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The 1917 Election Union Government. The Union Government 1971-20 Overview Since Confederation there has only been one coalition government in Canada ’

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Presentation on theme: "The 1917 Election Union Government. The Union Government 1971-20 Overview Since Confederation there has only been one coalition government in Canada ’"— Presentation transcript:

1 The 1917 Election Union Government

2 The Union Government Overview Since Confederation there has only been one coalition government in Canada ’ s history: the Union Government of World War I. This was a coalition between the Conservative Party, led by Robert Borden, and Liberals and independents. The coalition was formed in order to broaden support for the Borden government and its controversial conscription policy. In 1917, Prime Minister Borden announced that his government was going to introduce conscription to increase troops for the war in Europe. This policy was strongly opposed by many groups in Canada, in particular, French Canadians in Quebec and rural farmers. These groups resented being forced to participate in a British foreign war.

3 Overview Continued Prime Minister Borden hoped that a coalition government consisting of Conservatives and Liberals would help overcome these growing divisions within the country on this issue. Wilfrid Laurier, then leader of the Liberal Party, was opposed to conscription; he refused to lead his party into a coalition with the Conservatives. Many English-speaking Liberals, however, disagreed with their leader and left the party to join Borden in a coalition commonly referred to as the “ Union Government. ” Ultimately, the Union Government was successful in wining the general election of 1917 and eventually pushing conscription through Parliament. With the end of the war in 1918, the primary raison d ’ être for the Union Government ceased to exist and the coalition began to break apart. Many former Liberals returned to their original political party, and the coalition dissolved completely with Prime Minister Borden ’ s retirement in 1920.

4 Historical Background The bitter division between French and English Canada over war issues would define this election. Wartime measures had extended the life of Parliament because the government felt that an election would distract from the country ’ s war efforts. Prime Minister Borden was committed to ensuring that Canada contributed its share of soldiers and resources to the Imperial war effort. However, 1916 and 1917 saw voluntary enlistments fall. In 1917, Borden attended an Imperial War Cabinet and promised to increase Canada ’ s manpower contribution to the war. This meant that conscription would have to be introduced. Borden proposed several measures to ensure Canada ’ s war effort would be unified and to introduce conscription:

5 Borden Proposes a Coalition Government On May 25, Borden asked Wilfrid Laurier, leader of the Liberal party, to join forces to create a coalition government for the duration of the war. Borden felt that one government would permit the maximum war effort for Canada. He also wanted to avoid a distracting wartime election. However, Laurier turned down his proposal on June 6. Laurier knew that by agreeing to a coalition, he was agreeing to conscription, something that he did not support. Borden ’ s proposal was attractive to some Liberals, however. This began the slow trickle of Liberals who supported conscription to the Conservative side of government

6 The Military Service Act This Act passed on July 6, It established conscription in Canada. However, it also caused a deep division between French and English Canada. English Canadians felt it was their duty to support Britain in the war, and that conscription was the only way to ensure that Canada was putting forth its maximum effort. French Canadians felt that it was not their responsibility to fight Britain ’ s war. The debate over the Military Service Act would set the stage for the 1917 election. Borden attempted to extend the life of Parliament again to avoid an election. The Liberals objected to this idea, so Borden had no choice but to call an election.

7 The Military Voters Act This act was designed to enfranchise all members of the military service. It was also designed to disenfranchise conscientious objectors to war. Overseas voters were allowed to vote simply for a party rather than a candidate in a specific riding. The party was then free to distribute those votes to their best advantage. The Liberals did not put up a strong opposition to this bill because they were not aware of its future ramifications

8 The Wartime Elections Act The act enfranchised close female relatives of persons in active service overseas. It also disenfranchised those of alien birth or mother tongue who had been naturalized after This Act was passed through Parliament in late summer of 1917.

9 A Union Government is Formed The Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act convinced Liberals who supported conscription to join with Borden ’ s Conservatives to form a union government. They were convinced that Borden ’ s legislation ensured that everyone who supported conscription could vote, while those who didn ’ t support it couldn ’ t vote. On October 12, 1917, those Liberals who supported conscription joined the Union Government. Those Liberals who joined were mostly from western Canada. Borden was convinced that his government would be re-elected, and called an election for December 17, 1917.

10 Political Party Profiles The parties involved in this election faced a deep division between French and English Canada. Quebec supported the anti-conscription Liberals, while English Canada supported the pro-conscription Conservatives. In the end, however, the division would not be about party loyalty. Some Liberals would join the Conservatives to form a Union government in an election that saw one single issue cut across party barriers.

11 Liberal Party Laurier was anti-conscription and was supported by his fellow French-Canadians. He did not want to support a policy that he had no hand in making. The Liberals supported the feelings of Quebeckers, who felt that they should not have to be involved in Britain ’ s war. Laurier and the Liberals felt that conscription would disrupt the national unity they had worked so hard to achieve.

12 The Unionists Borden and the Conservatives supported conscription because they had promised Britain that Canada would contribute its maximum war effort. Borden proposed a coalition government to Laurier, but was turned down. Nevertheless, some Liberals were attracted to his ideas. Those Liberals, mostly from the West, joined Borden in October 1917, and the Union Government was formed.

13 Election Issues This was a single issue election. Although Laurier tried to raise issues such as government incompetence in the war effort, Canadians were only interested in the conscription crisis.

14 Conscription The Military Service Act and the debate over conscription turned into a debate about loyalty versus treason. The division over this issue was clear – French versus English. Most French Canadians were convinced that nothing in the war was relevant to Canadian interests, and they should not be involved at all. English Canadians were generally loyal to Britain and were committed to the war effort. Debates about conscription turned into personal attacks on national pride and loyalty. Violent demonstrations and rallies were held throughout Canada. The conscription crisis had reopened the bitter rivalry between French and English Canadians.

15 The Political Campaign The 1917 election campaign was characterized by regional differences and bitter racial rivalries. This was the most violent campaign in Canadian history. Riots and mobs in cities divided French and English Canada more deeply than ever.

16 Unionist Strategy Borden had to be careful to prevent pro-conscription Liberals and Conservatives from running against each other in the same riding The Unionists played up the strength of their coalition arrangement, arguing that it allowed the government to look out for everyone ’ s interests, regardless of partisan affiliations. The Unionists also campaigned on feelings of patriotism. Campaign speeches characterized a vote for Laurier as a “ vote against the men at the front, ” and a “ vote for Germany. ” The Unionists also made emotional appeals by promising to support voters ’ relatives serving overseas. Concerned about their support in the West and rural Ontario, they promised that farmers and their sons actively engaged in agriculture would be exempted from conscription.

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19 Liberal Strategy Outside of Quebec, the Liberals had a difficult time in this campaign. Despite their opposition to conscription, the Liberals promised to increase the war effort. They emphasized that there were other ways to increase enlistments, and that the voluntary system had not been given a fair chance. They said that if a Liberal government was forced to consider conscription, a national referendum would be held to let the people decide. They also pointed to the divisiveness of the debate, noting that conscription would disrupt the national unity that Canadians had worked so hard to achieve since Confederation

20 Liberal Strategy cont’d Laurier had the support of Henri Bourassa, the premier of Quebec. Bourassa appealed to Quebecois by saying that the war involved no Canadian interests, and therefore Canadians should not be involved. He characterized the British war effort and Borden ’ s conscription as an attempt at Anglo-Saxon imperialism and a centralizing scheme that would reduce Quebec ’ s influence in Canada

21 Liberal Strategy Cont’d Since Laurier could be sure of support in Quebec and Borden could be sure of support in Ontario, both leaders believed that western votes would make the difference in this election. This was especially important to Laurier because of all the western Liberals who had joined the Union government. One of his strategies was to sidestep the conscription issue in the West and promise farmers to lower tariffs on their imported agricultural implements and products.

22 1917 Election Results The Unionists were successful in ensuring that Liberal conscriptionists and Union candidates did not run against each other, and they won a majority government. Huge Liberal victories in Quebec were not enough to put Laurier into power. The western provinces saw overwhelming victories for the Unionists, thanks to the Liberals who had taken their governments over to the Union government. The Liberals won only 2 out of 57 seats in the west. Population of Canada (1917): 7,591,971 Number of electors on list: 2,093,799 Total ballots cast: 1,892,741 Voter turnout: 75.0%

23 Historical Significance The 1917 was remarkable because of the extreme French- English divide. The Conservative/Union popular vote in Quebec fell below 40% for the first time since Confederation. Laurier ’ s Liberal government of had proven that a moderate approach to politics could bring unity to Canada. However, the conscription crisis of 1917 blew open the French- English debate once again.

24 Women get the vote The Military Voters Act enfranchised all those who were members of the military service. That meant that Canada ’ s military nurses overseas, called The Bluebirds, became the first women to vote in a Canadian federal election. The Wartime Elections Act also enfranchised close female relatives of persons in active service overseas, which meant that some women back in Canada also got to vote. Women ’ s Suffragist organizations had been lobbying for the vote since They felt that women ’ s substantial contributions to the war effort should allow them to vote. By 1919, the franchise for women in federal elections was extended to all non-native Canadian women who were over age 21 and British subjects.

25 Votes for Women

26 The Military Voters Act and Vote Distribution Borden explained the motivation behind the Military Voters Act as an attempt to let military servicemen and women vote on an issue that was of great importance to them. However, one aspect of the Military Voters Act was that overseas voters could simply vote for a party, rather than a candidate in a specific riding. The party could then distribute that vote to whichever riding is felt was in its best interests. This allowed the Unionists to distribute their votes into closely contested ridings. This vote distribution was the direct cause of Unionist victories in 14 ridings. The Unionists were accused of gerrymandering and corrupt politics.

27 The Military Voters Act

28 The Party System in Canada Party politics in Canada had evolved into a complex system that had connections across racial, religious, and linguistic lines. Both the Liberals and Conservatives had support in both French and English Canada. It was clear in the 1917 election that the Liberals and French Canadians were opposing the Unionists and English Canadians. Although Liberal support elsewhere in Canada would recover, the Conservatives would only occasionally regain their support in Quebec, and then only for brief periods of time. This election put Quebec in the Liberal camp, giving them a huge advantage over the next several decades of Canadian politics.


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