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Polarity, Patriotism and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919

By Brock Millman

Review By James Wood

May 21, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 209-212

Premised on his insight that “If there is an arithmetic to the management of dissent, there is also a mathematics” (6), Brock Millman’s study of the polarization of Canadian society into supporters and opponents of participation in the Great War considers the issues that threatened the nation. He shows that the numbers — the “arithmetic” of critical concerns, including wages, riots, wartime trials, and conscription — reveal only the factual surface. It is only when we analyse more deeply the underlying “mathematics” of dissent that we can explain the less apparent cultural divisions and motivations that led to the repressive measures of Robert Borden’s Conservative/Unionist government during the war.

In this important and wide-ranging book, Millman goes beyond the traditional emphasis on the binary French-English tensions that divided the Canadian home front to provide a more complete depiction of a three-way split that threatened to defeat the government and tear the country apart. The third party in such a split were New Canadians, often recent immigrants from Germany and Austria, who were regarded as Enemy Aliens. Millman uses multiple examples, taken largely from the daily newspapers of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Windsor, and Berlin (Kitchener), to illustrate that wartime dissent, sabotage, riots, conspiracies, and failed plots were far more widespread than generally acknowledged in Canadian literature of the Great War. In particular, he disputes views such as those presented by John Thompson in “The Alien Enemy,” in Loyalties and Conflict (1983), who identifies ongoing nativist resentment, legitimized by an atmosphere charged with patriotism, as the cause of racist oppression of minorities during the war. Millman asserts that the problem was far more severe than is commonly recognized, and that actual treachery threatened the nation far more severely than we often realize (75). He argues that Canada experienced real threats from German Americans, who conspired in the middle years of the war to strike at the British enemy in North America.

The most vocal patriots were in Ontario, British Columbia, and the Maritimes, where the dominant settler populations were devoted to British traditions and the imperial connection. Many families had soldiers at the front, many of whom were Anglican and Conservative. Sometimes they were members of the Orange Lodge. Most dissenters were French Canadians or New Canadians, particularly those who were, or were perceived to be, Alien Enemies, a term loosely applied to the large number of recent German, Austrian, and East European immigrants (7). Using his expertise from researching two previous works on dissent and war policy in Britain, Millman emphasizes the proportional severity of Canadian wartime legislation, censorship, and the remarkable total of 24,000 wartime political trials for violations of Canada’s War Measures Act and related legislation. Millman argues that the traditional wartime historiography does not go far enough. For example, he finds Jeff Keshen’s Propaganda and Censorship during Canada’s Great War (1996) too narrow in focus. Millman contends that the Canadian government did not just use censorship to restrict expression of unacceptable opinion: it oppressively silenced opposition and in the process dominated public debate (286). In his frequent comparisons to the more limited level of governmental control in Britain, Millman emphasizes that while British socialists and labour wartime dissenters were geographically dispersed and a minority everywhere, in Canada the potentially disruptive groups were concentrated in particular regions and cultural groups. In Quebec, for example, “the man most apt to be chased through the streets by an outraged mob was probably a federal policemen or soldier attempting to enforce the MSA [Military Service Act] for conscription” (251). In other areas, it was the dissenter or Alien Enemy who found himself a harassed minority.

The war years saw a steady rise in British Canadian resentment toward French Canadian “slackers” alongside “disloyal” New Canadians suspected of supporting the enemy. In a “wartime arithmetic” that did not add up, soldiers were paid $1.10 per day, while in Canada war industry workers made $3.50 per day, and Western farmworkers would not work for less than $5.00 per day (101). For Borden’s government, management of dissent was not an easy task and each measure of repression was a product of complicated calculation. A significant portion of Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent is devoted to labour tensions arising in British Columbia out of nativist sentiment and driven forward under radical leadership, often British or American in origin. In coal mining or logging towns of the interior, and in dock works and shipyards on the coast, the numbers of returning soldiers dramatically increased unrest as the war raged on. British Canadians called for vigorous action against all perceived opponents of the war. Millman explains the math: “If the government did not take at least half measures, British Canada was very apt to institute a full-blown policy of repression with or without government authority” (203). Wartime fear of spies and sabotage gave way to postwar demands that jobs go to returning veterans rather than to slackers, Bolsheviks, or Alien workers (191).

The arithmetic behind conscription was that mounting casualties on the Western Front were accompanied by falling rates of voluntary enlistment. This led to the “mathematics” of the conscription crisis in Canada, with the Borden government faced by almost universal opposition by French Canadians and farmers. Millman asks, “Why would a government introduce a policy likely to produce a reaction that would keep their party out of government for a generation?” (33). The answer, of course, was that Borden’s commitment to the men at the front led him to enact measures that would provide the reinforcements needed to keep them alive. The manpower crisis, however, had to be balanced with the necessity to maintain order on the home front.

In the context of Canada’s three-way divide, Borden’s government had to impose conscription before a vigilante backlash from British Canada forced them to do so under even less favourable terms. Millman asserts that “Borden did not make mistakes. He did the best he could in the circumstances in which his government found itself” (33). Not all Canadian historians would agree; Tim Cook, for example, refers to the “disgraceful” election of 1917, which he asserts was based on dubious decisions and morally questionable legislation. Cook states: “The Unionists’ drive to win the war at any cost was driving the country apart” (Warlords, 134), whereas Millman views Unionist actions as a response that was intended to prevent such a disaster from occurring. Repressive measures on Canada’s home front, he contends, were aimed more at satisfying patriots than controlling dissidents. Borden’s government “had not lost its understanding of mathematics” (233).


Cook, Tim. 2012. Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, And Canada’s World Wars. Toronto: Allen Lane Canada.
Keshen, Jeffrey A. 1996. Propaganda and Censorship During Canada’s Great War. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.
Thompson, John Herd, and Frances Swyipa, editors. 1983. Loyalties in Conflict: Ukrainians in Canada During the Great War. Toronto: CIUS Press.

Polarity, Patriotism and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919
Brock Millman
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. 358 pp. $34.95 paper