The Conscription Crisis of 1917 was a political and military crisis in Canada during World War I. It was mainly caused by disagreement on whether men should be conscripted to fight in the war, and with whom should they fight it with. It nearly destroyed the country itself and is considered by many as a turning point in Quebec’s strive for independence.
Since then, Canada has relegated itself to be a middle power, which is a relative term determined by a functional model, a state seeking greatness from multilateralism. It began to gain this status during the postwar period, aiding superpowers like the United Kingdom and the United States. Along with this role is the mission of keeping a cosmopolitan ideology through successive Canadian governments regardless of party.
But this presents the problem of a country stretching itself too thin. In trying to aid other states to assert a powerful stature, it ends up creating damage at the home base. There should be either a balance or a focus on foreign policies that would stabilize Canada’s middling role on the world stage. As a middle power, Canada’s objective was to be an international player that influenced events through moral leadership, peacekeeping and conflict mediation.
After the world wars, this meant aiding superpowers in the Cold War. But as the twenty-first century approached, its peacekeeping efforts required the military once again. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected Canada as a middle power and wanted to pursue a more individualistic approach. Canada’s role in the United States’ Afghanistan war began in late 2001. Canadian special forces were sent against the Taliban, battalions were deployed in 2002, and soldiers were sent to Kabul to help maintain the peace. Canada’s biggest role would be the counterinsurgency and rehabilitation in Kandahar, which lasted from 2006 to 2011. This eventually led to training the Afghan National Army, before finally withdrawing in 2014. In some respects, this mission may seem like a success, especially in Kandahar, where they were able to improve irrigation, education, and polio eradication, to name a few.
However, the repeated stream of reinforcements and supplies became too costly for it to be a true victory. The public opinion back home did not do their country’s role any favors, either. The media coverage of the mission was episodic, intensifying when there was a debate in Parliament and fading the rest of the time. This contrasted sharply with the commitments made by those journalists who went to Afghanistan and embedded with the troops. Because of their efforts, Canadians had a good picture of the events in Afghanistan and the challenges that rose from it. This did not make the war any less confusing for a middle ground like Canada, as making progress in a counter-insurgency campaign is hard to measure. Successive surveys conducted by various pollsters across the political spectrum suggest opposition to the war in the general consumption grew with time. These opinions came from varying groups of people wearing different kinds of hats – as this is also the time that mass immigration has begun to hit Canada at an all-time high, adding to the cosmopolitan image that the country wants to project.
The media and public were attentive, and they have used this attention to pressure the government to adapt to civil society’s first and foremost interests and wills. There was also similar pressure from the battlefield in Afghanistan, rendering Ottawa divided with ministers of various departments wanting different things. It created false expectations between bureaucracies. With the current administration of Justin Trudeau, Canada is aiming to bid on a temporary United Nations Security Council seat in 2021 to 2022. This move is a return to the traditional Canadian approach to the foreign policy rooted in the middle power, multilateralism, and the active promotion of Canadian cosmopolitanism. However, times have changed. Most notably, Canada’s steadfast and unconditional support of both Ukraine and Israel have damaged the country’s reputation as a quiet and effective honest broker.
The latter even caused a partial isolation of Canada at the UN. In doing so, Canada abandoned its tradition of working with diverse, like-minded partners in favor of closer alignment to the U.S. and NATO. Moreover, the previous administration’s policies wildly differed against this one’s. It abandoned the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights, which are issues that Canada had been pioneering since the 1970s. Furthermore, for a country so proud of its cosmopolitan melting pot, it has yet to produce palpable improvement in its treatment of its indigenous people.
The severe whiplash from these two consecutive administrations can cause an unstable dynamic in between its public and their beliefs. The Conscription Crisis in 1917 is without a doubt, the root cause in Canada’s determination to keep the peace in between two parties, whether locally or internationally. It also brought out many issues regarding relations between French Canadians and English Canadians and motivated many revolutionary acts.
It influenced its world role as a middle power, allowing it more creativity and neutral ground in creating its own path. As then a young country, its eagerness to aid other nations became an asset. But in trying to cater to all sectors, the government ends up servicing none. It must learn that every state is for itself so that it could rise above the expectation.