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The Politics of Wartime

The First World War provoked numerous changes on the home front here in Canada, some of which carried significant socio-political importance. Times of war and upheaval often prompt a reconsideration of a nation’s political, social, cultural, and religious norms. For Canadians, two of the major socio-political debates to emerge as a result of the First World War were Conscription and women’s enfranchisement (the right to vote). Both issues were hotly contested by Oxford County residents, demonstrating that ideas about military duty, social mores, and gender roles were in flux.


In the early months of the war, recruitment campaigns in Oxford County were able to attract sufficient numbers of volunteers. By the end of 1915, though, voluntary enlistment had dropped and this trend continued well into the next year. In 1916 and 1917, as the Canadian Expeditionary Force increasingly engaged in hard-fought battles and the names on casualty lists grew, across Canada recruitment nosedived. Eligible recruits realized that the war would not be ending soon, and military service could very well result in death, serious wounds, or illness. Major battles where the Canadian forces suffered numerous casualties, such as Vimy Ridge, stimulated discussions about how to get new recruits to take the place of the dead and wounded. If voluntary recruitment was not working, then mandatory enlistment may have to be instituted.

Here in Oxford, citizens were divided over the issue; supporters of Conscription tended to be those with British ancestry and who had family members serving overseas. For them, Conscription might help bring their loved ones home safely. Local opponents were mostly farmers who worried about subsisting if they or their labourers were called away to fight. There was also the important question of who was going to produce the crops needed to feed the troops? Oxford was considered an important agricultural region, its many food products sent overseas during the war to feed soldiers and civilians. By May of 1917, Canadians were so embroiled in the Conscription debates that the matter was dividing the country, pitting families, friends, and neighbours against one another. Rioting and violence erupted; men not in uniform were often shamed and harassed.

Sir Robert Laird Borden, eighth Prime Minister of Canada
Sir Robert Laird Borden, eighth Prime Minister of Canada, 1918 C

Parliament eventually passed the Military Service Act in August 1917, which deemed any male between the ages of 20 and 45 eligible for service. But, in the end, the Conscription debates that tore the country apart were pointless as the Act was a difficult piece of legislation to enforce due to the many alterations to its mandate. Promises to farmers were not met, various groups were still exempted from service, and the selection process was disorganized. The government was able to get 400,000 eligible Canadian men to register, but only 1 out of 4 were conscripted. Of these, less than 25,000 served overseas. However, their efforts were certainly integral to the success of the allies, especially in the closing months of the war.

Women’s Enfranchisement

When the First World War began in 1914, most women across Canada could not exercise one of the most basic of human rights―voting. Women who owned property could vote in municipal elections, but beyond this the scope of female political power was limited. Women’s enfranchisement, commonly referred to as the “suffrage question,” was a popular cause in Britain, the United States, and Canada in the 1910s. Many influential female suffragists emerged, including Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, who was born and raised in Norwich. Though the suffrage movement temporarily took a backseat to war work, feminists in Canada still tried to pursue their cause during the war years. Many Canadians, however, still had difficulty accepting the idea of women voting. Throughout the 1910s, stories printed in Oxford County newspapers about the suffrage question rarely painted it in a positive light, instead focusing on the dangerous activities of more militant suffragists and why voting rights for women would be a costly experiment for Canada. The anti-suffragist cause was composed of both male and female supporters; many women did not see the need for voting rights when their husbands voted on behalf of the entire family.  

Group of women
Group of women in Woodstock, 1918 C (Credit: Woodstock Museum NHS)

However, the war encouraged a re-examination of the role of women in Canadian politics (i.e., that they did not have one). Many women disagreed with the federal government’s decision to follow Britain into the war, and resented Prime Minister Robert Borden for taking their husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers away from them. A popular sentiment to emerge from the war was that if women could vote, wars would not happen. The federal election of 1917 served as an opportune time to talk about enfranchisement. As the Ingersoll Chronicle noted, “the old supposition that if woman was given the franchise she would be illogical, impulsive and not sufficiently conversant with national issues to wield an influence, has been shattered.” The Chronicle also noted that of late, women in Ingersoll had begun to engage in the “game of politics,” showing “zest and vigor” for the issues driving the 1917 election.

An important part of Prime Minister Borden’s re-election campaign was to stay in the good graces of Canadian women by offering them the vote. Borden proposed a new measure, the Wartime Elections Act, which would give women over the age of 21 with male relatives serving overseas the right to vote in federal elections. After much debate, parliament passed the Wartime Elections Act in September 1917. By 1918, the franchise had expanded to include all Canadian women over the age of 21, with the exception of those who were of Asian or Aboriginal descent.



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