THE LESSONS OF THE ’42 REFERENDUMMay 10th, 1992
The media have been prompted by current talk of referenda to review the federal plebiscite of April, 1942, and its disharmony for a nation at war.
The ballot asked whether the Mackenzie King government should be released from any obligation to previous commitments not to send overseas men who had been drafted for military service.
There were almost twice as many positive votes but overwhelmingly Quebecers (and French Canadians elsewhere) voted no. Most citizens in eight of the nine provinces approved the draft for overseas war.
The replays of the plebiscite have emphasized King’s wiliness, his discomfiture at the gap it showed between the proverbial “two nations,” and the dangers of such a direct device for settling a divisive national issue.
The moral from the ’42 plebiscite? Simple enough! A national referendum to approve or reject a new Constitution could be destructive.
Few of the recent stories on the ’42 vote laid out the context of affairs in early 1942.
The context is missing largely because the Allied forces won the war over the Axis powers in smashing fashion three years later. Hindsight sees the triumphs as inevitable, given the mismatch in resources.
It seemed a mismatch in early ’42 – only the other way. A fear of defeat seized many Canadians. The roll call of disasters had truly begun with the fall of France in June, 1940, but it became a chorus of doom after the smashing Japanese carrier force raid on Pearl Harbor. In three months, Hong Kong and Singapore were gone, Burma was being lost. The Philippines, Java and Sumatra were going. Australia’s north coast seemed open. So did our West Coast. Neither the Royal Navy nor the U.S. Navy seemed certain to halt “the Yellow Peril.”
The U-boat menace in the Atlantic was worsening. Our navy was desperately trying to do its share of convoy escort in the Western Atlantic with too few ships and inadequate equipment. Hitler controlled almost all of mainland Europe and most of Western Russia, and he was almost master of the whole Mediterranean basin.
While it was a relief to us that Japanese treachery had brought the Americans into the war, it was plain fact that everywhere in early 1942 the news was grim. Already the U.S. had conscription for overseas service. It was galvanizing for all-out war with an enormous appetite for revenge, especially against the Japanese. Canadians shared this, even the French Canadians. An argument in Quebec by those fighting for “no” votes was that they were ready to defend Canada, and Canada now needed defending.
American zeal prompted us. A society of just 12 million, we were stretching into a war effort with huge productive expansions in foodstuffs, vehicles, aircraft, guns, munitions, merchant ships and corvettes. We envisaged an army of six divisions, a navy capable of running the Western Atlantic, the hosting and staffing of a massive Commonwealth training plan for aircrew, and scores of Canadian bomber and fighter squadrons.
That was the context for the 1942 vote.
The result shocked me. There our regiment was, manning obsolete rifles on B.C.’s shores. Total victory seemed far away, perhaps impossible. Surely voters couldn’t deny King a mandate for all-out commitment. Well, they did not. But the clear “no” of most French Canadians meant King had to put off overseas dispatch of conscripts for three years.
The ’42 vote made me distressingly aware there were two peoples here. Canada was not a unified community then, and today’s Canada remains two peoples.
A national referendum on the Constitution seems sure to confirm the old distinctions. It’s why a reformed Constitution negotiated and confirmed by elected politicians is safer.
Source: BY DOUGLAS FISHER, TORONTO SUNTop
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