This Week in History

A Double-Edged Sword

For the week of Monday, September 18, 2017

On September 20, 1917, the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act received royal assent, becoming law.

Canadian nursing sisters, called ‘Bluebirds’ by soldiers on account of their distinctive blue dresses, were among the first Canadian women to vote in a federal election
William Rider-Rider / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002279

High casualty rates and prolonged fighting on the front lines in the First World War had exhausted morale and slowed recruitment to the infantry. To bolster enlistment numbers, Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Conservative government proposed conscription, which would make military service compulsory for eligible citizens. The ensuing debate divided the country, with many farmers, pacifists, labour leaders, recent immigrants, and French-Canadians opposing the policy.

Borden feared that his support of conscription, which became law with the signing of the Military Service Act on August 29, 1917, would cost him the federal election in December of that year. Hoping to improve his chances, Borden implemented the Military Voters Act and Wartime Elections Act. This gave the vote to previously disenfranchised groups likely to support conscription.

After attending the Imperial War Conference in London and visiting the trenches himself, Borden returned to Canada with a desire to implement conscription, announcing his decision in Parliament on May 17, 1917
Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022653

The Military Voters Act gave those in military uniform the right to vote in federal elections, regardless of age, gender, or place of birth, including nursing sisters and Indigenous soldiers. The Wartime Elections Act extended that privilege to women with close relatives serving in the Canadian or British military. They were the first women to vote in Canadian federal elections.

While extending the federal franchise to women, however, the Wartime Elections Act also revoked the right to vote from many other groups, such as pacifists and conscientious objectors, who refused military service on moral or religious grounds. Recently naturalized citizens from such enemy nations as Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire were also disenfranchised. Certain foreign-born citizens remained disenfranchised until 1922, and conscientious objectors were barred from voting until 1955.

With the help of roughly 500,000 new votes from Canadian women, the 1917 election resulted in a victory for Borden and the Unionist Party, which brought together Conservatives and Liberals who supported conscription. The following year, Borden’s new government passed legislation to grant universal female suffrage.

Sir Robert Laird Borden is a designated national historic person. To learn more, read Defending our Nation: Sir Robert Laird Borden, Nellie McClung: A Feminist Icon, and Canada’s First Female MP in the This Week in History’s archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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