Canada’s population at the start of the First World War was barely 8 million people. A significant majority of English-speaking Canadians were British-born or the children of British immigrants; about 28 percent of Canadians were of French ethnic origin.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from other parts of Europe had also settled in Canada in the previous 15 years.
Great controversy over Canadian participation in the South African War (1899-1902) and the creation of a Canadian navy in 1910 had split the nation along linguistic lines and shaken national unity. Several months after the start of the First World War
with voluntary enlistments remaining high, Prime Minister Robert Borden made a pledge that there would be no conscription for overseas service. His original promise to dispatch 25,000 volunteers was easily attained and this soon rose to 50,000. In June
1915, the Government promised 150,000 men for the war effort and in autumn this figure jumped to 250,000. On 1 January 1916, Borden doubled the commitment again to 500,000, a barely attainable figure from voluntary enlistments alone given the number
of military-age men in the country. After a sharp downturn in recruiting and the more than 10,000 casualties resulting from the seizure of Vimy Ridge (on top of other heavy losses at the front), Borden announced in May 1917 that obligatory military service
would become law, in order to ensure the country honoured his commitment of men to the war effort. This statement, and the ensuing Military Service Act passed at the end of August, triggered widespread discontent in French-speaking Canada, disappointment
among many Canadian farmers in Ontario and the west (many of whom were non-British immigrants), and vocal opposition from organized labour. Nevertheless, 125,000 new recruits were eventually conscripted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Over
24,000 conscripts arrived in France in the summer and fall of 1918. They provided essential reinforcements to the Canadian Corps and made a crucial contribution to its many successes during the Hundred Days campaign that saw a victorious end to the war.
CANADIAN SUPPORT FOR THE WAR
Despite the controversy caused by conscription, war-mindedness in Canada remained generally strong throughout the war. Canadians felt that the cause for war was just and that Germany had committed aggression and behaved immorally in its attack on Belgium
and France. Canadians happily subscribed to numerous war charities which sprang up in support of various causes including the plight of Belgian refugees or in supplying comforts to the men at the front. Canadians also purchased more than $2 billion in
Victory Bonds, interest-bearing investments issued by the Government to raise funds for the war effort. The Government also introduced an income tax in 1917. Perhaps the best-known object of Canadians’ generosity was the Canadian Patriotic Fund, the
aim of which was to financially support soldiers’ families left in difficulty by the men’s enlistments or, worse, through their death or maiming at the front. Tens of thousands of Canadian families felt the crush of bereavement for the nation’s more
than 60,000 war dead and welcomed back nearly three times that many wounded in body or mind. For these, the war did not end with the Armistice in November 1918.