The recruitment of men for overseas service proceeded well throughout 1941. Casualties were still sufficiently light to allow Canada to fill its quotas through voluntary enlistments. Yet some people in the country were already convinced that conscription was necessary if Canada was to fight a total war. Even Colonel J.L. Ralston, Minister of National Defence, believed that the government needed the power to conscript men for overseas service. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King disagreed. He refused to break his vow to the people of Quebec that there would be no conscription.

J.L. Granatstein et al., Nation: Canada Since Confederation, 3d ed. (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson), p. 385.

Canadian Army Enlistments, 1939-46.

Canada's military was a completely voluntary force until 1944. Because of the fear that casualties would outstrip enlistments, military officials put pressure on William Lyon Mackenzie King's government to invoke forced military service, or conscription. In 1944, the King government implemented conscription for overseas service, sending 2,463 NRMA (National Resource Mobilization Act) soldiers to the battlefields abroad. To that point, NRMA troops had been conscripted for home defence alone.
National Archives of Canada (C-029452).

Roony Club Dogcart Promoting Plebiscite on Conscription, Toronto, Ontario, 27 April 1942.

On 27 April 1942, the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King held a plebiscite on the issue of conscription for overseas service. Although Canadians at large voted in favour of conscription for overseas service, a majority of Quebecers (72 per cent) voted against the proposition.

Looking for an answer to his dilemma, he called for a national vote. The government held a plebiscite on 27 April 1942 asking Canadian voters to release the government from its promise not to introduce conscription. The plebiscite read: "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?" French-speaking Quebecers were not. Quebec's leaders argued that French Canadians were prepared to fight in defence of their own country, but they did not want to go to war overseas. In Quebec, almost 74 per cent of the people voted "No" to conscription. In English Canada, though, a large majority of 80 per cent voted "Yes" to the question.

The government then amended the National Resources Mobilization Act to give it the power to conscript men for overseas service. But King still promised not to do so unless absolutely necessary. Quebec was unhappy, and one French-Canadian minister resigned, but the government did not split over the issue in 1942. The crisis had been delayed, at least temporarily.


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