The fact that Canada was nearly torn apart through the Conscription Crisis in 1917 can, at least, partly, be traced back to Kemptville! Although Conscription was opposed in the West, by Labour leaders, as well as by those who were against the war itself, most of the focus of opposition lay in Quebec. And while it was stated repeatedly at the time, and ever since, that this was an anti-war attitude on the part of French Canadians, the situation was not nearly as clear-cut as that.
Many French Canadians saw the war as a European Imperialist conflict, with which Canada should have nothing to do. But there was one issue in particular which had soured Francophones on joining in any British venture, particularly one that was heavily supported by Orange Ontario: Regulation 17. The regulation prohibited primary schools from using French as a language of instruction or communication beyond grade 2 and capped the amount of time primary school students could receive instruction in French as a subject to one hour per day. Schools that ignored the regulations would lose their funding, and teachers would lose their certification.
Regulation 17 owed a great deal of its force and controversy to G. Howard Ferguson, native of Kemptville and prime mover in the Conservative Government of measures to curtail French language services in education in Ontario. Ferguson served on the village council and was Reeve from 1900 to 1902. He constantly linked the dangers of bilingual education in Canada to threats to its British character.
“This is a British country and we must maintain it as such if we are to maintain the high destiny that Providence intended for Canada…If Ontario can demonstrate that the bilingual system is unnecessary, she has won a great victory for British citizenship”.
The leader of Quebec Nationalists, Henri Bourassa, had explicitly linked Regulation 17 to the war in Europe when he declared: “Why go and get killed by Prussians in Europe when we are being persecuted right here by the Prussians in Ontario?” When the leader of the Liberal Party, Wilfrid Laurier, was invited by the Prime Minister, Robert Borden, to join a Union Government to introduce conscription and prosecute the war in 1917, Laurier refused, knowing how strongly conscription would be resisted in Quebec. Borden had promised, at the start of the war, that conscription would never be used. Breaking this promise, it was felt, insulted the incredible sacrifices and achievements of the Royal 22e Régiment, known as the Van Doos, which suffered around 4,000 casualties during the war, earning two Victoria Crosses on the way.
In addition, a special fundraising effort for the Patriotic Fund in February, 1917, had been very successful. People in Quebec donated one day’s pay to the Fund, and both Francophone newspapers provided free space for the initiative. Almost two-thirds of the donors were French Canadians. Conscription seemed like a betrayal, and emotions were to reach fever pitch in early 1918, when machine guns were used against protestors in Quebec City, killing four men. As can be seen in the pages of the Weekly Advance, racist attitudes dominated in many Ontario communities, labelling Quebeckers as pro-German and a direct threat to Canada. Confederation was faced with a serious danger in its 50th year. Howard Ferguson’s rhetoric and legislation was reaping an unfortunate harvest.