Thought Crimes

Exploring Canada’s silencing of dissent during World War One.

How a liberal democracy responds to dissent is an important question and often a subject of sharp division. This was amply demonstrated when in early 2015 the Conservative government introduced Bill C-51, its sweeping anti-terrorism legislation designed to protect Canadians from terrorists who, according to minister of public safety Steve Blaney, were seeking to destroy the values Canadians cherish. For many, the legislation was merely the latest attempt by the Canadian government to stifle dissent through a long list of measures that included cancelling the long-form census, muzzling scientists and auditing non-profit organizations. Yet some 82 percent of Canadians initially supported Bill C-51 and, even after a spirited attack on the legislation, support remained high, at about 40 percent. While many opposed this particular bill, nearly 60 percent of Canadians insisted that tough measures were needed to deal with terrorism, a number that has tended to rise during moments of fear such as the aftermath of the killing of two Canadian soldiers in 2014.

Historically, the Canadian government has moved quickly to silence dissent. This was true of the rebellions in the West after Confederation when Louis Riel learned the cost of opposing the authority of the state. More recently, indigenous protestors, such as those at Oka and Gustafsen Lake, have had to deal with the full force of the state. So did other Canadians during Toronto’s G20 summit in 2010.

There are indications that Canadians want their governments to deal harshly with those they regard as threatening the peace and stability of the country. Perhaps the best example came during the 1970 October Crisis when, to deal with the Front de libération du Québec, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau insisted that the country was in a state of “apprehended insurrection” and introduced the War Measures Act that suspended civil liberties, outlawed the organization, and permitted detention without habeas corpus or legal representation. Most Canadians—between 85 percent and 90 percent—welcomed his determined effort to silence dissent and protect the state against all threats.

Another determined attempt to control dissent occurred during the First World War. This is the subject of a new book by Brock Millman, a professor of history at Western University. His Canadian-based study follows his investigation of the subject in Britain. That provocative and controversial book, Managing Domestic Dissent in First World War Britain, contends that many Britons were willing to resort to violence to silence dissent at home and maintain social cohesion. For Millman, domestic dissent is a crucial element to understanding war, as conditions on the home front contribute to the outcome of any armed conflict. Although Germany had suffered major losses on the battlefield by 1918, it was troubles on the home front, Millman maintains, that cost it the war. Britain repressed its own dissenters through official and unofficial means, and he wonders whether, if the war had extended beyond 1918, growing dissent in the United Kingdom might have severely crippled the British war effort. Dissent had to be managed to maximize national effectiveness on the battlefield.

Millman’s new book examines what he describes as unusual measures by the Canadian state to “mute, intimidate, punish, and otherwise silence” opposition. In Canada this dissent came largely from enemy aliens, labour organizers and the opponents of conscription. Wartime dissent is inevitable but Canada was more aggressive than either the United States or Britain in repressing it. Millman is sympathetic to the dilemma that faced Prime Minister Robert Borden, a view that sets him apart from most other historians who have considered the subject. He suggests that if dissent had not been controlled, then Canada’s contribution would have been minimal after 1916.

What is particularly innovative about Millman’s interpretation is his claim that Canada’s state actions can be explained only by understanding the nature of Canadian society and culture that had been constructed since Confederation. His study is premised on the notion that Canada has never been a cohesive society; it was divided into at least three communities: British Canada, a disparate group encompassing native-born descendants and immigrants from Britain, the other dominions and the United States; French-speaking Canadians with a heritage dating from New France; and New Canadians who had come from a variety of other cultures during Canada’s immigration boom. These communities were self-contained, geographically concentrated and resulted in a greatly polarized Canada by 1914.

Unlike the United States, which denied its diversity, Canada acknowledged its diverse communities but was perpetually worried about the significant differences that were created. It was understood that intercommunal conflict was always a real possibility. The Canadian state therefore relied on the law to enforce a peaceful relationship between the different groups. Canada’s insistence on peace, order and good government really implied that law and order were necessary for good government. Canada required a measure of compulsion if a coherent society was to emerge, and in Millman’s telling the country’s legal system and statutes were designed to facilitate the repression of dissent to preserve the Canadian state. In 1914, for instance, the United Kingdom punished 58,653 criminals for all sorts of crimes, while Canada during the same period had a total of 183,035 convictions even though the UK’s population was six times greater than Canada’s. “A Canadian was fifteen times more likely than a Briton to be branded a ‘criminal’ in 1914,” Millman writes. Repression was seen as being necessary for nation building and the Canadian government embraced it with enthusiasm.

Wartime dissent in Canada, then, did not derive from class divisions but from communal differences and from differences in notions about what being Canadian meant. In 1914, there were different patriotisms in Canada. British Canada wanted to assist the Empire and enhance Canada’s role in it. French Canada was either ambivalent or hostile to participating in a foreign war. New Canadians had other motherlands and kin to consider even if they were grateful for Canada’s willingness to grant them entry. Those who were opposed to Canada’s determined participation in the war became the dissenters in Millman’s interpretation, and those who supported the war aims of the government were patriots. The government had to satisfy the demand and expectations of the majority patriots in British Canada. In so doing, it sometimes acted with a heavier hand than was probably necessary or advisable. Yet, if Borden had not provided the minimum action British Canada demanded it might have taken matters into its own hands and the country might have been destroyed as a result.

Millman’s will not be the final word on the subject but his bold and provocative interpretation of wartime dissent offers a new perspective on a past that many Canadians continue to find embarrassing and shameful. Perhaps the future will be different with a new prime minister who has promised a more open society than his immediate predecessor and his own father.