Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

CHAPTER 3: The Issues Crystallize

French Canadians in the Defence Forces (1 page)


Just before going to war, Canada was bitterly divided over the naval issue. Socially, no serious effort had yet been made to get French Canadians involved in the country's defence forces despite the obvious lessons shown to the leaders in both the South African war and the debate on the Naval Bill.

In the 1899-1902 conflict, it is estimated that Canada's Francophones accounted for only three percent of all contingents taken together. In the first contingent, however, drawn from the permanent force, they represented 5.4 percent of total strength. As soon as he arrived in Canada in 1898, Major-General Hutton had spotted the absence of French Canadians as a problem. One of his responses was to issue a directive, in February 1899, recommending that staff officers and instructors be able to command and train French-language militiamen in their own tongue. Apparently Hutton had grasped the obvious: To get French Canadians to participate in the Empire's military undertakings, the authorities would have to go to them. Hutton, who spoke French, had to defend his regulation in Toronto. [60] During the summer of 1899, two further directives were issued laying down conditions for language tests.

The South African war interrupted Hutton's efforts in that direction, while he paid dearly for some of his mistakes made in other sectors of his activities. Nonetheless one of Hutton's officers, Oscar Pelletier, always regarded him with a "sentiment of strong attachment, admiration and gratitude" [61] - either because Hutton had promised him a battalion in South Africa or because of Hutton's approach to the Francophone issue.

After Hutton's departure and while the militia were being reorganized to reflect some of the lessons learned in South Africa, the French fact was left in the background. "Only English was used officially, although two artillery units out of 18 and 27 of the 166 infantry regiments (battalions) were Francophone on the eve of the Great War." [62]

When the Canadian Naval Service was being founded, in spite of the presence of the deputy minister, Georges Desbarats, and of L.P Brodeur, who was replaced as minister between August and October 1911 by Rodolphe Lemieux, the French-language issue was ignored. Most of the British officers serving in Canada paid no attention to it, although they were reminded that Canada was "a bilingual country [where] French and English are on an equal footing." 63 Brodeur wrote to Desbarats in August 1910 that if training was not made available in both languages, which would require bilingual instructors, unilingual Francophones would be excluded. This vision would go no further in the navy as it was in 1910, with neither a body nor a soul. The Conservative minister of militia as of 1911, Sam Hughes, was far from friendly to Francophones and their language. A year after Hughes arrived, in fact, the sole ranking Francophone at headquarters, Colonel François-Louis Lessard, Adjutant-General since 1 April 1907, was replaced by an Anglophone. When Canada went to war, its militia was barely nine percent Francophone and 20 percent of its officers were British. To conclude, no one seems to have been sensitive to the French fact. No affinity appears to have developed between the two majority peoples of European origin in Canada, even though it had supposedly been built on two languages, two cultures and two peoples.