Canadian mythology teaches that the country earned its sovereignty from the British Crown in the First World War, after legions of soldiers from Victoria to Charlottetown gallantly stormed German defences along the Western Front and were instrumental in the Allied cause.

But as Canadians were in Europe fighting the Germans, back home the country was at war with itself.

Because for the first time since Confederation, Quebec politicians were explicitly suggesting French-Canadians might be better off alone.

"One can say 1917 was a turning point," said University of Ottawa historian Pierre Anctil. "It instilled a sense of suspicion and distance. And I think it did irreparable damage."

Before the two independence referendums of the ‘80s and ‘90s that nearly tore the country apart, there was the 1917-18 conscription crisis.

Historians warn against drawing direct links between that time and Quebec's independence movement, which began in the '60s and still affects Canadian politics.

But historians also say these 100-year-old events made many Quebecers collectively recognize they would always be a minority within Canada — and as such, alone in defending their cultural and linguistic rights.

A cutout from a recruitment poster from the First World War. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Library and Archives Canada

Quebecers at the time were also regularly subjected to hostility and outright hatred in the Canadian media.

"They were cowards, traitors — probably German agents," said McGill University military historian Desmond Morton on how English Canada viewed francophone Quebecers, who were largely against sending their young men to die in Europe for the empire.

"In the eyes of Anglo Montreal and the rest of Canada, (French-Canadians) were worthless and evil," Morton said.

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Canada was automatically at war, as a dominion of the British Crown. Thousands of young Canadians — many of whom were born in the UK — volunteered to fight.

The opposite was true in Quebec, where French-Canadians had no loyalty to the British and saw themselves as living in a sovereign country that wasn't necessarily subservient to London.

Volunteer conscripts had success in the early years of the war, but the victories were costly.

Canada suffered more than 10,500 casualties at Vimy Ridge in 1917, and 24,700 Canadians and Newfoundlanders died or were wounded in the Battle of the Somme.

"In 1917, the war was far from won," said military historian Carl Pepin. "And the front was atrocious."

These losses were not sustainable — especially with a volunteer war effort back home and dwindling enlistment.

In May that year, prime minister Robert Borden returned to Canada from Europe and decided the country couldn't replenish the depleted battle lines without conscription.

By late summer the Military Service Act was law and all men between 20 and 45 were called to arms.

Borden's decision would unleash one of the biggest crises in Canadian history, which would end with four men shot dead in the streets of Quebec City.

Timeline - Conscription crises

Here is a timeline of major events regarding the First World War and Second World War conscription crises, which bitterly divided the country along French-English lines:

First World War

Aug. 4, 1914
Canada and Newfoundland, as dominions of the British Crown, are automatically at war when the UK's ultimatum for Germany to get out of Belgium expires. The UK, and therefore Canada and Newfoundland, are allied with Serbia, Russia and France against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Aug. 22, 1914
Canada enacts War Measures Act, giving federal cabinet power to govern by decree. Law in place until 1920.
Summer of 1917
Since start of the war, more than 130,000 Canadians killed or wounded in theatres such as Vimy Ridge and Battle of the Somme. Country's population is roughly eight million.
Anti-conscription parade at Victoria Square on May 24, 1917. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Library and Archives Canada
Aug. 29, 1917
Military Service Act becomes law. All men between 20 and 45 are subject to conscription.
Sir Robert Borden and Victory Loan Campaign, Ottawa, Ontario during the First World War in 1917. (CP PHOTO/Pittaway National Archives of Canada)
Aug-Sept. 1917
Then-prime minister Robert Borden offers Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier a wartime coalition government with equal number of seats in cabinet in exchange for support for conscription. Laurier, a Quebecois and whose support comes from French-Canadians, refuses.
Sir Robert Borden is shown in an undated file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/National Archives of Canada
Sept. 20, 1917
Enaction of Wartime Elections Act, which gives vote to female relatives of soldiers fighting in First World War and removes right to vote from anyone who was born in "enemy countries" after March 1902. Law widely seen as way to increase support for Borden's idea of forming union government to win election and enact policy of conscription.
October 1917
Borden creates coalition of 12 Conservatives, 9 Liberals or independents, and one Labour MP ahead of December election.
Recruits up for conscription at the Armouries in Toronto on Oct. 9, 1917. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Library and Archives Canada
Dec. 17, 1917
After historically bitter election campaign, Borden's Union government wins 153 seats to Liberals' 82. Country is divided along French-English lines, primarily due to conscription.
January 1918
Call-ups begin for military service. 400,000 register for conscription; 93 per cent ask for exemptions. About 100,000 drafted and, of those, 24,132 travel overseas.
March 28-April 1, 1918
Riots engulf Quebec City. Tens of thousands of people take to streets to denounce conscription. Army called in. Riots end after four men shot dead by military. Martial law declared.
Montreal Gazette

Second World War

Sept. 10, 1939
After one week of being neutral, Canada officially declares war on Germany following similar declarations by the UK and France.
June 21, 1940
Passing of National Resources Mobilization Act, including requisitioning Canadians for home defence. Then-prime minister Mackenzie King, a member of the Liberal party, promises not to legislate conscription.
Mackenzie King in 1919 as he assumed leadership of the Liberal Party on the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. (CP PHOTO)
Aug. 5, 1940
Camillien Houde's Montreal mayoralty is suspended after he calls for citizens to refuse registration for domestic defence service. Houde is arrested by RCMP and interned in Ontario and New Brunswick until his release in August 1944. He is welcomed by roughly 50,000 Montrealers upon return to the city.
Camillien Houde. Public Domain Photo
Spring 1942
After pressure from Britain and pro-conscription parts of the country, King holds plebiscite in order to ask citizens whether they wish to relieve him of his promise not to impose conscription. The anti-conscription Ligue pour la defense du Canada campaigns against allowing King government to change policy.
April 27, 1942
Plebiscite is held; 73% of Quebecers say no to conscription. In rest of Canada, 80% vote yes.
Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King voting in the plebiscite on the introduction of conscription for overseas military service on April 27, 1942. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Library and Archives Canada
Sept. 8, 1942
Quebec's Bloc populaire party is formed to fight against conscription and for the rights of French-Canadians. Runs candidates in both provincial and federal elections. Party dissolves in the late '40s.
Nov. 22, 1944
In order to save his government after massive public pressure, King institutes conscription. 13,000 conscripts are sent overseas, representing a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who had volunteered.
Montreal Gazette
A recruitment poster from the First World War. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Library and Archives Canada

Just like so many conflicts in Canada, the conscription crisis has its roots in a language dispute.

In 1912, the Ontario government decided to restrict the teaching of French in the first two years of elementary school. The government cited a report claiming the bilingual schools in the province were performing poorly.

Quebecers — and their leaders — saw this as a direct assault on all French-Canadians, who were a growing minority in the anglophone province at the time.

"In the largest and the wealthiest province there was no tolerance for a French minority," said Anctil. "And if there was no tolerance in Ontario where would there be?

"It was something the French-Canadians observed and internalized. And they developed, in large part, to count only on the forces of Quebec for their own survival. Out of this, much later, in the '60s and '70s, came the sovereigntist movement."

A major reason the desire to fight was less than tepid in Quebec can be traced back to Regulation 17, according to historians.

Public intellectuals in Quebec at the time, such as Henri Bourassa, came out strongly against the Ontario schools battle.

Pepin said Bourassa had written in 1915, "Why go and get killed by Prussians in Europe when we are being persecuted right here by the Prussians in Ontario?"

And while the concept of Quebec independence didn't exist in 1917, historians still see the beginnings of a burgeoning movement to defend the rights of francophones against an indifferent and sometimes hostile English Canada.

Shortly after the 1917 federal election, a member of the Quebec legislature, Joseph-Napoleon Francoeur, introduced a controversial motion.

"That this chamber is of the opinion that the province of Quebec should accept the rupture of the federal pact of 1867 if, in the other provinces, it is believed that Quebec is an obstacle to the union, to progress, and to the development of Canada."

University of Ottawa historian Serge Durflinger says the Francoeur motion "is a symbol of a sentiment that existed more widely than we might expect.

"For someone to say that in the legislature, it's because there is an underlying and deep-rooted animosity that clearly indicates Confederation will always be the majority imposing its will against the minority."

The motion was eventually rescinded, but the point was made, and historians say that was likely the first time the issue of Quebec separation was formally and explicitly brought up by politicians.

Portrait of Henri Bourassa in July 1917 as it appeared on a mortuary card in 1952. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Library and Archives Canada

Another major consequence of the conscription crisis is reflected in the current attitudes of Quebecers toward war and their own military history, argues Morton.

In September 1916, during the five-month mass slaughter that became known as the Battle of the Somme, a battalion of French-Canadians in the northern French village of Courcelette helped change the course of the war.

Most Quebecers, however, have likely never heard of the word "Courcelette," Morton said.

The key feature is — a bit like hockey — you don't give a damn about people being killed, you just keep on plugging.

McGill University military historian Desmond Morton

"It's a military history of which anybody else would be proud," he said, yet Quebecers are reticent to celebrate their bravery in the Great War and in subsequent conflicts.

Morton argues French-Canadians helped win the war for the Allies.

"Because they discovered, under their colonel, how to attack," he said. "The key feature is — a bit like hockey — you don't give a damn about people being killed, you just keep on plugging."

Morton says British commander Douglas Haig "noticed the one success he had that day was when the French-Canadian battalion, the Royal 22nd Regiment, had performed."

"Therefore, the Canadians would be allowed to have a try at Vimy Ridge."

Universite de Montreal historian Carl Bouchard said Quebecers often speak of the First World War as "the forgotten war."

Canadians, he said, appreciate the Great War as a time of military triumph, where the country "was born and when Canada opened up to the world and started to develop."

He said that version of history alienates Quebecers.

"As long as WW1 is seen as glorious in Canada, Quebecers won't see themselves in that narrative," he said.

A recruitment poster from the First World War. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Library and Archives Canada

Twenty-three-year old Joseph Mercier was hanging out with his friend, Alfred Deslauriers, at a bowling alley in Quebec City's Saint-Roch district, on Holy Thursday, March 28, 1918.

Not far away were three members of the Dominion Police, officers named Plamondon, Eventurel and a man called Belanger — who would end his night with a fractured skull.

These police, described by newspapers at the time as "federal detectives," were unaffectionately known to the public as "spotters" — men who would rough up anyone caught without conscription exemption papers.

Pepin said the police force was composed of often poorly trained men who committed abuses in their zeal to catch war dodgers.

"They were essentially given carte blanche across Canada to try and find people evading the draft," he said.

Mercier was among the 90 per cent of Quebecers of fighting age to receive an exemption from the meat grinder in Europe, but his card was at home that night.

When Mercier couldn't show his papers, the officers reportedly arrested him aggressively.

News reports say Mercier's friend ran home to get his precious exemption card, which eventually secured his release, but it was too late.

Angered by the arrest, a crowd of thousands had gathered outside the police station and started to throw projectiles at the building.

"The mob badly damaged the police station," read a report in the Montreal Gazette a day after the violence. "Plamondon was caught by the crowd ... and the unfortunate officer was dragged all over the streets and roughly handled."

On Good Friday, about 3,000 people gathered in the early evening in the Saint-Roch district. They sang "O Canada," which was to become the national anthem but at the time was a patriotic hymn for French-Canadians.

By nighttime there were more than 10,000 people on the streets and they set fire to the auditorium, a Beaux Arts-style building in the old quarter that at the time housed the records of those who had registered for the war.

Come on you French sons of bitches! We'll trim you.

Soldiers to the crowd - Coroner's report

On the third day protesters attacked the Quebec City Armoury with rocks and pieces of ice.

Quebec City mayor Henri-Edgar Lavigueur, faced with what the Gazette reported as "the absolute breakdown of the civil machinery, largely due to the indifference or cowardice" of the police, called in the military to defend the town.

Thousands of soldiers arrived from Toronto and Winnipeg on Easter Sunday, which only served to further provoke citizens.

The internment of mayor Camillien Houde
Camillien Houde, March 4, 1950. THE CANADIAN PRESS/George Nakash/Library and Archives Canada

On Monday, Aug. 5, 1940, a little before 11 p.m., the mayor of Montreal walked out of city hall wearing a light summer suit, suede shoes and a boating hat.

Camillien Houde, the rotund populist who was running a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, was met by RCMP and provincial police officers who arrested him on the spot.

A little more than a month prior, France had fallen to Germany, leaving Britain alone — except for some help from Canada — in its fight against the Nazi Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

Then-prime minister Mackenzie King and Parliament had ordered all men between the ages of 14 and 60 to register for national defence. The law didn't require conscription for overseas service and it was not a military mobilization.

But with the First World War conscription crisis still fresh in the collective memory of Quebecers, Houde was convinced the move foreshadowed conscription.

"National registration is a prelude to conscription," Houde had written defiantly in a statement distributed to the press. "If the government wants to impose it, let the people vote for it without deceiving them this time."

The statement was all the federal government needed to order the arrest of a man who would be elected mayor seven times and earn the moniker "Mr. Montreal."

During the depression in the 1930s he spent generously to create jobs for the unemployed and also gave allowances to the poor so they could pay bills at a time when there was no social security.

Many public projects, including the city's famed chalet and Beaver Lake on top of Mount Royal, were built during this time.

While he was being detained, the police — with journalists along for the ride — wasted no time raiding his home.

They didn't find anything incriminating, but contented themselves with showing off to the media the mayor's wardrobe: silk scarves, evening shirts, suits, canes and butter gloves.

The mayor whose public spending had driven the city to near bankruptcy had quite the closet.

"In a glaze of hollow glory punctuated by the staccato bark of motorcycles which led the police cavalcade, Mayor Camillien Houde left the city," the Gazette reported at the time.

"Overstepping the bounds of decency was nothing new to Houde, but this time he also overstepped the bounds of legality," read the newspaper's editorial, referring to his stance against the registration law. "This is the silence which is indisputably golden."

He was imprisoned in Camp Petawawa in Ontario, along with many of the Italians the government locked up for suspected fascist loyalties.

In 1942, Houde was moved to Camp 70, close to Fredericton in New Brunswick. He was told he and fellow prisoners had to leave Ontario to make room for Japanese detainees, who were also rounded up and imprisoned in Canada during the war.

As France was about to be liberated, in August 1944, Houde was freed.

He returned to Montreal on a hot summer night and was met by tens of thousands of people at the city's Windsor train station.

A reporter remarked that the ex-mayor's "embonpoint, while of slightly smaller circumference, was still noticeable, as was his tooth-flashing smile."

Houde, who would be re-elected mayor in December 1944, told the crowd upon his exit from the station: "Every time the least of your rights and privileges are threatened, I will be at the front to defend you. You must feel the need to stand together."

He served as mayor until 1954 and died four years later.

On Easter Monday, April 1, 1918, newspapers reported a thick fog hung over Quebec City.

Historian Jean Provencher, in his seminal book on the riots, published parts of the coroner's report into the violence.

The coroner's inquest was told soldiers reportedly yelled to the crowd, "Come on you French sons of bitches! We'll trim you."

The Canadian Press reported that from 8:30 p.m. to midnight, "snipers fired revolvers haphazard at the military from doorways and snowbanks."

Soldiers responded with fire from Lewis guns, a type of machine-gun used in the European war theatre.

When it was over, four men were dead: Honore Bergeron, 49, Alexandre Bussieres, 25, George Demeule, 14, and Joseph-Edouard Tremblay, 23.

Morton says the conscription crisis and the Great War didn't just spur sovereigntist sentiment in Quebecers — but in all of Canada.

"One of the outcomes of the war is a disenchantment with Britain and a desire to be self-governing," he said. "Many people in Ontario before the war would say they were proud to be British. You don't hear so much of that anymore."

The conscription crisis in the news

First World War

The Gazette, Aug. 29, 1917

Military Bill Signed by the Gov.-General

Then-prime minister Robert Borden returns from the Imperial War Conference in London in May 1917 and is convinced a draft in Canada is necessary to help win the war. The bill to impose conscription is almost unanimously opposed by francophone politicians while the opposite is true in English Canada. The military bill subjects all men between the ages of 20 and 45 to conscription. At the time the law is passed, more than 130,000 Canadians have been killed or wounded in the war. Canada's population is roughly eight million. Call-ups begin Jan. 18, 1919. Of the 401,882 men who were forced to register, only 24,132 conscripts are actually sent to France.


The Gazette, March 29, 1918

Federal Police Were Assailed by Quebec Mob

The so-called Easter riots erupt in Quebec as a response to the federal government's call for conscription. The violence begins after people described as "federal detectives" aggressively arrest a young man named Joseph Mercier, who is not in possession of his military exemption papers. The police eventually release Mercier after seeing his exemption card, but a crowd had gathered outside the police station. The article reports that one of the officers who made the arrest, Leon Belanger, suffered a fractured skull. Another officer was "dragged all over the streets and roughly handled." Reports said up to 5,000 were in the streets that night.


The Gazette, March 30, 1918

Troops Called to Save Quebec from Rioters

About 3,000 people had gathered by early evening on Friday in the city's Saint-Roch district. Protesters chanted "O Canada" — a song that was to become the country's national anthem, but at the time was a patriotic French-language tune written in Quebec City in the late 19th century. The crowd swelled to many more thousands that night and some protesters began throwing bricks and rocks at buildings. Rioters set fire to the auditorium that housed records of people registered for conscription. The article says the Quebec City mayor called on the army for help after being faced with the "indifference or cowardice of some of the police force."


The Gazette, April 2, 1918

Three Killed by Soldiers in Quebec Riots

April 1, 1918 marked the deadliest day of the Easter riots. The article says the fighting between soldiers and citizens "lasted from 8:30 p.m. till midnight." The reporter said people were firing at soldiers from "behind snowbanks" and "doorways." Rioters used bricks, rifles and revolvers, while soldiers had machine-guns. In the end four people were dead: Honore Bergeron, 49, Alexandre Bussieres, 25, George Demeule, 14, and Joseph-Edouard Tremblay, 23. There were reports of injuries on both sides. Martial law was put into effect. (Note: these names are correct; the Gazette article had incorrect names for the people killed that night).


The Gazette, April 3, 1918

Quebec Sobered but Murmuring is Still Heard

Riots petered out after the killings. By April 2, there were 4,000 soldiers, reportedly from Toronto, who were guarding the city. This article discusses how soldiers feared citizens had acquired dynamite and were planning to blow up a building where the military was headquartered. A coroner's inquest begins into the deaths of the four men about a week later. The soldiers were found to have acted according to the law, but the government was told it had to pay damages to the families of the four men killed. According to testimony in 1971 from a relative of one of the victims, no compensation was ever paid.


Second World War

The Gazette, Aug. 6, 1940

Houde Arrested, Taken to Internment Camp

On the steps of city hall, mayor Camillien Houde was arrested "shortly before midnight" and driven to an internment camp in Ontario for speaking out against the National Resources Mobilization Act. The law was passed not for conscription, but to register men between the ages of 14 and 60 for home defence. A historian wrote that Houde believed "registration was a prelude to conscription." He signed a statement against registration and had dictated it to journalists. The Gazette, not a fan of the populist mayor, published an editorial calling for his arrest. Houde, the paper wrote, "for 13 years has been a storm centre of disunity in this city and province. He has fulfilled that classic definition of a demagogue."


The Gazette, April 25, 1942

Advertisement geared toward women, asking them to vote in the national plebiscite on whether to institute conscription. An increasing number of politicians and citizens in English Canada wanted prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to start a draft to help the country's European allies against the Germans and Japanese. But King had promised he wouldn't. To appease Quebecers, who were largely against overseas conscription, he called a national plebiscite on the issue.


The Gazette, April 27, 1942

Record Turnout of Voters Expected for Plebiscite

The Gazette, aggressively patriotic and pro-war, tells readers it is their "duty" to vote — and to vote the right way. "This is a momentous day in the history of Canada," reads the editorial. "Through today's plebiscite the Canadian people will tell their Government and their Allies whether the demand for an all-out war has been sincere or a humbug." On the front page of The Gazette a "ballot" is published with a clear "x" marked in the space allowing the government to be released from its earlier promise not to hold a draft.


The Gazette, April 28, 1942

Plebiscite 7 to 4 for Absolving King from Pledges; Quebec Province Sole Exception with 5 to 2 Negative

The great divide between francophone and anglophone Canada is revealed once again by the results of the plebiscite. As in the First World War, francophones massively reject the call to force men to fight overseas. About 73 per cent of Quebecers vote no, while in the rest of the country, roughly 80 per cent vote yes. A few months after the vote, the Bloc populaire party is formed in Quebec in order to fight conscription and for the rights of French-Canadians. The new party runs candidates in provincial and federal elections before disbanding in the late '40s.


The Gazette, Aug. 19, 1944

Ex-Mayor Houde Tells Newsmen He'll be in Politics; More than 10,000 Welcome Him with Cheers and Song.

Houde gets a hero's welcome after serving four years in detention, first in Ontario's Petawawa internment camp, then in a camp in New Brunswick. Some news reports said the crowd greeting him was as big as 50,000 people. He tells the crowd, "Every time the least of your rights and privileges are threatened, I will be at the front to defend you. You must feel the need there is to stand together." He also had words for anglophones: "Someday I will meet the English-speaking population and let them know the truth and they will know I was right." Despite losing his mayoralty in detention, Houde is re-elected in 1944 and again in 1947 and 1950. Houde becomes legendary figure in Montreal politics.


The Gazette, Nov. 24, 1944

16,000 Draftees Will Go Overseas Only 'If Needed'; First Batch Going Next Month; Power Quits Cabinet.

In 1944, King replaced pro-conscription defence minister with General A.G.L. McNaughton, who was reportedly against sending conscripts overseas. By November, however, the prime minister couldn't resist the pressure from his party and decided troops would leave for Europe. Charles Gavan Power, air minister in King's cabinet, resigns in protest to sit as an "Independent Liberal." Out of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who fought overseas, only 12,908 were conscripts.