adopted, Henri Bourassa continued denouncing this “invitation to revolution” and the “regime of military terror” that had extended it.23 He prophesied that once the people realized they had been deceived, there would be “an uprising that could surpass in some respects even the excesses of the French Revolution.”24 At a deeper level, conscription was reminiscent of the levée en masse or total mobilization of the revolutionary wars that had ultimately led to the fall of the Papal State in 1870. This prospect was so terrifying to Henri Bourassa that his writings contain some rather wild conjectures on the subject. He went so far as to speculate that “Imperialists” had not only been the originators of the Russian revolution, but were also plotting to ensure the triumph of their “revolution” by overthrowing all of Europe’s monarchies, including the British Crown.25 He warned that unless “war profiteers” were cast out and a “peace without victory” brought about, “universal civil war will succeed international war throughout the world.”26 All during the global conflict, Bourassa again and again called upon the leaders of belligerent countries to submit to arbitration by the Pope, offering them a stark choice: “A Christian peace or social revolution.”27

Nonetheless, Henri Bourassa had not always been so categorically opposed to compulsory military service, at least, ostensibly. In July 1915, he had opined that the government ought to follow the lead of the US Congress and adopt a selective conscription system.28 Two years later, he still asserted: “This was the only rational method to extract the greatest effort possible from the country, both militarily and economically, and to recruit a large army without creating chaos in agricultural and essential industries.”29 This was a barely veiled reference to the fiasco to which the extreme volunteering system instituted by former Minister of Militia Sam Hughes had led.30 But in reality, Henri Bourassa well knew that the French Canadian population, being largely rural, included “a larger proportion of farmers and fathers with many children,”31 and selective conscription would be advantageous for Quebec because farm labour and family breadwinners would likely be exempted. However, by the time the conscription bill was being debated in Parliament, Bourassa had given up on attempts to fine-tune the enlistment process, and had come to believe instead that the country could do no more, having already fielded a larger proportion of its population (almost 500,000 volunteers, or six percent of the population) than England, France and the United States.32

As a way out of the impasse, Bourassa proposed a plebiscite on conscription, in which voters would be freed from siding with the traditional parties that he held to be deeply corrupt.33 Setting aside his enmity with Laurier, he actively supported the Liberal platform in this respect. He believed that a direct popular vote was the best strategy to ensure social peace and order, and, more importantly, to rebuild national unity on a fresh basis. He wagered that “if conscription is accepted unreservedly by an absolute majority of all voters, French Canadians will accept it.”34 On the other hand, a solid Quebec vote against conscription would allow more dovish English Canadians an easy way out of the “nightmare of conscription.” In addition, he saw a plebiscite as a way to make all votes against conscription count, since anti-military opinion was beginning to be felt outside Quebec, especially among farmers, workers, and pacifist groups. This would help avoid “deepening the divide between the two races.”35 But his hopes proved short-lived when the situation started spinning out of control.

General Hughes

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General Sir Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence, whose recruiting initiatives tended to alienate French Canadians.

Resistance without Violence

In August 1917, Montreal and several cities in Quebec were roiled by popular demonstrations. From that point on, Henri Bourassa was again forced on the defensive. He repeatedly warned his own camp against the disastrous consequences of resorting to violence, and the dangers of unbridled ethnic nationalism:

By calling for violent resistance in the name only of the French race or the province of Quebec, you would be boosting incalculably those hateful opponents who seek conscription first and foremost as a way to put the “d....d Frenchmen” in their place. Even those many English and English- speaking opponents of conscription will join our enemies in crushing any attempted insurrection, or at least, will give them free rein in restoring public peace and order at they see fit. With the first violent act, martial law will be proclaimed and a military regime will be imposed in place of civil authority. It is not difficult to imagine that the government will not entrust the restoration of order to officers inclined to leniency.36

Henri Bourassa was coming face to face with the limits of his activist beliefs. He had to reconcile resistance to conscription with a prohibition against any violence. As an apologist for Roman Catholic Church supremacy, he felt that his personal opposition could not be allowed to morph into political radicalism. One possible model for this attitude was the refusal of Pope Pius IX in 1848 to “collude” in the “satanic” principles of the Italian Revolution, even while he condemned the Austrian occupation.37 Perhaps Bourassa’s dilemma in 1917 was similarly born of a collision between his reactionary values and his sympathy with a potentially “revolutionary” cause. The position he eventually worked out was exceedingly subtle.

The conscription juggernaut was moving along inexorably, ignoring Bourassa’s proposed alternatives, and crushing any dissent. The referendum he had suggested in order “to avoid a dangerous explosion”38 had not taken place. His proposals to “create a powerful backlash” against conscription and to “give full support to the opposition in Parliament” had gone unheeded, and the bill was adopted in a matter of weeks. Bourassa felt that he could not counsel disobedience to a law, however severe. Faced with a fait accompli, he could only express a faint hope that “as many anti-conscription candidates as possible” would be elected in order that the Act might be repealed. Here again, his calls would fall on deaf ears. Bourassa then worked out a highly ambiguous position on “passive resistance” to conscription. Although he acknowledged that this could be “a duty on certain occasions,” he hastened to restrict the application of this faculty to those with a sufficiently enlightened conscience:

Does the conscription bill fall into the category of those tyrannical measures that justify passive resistance? For those who believe that war is a crime and an evil in itself, the answer is yes; for all others, it would be rash to answer in the affirmative. It is not enough that a law appears harsh or oppressive for passive resistance to be justified. Any law appears harsh, oppressive or unjust to someone. What would become of public order if everyone were entitled to resist every law that he does not like?39

The nationalist leader was attempting to draw a line between “good” and “bad” resistance in the hope of keeping the cause of French Canadians clearly apart from the “revolution.” In particular, he feared the influence of the labour movement that was whipping up popular sentiment against the “blood tax,”40 and even more so, the calls to riot by agents provocateurs who could lead French Canadians down the path of disaster at any time.


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A demonstration against Conscription in Montreal’s Victoria Square, 24 May 1917.

Bourassa’s margin for manoeuvre was all the narrower, since he needed to avoid offending those moderate Liberals who had remained loyal to Laurier and still defended volunteerism, as well as Quebec’s bishops and a number of nationalists who were in favour of the war effort,41 including Ferdinand Roy, a leading Quebec city lawyer who published a broadside in favour of conscription in 1917.42 If this were not enough, Le Devoir was constantly skirmishing with a popular press that had become a mouthpiece for the war effort. An editorial in the Toronto Mail and Empire of 10 December 1917 asserted that “a vote for Laurier and his friends would be a vote for Bourassa, against those fighting at the front, against links with Britain and the Empire, a vote for Germany... .”43 Extreme Unionist groups were fond of saying that “a vote for Laurier is a vote for Bourassa, is a vote for the Kaiser.”44 This spiralling hostility was seen as a threat by certain francophone circles, who felt it important to preserve harmony between the two communities. Abbé D’Amours, the editor of L’Action catholique, strongly condemned the nationalist doctrine of Bourassa, whom he dubbed the “Castor rouge,45 in a series of letters published in La Presse, in which he argued that Bourassa’s position was dangerous because it was based on a theory of “races” that was destructive to national unity. D’Amours believed that French Canadians would see their rights respected if only they accepted British patriotism.

Political or Cultural Resistance?

Despite all the fears, the passions unleashed by the “blood tax” appeared to abate as time passed and the conscription system became a reality. This can be attributed to the “safety valve” offered by the exemption provisions built into the law – the result of a compromise or a case of Parliament’s wisdom? – that were widely used for months, with the connivance of local notables (especially in Quebec where tribunals granted proportionally more exemptions than in other provinces),46 thereby creating a form of legally sanctioned refusal to serve.47 Therefore, although they had been unable to prevent the adoption of the conscription bill, French Canadians appeared well on the way to creating an effective underground network of resistance against the draft. This attitude is strikingly similar to a “culture of refusal to serve” – unspoken but deeply rooted – observed in some remote areas of France at the same time, where local populations “traditionally hostile to any outside interference” resisted the “intrusion of national sovereignty” and jealously defended their sense of identity through “a form of global cultural resistance that went beyond the mere refusal to serve in the army.”48 If this speculation is accurate, it would mean that Quebec’s elites made their peace with a historic and deeply rooted sense of cultural resistance49.

In this context, Henri Bourassa’s key achievement was, not so much in whipping up crowds that needed no convincing, than in keeping a lid on the anti-conscription cauldron by protecting French Canadians from revolutionary “contagion” and from provocations coming from all quarters. Of course, the extent to which the grandson of Louis-Joseph Papineau had a direct influence on the general population is debatable. Bourassa was an intellectual with the manners of an aristocrat, remote from his illiterate “people,” whose potential for violence he feared. However, the editorial line of Le Devoir was widely influential within the local clergy.50 Parish priests were highly attuned to the population, and they made up an influential network of resistance against both conscription and revolution, which was especially strong in rural areas. Indeed, Henri Bourassa openly addressed these very local elites in the aftermath of the bloody Quebec City riots that occurred in the spring of 1918: “Le Devoir is not widely read in those circles where riot leaders operate, but it strives to reach those opinion leaders who can contain and isolate wildfires.”51 Bourassa was particularly concerned that the urban riots could lead to the demise of the fragile balance that had been achieved by the exemption system. Indeed, the troubles had started because federal agents had refused to honour a young man’s exemption certificate.52 Bourassa reached back to the economic argument by warning the government against “the danger of building up the army to the expense of agricultural production and ship building,”53 another clear reference to industries where French Canadians were widely employed.

Borden and Currie

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Sir Robert Borden and Sir Arthur Currie take the salute as infantry of the 4th Canadian Division march past along a dusty French road.

Saving the English Soul

But, most strikingly, this post-riot editorial betrays the nationalist leader’s feeling of helplessness. His call for appeasement is worlds away from the grandiose tirades against the “imperialist plot” of spring 1917. How could Bourassa not feel subdued? The worst case scenario had become reality, and troops from Toronto had fired upon the people of Quebec City. The confrontation between the two “founding peoples” that he had feared for so long had finally happened, and four French Canadians had been killed. The failure of Bourassa’s national ideal could hardly have been brought home more cruelly. By 1918, Henri Bourassa was exhausted and depressed.54 He suffered a series of professional and personal losses, with his Devoir progressively silenced by censorship, and more deeply, the death of his wife, Joséphine Papineau, following a long illness in 1919, and a few months later, the death of Laurier, to whom he had remained close, despite their disagreements. In the aftermath of the war, the nationalist leader found himself widowed, with a family of eight young children, isolated and exhausted by years of struggle against war and conscription. Most profoundly, history had proven him wrong on a fundamental point: far from relegating the Dominion back to colonial subservience as he had feared, the sacrifice of Canadians was now paving the way towards national independence.55 Canada was gaining self-government, as Henri Bourassa had yearned for so long, under his very eyes, and through war, rather than through the struggle against war.

From then on, Bourassa drifted away from nationalism and into a pervasive Catholicism that cost him many of his remaining supporters. He was re-elected as a federal MP in 1925, after an absence of 18 years, and later made a speech glorifying the Pope before a stunned House of Commons. He even attempted to convert his friend, the socialist MP James Woodsworth, to Catholicism.56 One of his most famous followers, Lionel Groulx, attributed this eccentric behaviour to a hereditary “moral illness” made up of religious scruples and neurasthenia, which he asserted had been handed down in the Papineau line.57 However, Bourassa’s real or supposed mental frailty is not the only explanation for his conduct. In fact, he felt he was continuing the struggle on his only remaining battlefield: religion. Although he had lost the battle against the warlords, he was now launching a crusade to save their souls. He wrote in 1920: “We struggle against English imperialism in order to save the English nation, the English mind, the English civilization, the English soul from the rule of Satan and restore them to God.”58


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French Canadian officers of the first French Canadian battalion to be formed under conscription, nearly all of whom went to the 22nd Battalion.

Although he continued to preach “resistance” in order to break the “chain” of imperialism, Henri Bourassa never called for taking up any weapons other than those of the mind and the word. It could be argued that despite his nationalist credentials, Bourassa was, in fact, stuck in a “colonized” mentality, by definition powerless, taking refuge in religion and giving voice to what Albert Memmi describes as “the self-loathing passive-aggressiveness of the conquered who admire their conqueror in spite of themselves and cling to the hope that the omnipotent colonizer will turn out to be benevolent.”59 Such criticisms were probably voiced in his day, but Bourassa remained independent and unrepentant as always, as suggested by this extract from one of his last anti-imperialist tirades: “It is true that in writing these lines, I run the risk of confirming my reputation (widespread among practical people) of a tilter at windmills. But no matter, I am used to it and in any event, I write for people who take the trouble to think60.”


Was Henri Bourassa a “traitor to the motherland”? Hardly. His Catholic, traditionalist, anti-revolutionary values led him to exert a moderating influence in the conscription crisis by denouncing the excesses of a popular sentiment that he, ironically, had helped to create. While inveighing against the “blood tax,” he reassured the conservative elites of French Canada by denouncing any resort to disorder and violence. His rhetoric justified French Canadians’ attachment to their identity as expressed through a cultural “refusal to serve,” but at the same time, warned them against the temptation of political, i.e. forceful, affirmation of that identity. Through this ambivalent attitude, far from being the “dangerous agitator” demonized in many quarters, Henri Bourassa instead played the role of a form of “spiritual advisor,” even of peacemaker within his own community, by channelling collective resentment into a Christian social renewal project. Bourassa’s detractors were mistaken in seeing him only as a madman or a plotter of rebellion. Quite the contrary, given the breadth and depth of resistance to conscription in Quebec, Henri Bourassa was probably the most moderating influence against the threat of uncontrolled popular dissent, and in particular, he significantly helped forestall civil war. Ironically, the man his English Canadian contemporaries considered Public Enemy Number One was probably their best ally on the home front.

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Béatrice Richard holds a doctorate in history from Université du Québec à Montréal and is an assistant professor of military history in the History Department and the Continuing Studies Department of the Royal Military College of Canada.


  1. The writing of this article was funded through a research grant from the Hector- Fabre Chair of the Université du Québec à Montréal.
  2. François-Albert Angers, “La pensée de Henri Bourassa : Le problème de la paix”, L’Action nationale, Montreal, 1954, p. 92.
  3. Henri Bourassa quarrelled with then Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier about the Boer War and resigned from Parliament to protest against sending a Canadian contingent in South Africa without Parliament’s assent. In his resignation letter, he asked “whether Canada is ready to give up its prerogatives as a self-governing colony, its parliamentary freedom, its pact with the mother country achieved after 75 years of struggle, and revert to its former status as a Crown colony.” This extract foreshadows Bourassa’s doctrine about Canada’s participation in outside wars during the 20th Century. (Hommage à Henri Bourassa : Lettre de M. Henri Bourassa à Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Montreal, Éditions du Devoir, 1952, p. 50)
  4. Mackenzie King wrote in December 1916: “Sir W. regards B. as a fanatic and ill-mentally balanced, and of course swayed by the R. C. Church.” Journal of William Lyon Mackenzie King, ArchiviaNet, 12 December 1916 [on line] at <http://king.collectionscanada.ca>
  5. Minister of Militia Sam Hughes had created an all-voluntary recruitment system, to such an extent that enrolment for the expeditionary force, at least at the outset of the war, was not directly administered by the government, but rather by independent patriotic associations run by influential economic, social and intellectual circles using the medium of the press. In other words, recruitment was initially left to private initiative. That bizarre system naturally led to chaos, patronage, and improvisation. In this context, conscription can be seen as an attempt – albeit unsuccessful – by the government to reassert its authority over a system that had completely escaped its control.
  6. Robert Rumilly, Histoire de la province de Québec, tome XXII, (Montreal: Montréal Éditions, 1951), p. 74.
  7. Mason Wade, Les Canadiens français de 1760 à nos jours, tome II (1911-1963) (Ottawa : Le Cercle du Livre de France, 1963), p. 160.
  8. Henri Bourassa, Le Pape, arbitre de la paix, Montreal, Éditions du Devoir, 1918, p. 119. Article published in Le Devoir on 31 August 1917.
  9. Le Devoir, April 20, quoted in Wade, p. 64.
  10. Armand Lavergne, quoted in Wade, pp. 92-93.
  11. Sources include Elizabeth H. Armstrong, The Crisis of Quebec, 1914-1918 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937), p. 270, and J. L. Granatstein et al., Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1985), p. 281.
  12. The “blood tax” was an expression used in France under the monarchy to designate an honourable contribution to society. Its current negative connotation dates back to the First World War. At the time, it was seen by many as the last tax payable to the State “that citizens can still be physically compelled to pay.” In France, the main form of resistance to this civic obligation was the refusal to report for military duty, a phenomenon that was more or less widespread from one region to the next. (Philippe Boulanger, “Le refus de l’impôt du sang. Géographie de l’insoumission en France de 1914 à 1922”, Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, No. 188, 1997, pp. 3-25.)
  13. Many tend to forget that the Dominion of Canada was technically a colony of the British Empire at the time. In this context, conscription took on a very specific meaning, as shown by the literature on mobilization in French and British colonies in both world wars. In France, conscription appears (among other connotations) as a path to assimilation and integration into citizenship and therefore a fairly explicit bargain is made with natives of the colonies: “my blood in exchange for French citizenship.” In the British Empire, where conscription was less rooted in political and military culture and more of an ad hoc measure, the bargain between the mother country and the colonies was not always as explicit, all the more so in the case of Canada, being a “white” settlement colony where potential conscripts lived in the same type of political culture as Britain and enjoyed rights equivalent to those of the British. Sources consulted include Marc Michel, Les Africains et la Grande Guerre. L’Appel à l’Afrique 1914-1918 (Paris : Karthala, 2003), p. 193, and Gilbert Meynier, L’Algérie révélée (Geneva-Paris : Librairie Droz, 1981), p. 793.
  14. Henri Bourassa, Hier, aujourd’hui, demain, Montreal, Éditions du Devoir, 1916, p. 67.
  15. Ian Hugh Maclean Miller, Our Glory and Our Grief: Torontonians and the Great War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), p. 38. It should be noted that the mystique of sacrifice by blood is prevalent throughout prewar European literature. Authors such as Georges Sorel, Charles Péguy, Rupert Brooke and Thomas Hardy wrote, at least until 1914, about the inevitability of a war that would redeem and purify a world grown old and decadent.
  16. Bourassa (1918), Le Pape, arbitre de la paix, p. 146.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Henri Bourassa, La conscription, Montreal, Éditions du Devoir, 1917, p. 20. This pamphlet includes nine articles on the topic published in Le Devoir between May 28 and June 6, 1917 and went to press on June 9. Bourassa’s struggle against conscription is highlighted in Robert Rumilly’s biography, Henri Bourassa : La vie publique d’un grand Canadien (Montreal: Chantecler, 1953), pp. 570-593, and in a chapter of Warren Alexander Chubb, Henri Bourassa and the First World War (master’s thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 1974, pp. 47-67). See also Wade, pp. 116-194.
  19. Bourassa (1917), p. 47.
  20. Ibid., p. 38.
  21. Ibid., p. 40. Article published in Le Devoir on 6 June 1917.
  22. Ibid., p. 26.
  23. Bourassa (1918), Le Pape, arbitre de la paix, section “Lubie démocratique : Invite à la revolution”, pp. 117-119. Article published in Le Devoir on 31 August 1917.
  24. Ibid., p. 96. Article published in Le Devoir on 24 April 1917.
  25. Ibid., see section entitled “Après la guerre, la revolution”, p. 97 and p. 102. Articles published in Le Devoir on 24-25 April 1917.
  26. Ibid. See section entitled “Est-ce la paix?”, p. 125. Article published in Le Devoir on 1 December 1917.
  27. Ibid., p. 146. Article published in Le Devoir on 12 January 1918.
  28. Bourassa (1917), p. 10.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Sources consulted include Gérard Pinsonneault, La propagande de recrutement militaire au Canada, 1914-1917. Essai en histoire des mentalités, master’s dissertation, Université de Sherbrooke, 1981, p. 183.
  31. These lines were written in the summer of 1916 in reply to his cousin, Captain Talbot Mercer Papineau, who was fighting with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Regiment in France and urging him to support the war effort. (Quoted by Jean Pariseau and Serge Bernier, Les Canadiens français et le bilinguisme dans les Forces armées canadiennes, tome 1 (Ottawa: Department of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence, 1987), p. 91.
  32. Bourassa (1917), pp. 10-12. By way of comparison, France’s colonial recruits at the time made up only 1.5% of the population of territories outside France proper. (Michel, p. 193)
  33. Bourassa (1917), p. 27, and pp. 39-41. It should be noted that Bourassa saw plebiscites as a key part of his national defence policy doctrine. He proposed them at least three times: once about sending an expeditionary corps to South Africa in 1900, and twice on the issue of Canada’s contribution to the naval defence of the Empire in 1911.
  34. Ibid., p. 27.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Le Devoir, 11 August 1917. It should be noted that Bourassa himself endorsed a kind of ethnic barrier by describing French Canadians as the “only exclusively Canadian group” Pariseau et Bernier, p. 91.
  37. After refusing to support the war of independence, he fled and was later restored to the papal throne by the French. Bourassa cites this example in a pamphlet about the imminent signing of the Lateran Agreements between the Pope and Mussolini. La paix romaine, Montreal, Éditions du Devoir, 1929, p. 6).
  38. Bourassa (1917), p. 27.
  39. Le Devoir, 11 August 1917.
  40. It should be noted that the labour movement’s position about the was remained ambiguous throughout, largely in response to the pacifist position of the American Federation of Labor, in line with the United States’ chosen policy of “armed” neutrality. Canadian union leaders were torn between their American allegiances and their close links with their British counterparts who were being swept up in spite of themselves by the “anti-Prussian” patriotic wave. Nonetheless, a pacifist current did appear within the Canadian labour movement. Charles Lipton, Histoire du syndicalisme au Canada et au Québec, 1827-1959 (Montreal : Éditions Parti pris, 1976), p. 252. See also Gregory Kealey, “State Repression of Labour and the Left in Canada, 1914-1920: The Impact of the First World War”, in Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 73, No. 3, 1994, pp. 281-314.
  41. Sources includes René Durocher, “Henri Bourassa, les évêques et la guerre de 1914-1918”, in Jean-Yves Gravel, Le Québec et la guerre (Montreal : Boréal Express, 1974), pp. 47-75.
  42. Like Bourassa, Roy denounced the waste and corruption that had surrounded the mobilization of Canadian troops. But he believed that the past could not be undone and complaining would be futile, and that French Canadians had no other choice but to make common cause with their English Canadian compatriots. Ferdinand Roy, L’appel aux armes et la réponse canadienne-française : étude sur le conflit de races (Quebec City : J.-P. Garneau, 1917), p. 31 and p. 35.
  43. Wade, p. 162.
  44. Ibid.
  45. A patriot (under the pseudonym of l’abbé Joseph Prio Arthur D’Amours), Où allons-nous?, Montreal, Société d’éditions patriotiques, articles published between June and September 1916, p. 73 . Henry Bourassa was nicknamed Castor rouge because of his apparently paradoxical twin allegiance to conservative ideology and the Liberal Party.
  46. The common definition of refusal to serve is the refusal to report to a summons from military authorities. Sources consulted include Patrick Bouvier, Déserteurs et insoumis : les Canadiens français et la justice militaire, 1914-1918 (Montreal : Éditions Athéna, 2003), p. 79.
  47. Ibid., pp. 72-73.
  48. Boulanger, pp. 24-25.
  49. A number of French researchers have shown that the issue of conscription is rooted in the very nature of French society and can still be felt in the country’s collective memory. Sources consulted include: Michel Auvray, L’âge des casernes. Histoires et mythes du service militaire (Paris : éditions de l’Aube, 1998), p. 326; Annie Crépin, La conscription en débat ou le triple apprentissage de la nation, de la citoyenneté, de la République (1798-1889) (Arras : Artois Presses Université, 1998), p. 258 ; Philippe Boulanger, Géographie historique de la conscription et des conscrits en France de 1914 à 1922 d’après les comptes rendus sur le recrutement de l’armée, doctoral thesis, Paris IV-Sorbonne, 2 volumes, 1998, p.615.
  50. Wade,, p. 157.
  51. Henri Bourassa, “L’ordre public doit être maintenu”, Le Devoir, 5 April 1918, p. 1. The spring of 1918 had been particularly explosive in Quebec, with the conscription crisis reaching its bloody climax during the Quebec City riot on 1 April, when four demonstrators were shot to death by troops despatched from Ontario.
  52. Jean Provencher, Québec sous la loi des mesures de guerre, 1918 (Montreal : Boréal Express, 1971), p. 47.
  53. Bourassa (1918), “L’ordre public doit être maintenu”.
  54. André Bergevin, Anne Bourassa et Cameron Nish, “Henri Bourassa”, L’Action nationale, 1966, p. LI.
  55. Desmond Morton and Jack L. Granatstein, Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War, 1914-1919 (Toronto: Lester and Orphen Dennys, 1989), p. 288. It should be recalled that Canada earned the right to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 in its capacity as a country that had contributed to the victory over Germany, and Canada also obtained an independent seat at the League of Nations. The Statute of Westminster eventually enshrined its autonomy in matters of defence and foreign policy, as was the case for the other Dominions.
  56. Rumilly (1953), p. 723.
  57. Lionel Groulx, Mes Mémoires, tome 2 (Montreal : Fides, 1971), pp. 225-257.
  58. Henri Bourassa, La prochaine guerre impériale. En serons-nous?, Montreal, Éditions du Devoir, 1920, p. 31.
  59. Albert Memmi, Portrait du colonis, ( Montreal : L’Étincelle, 1972), p. 114.
  60. Henri Bourassa, La Mission Jellicoe. Nouvelle poussée d’impérialisme (Montreal : Éditions du Devoir, 1919), p. 31.