Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


History of the Canadian Militia


[This text was published in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]

The militia system of Canada in recent times, both before and since the Great War, has been one of paid volunteers. The system was such that General von Bernhardi, before the Great War, predicted that the Canadian militia could be "completely ignored, so far as concerns any European theatre of war". This proved in the event to be an unhappy forecast; but it was founded on a juster appreciation of the Canadian militia system than has been generally recognized. That the duty of defending the country should be thrown on a patriotic or necessitous few, rather than on the whole population of military age, is not a sound principle; and it has proved ineffective in practice, as has been pointed out repeatedly by the reports of British inspecting officers.


But the severest condemnation of the Canadian militia system has come, not from British or German generals, but from a Canadian militiaman who came of a family long arid honourably con­nected with the Canadian militia. Colonel Hamilton Merritt described the Canadian militia as "perhaps the most expensive and ineffective military system of any civilized community in the world."


Canada has not always placed her reliance on paid volunteers. The Canadian militia which gave such a good account of itself in the War of 1812, at Châteauguay and Crysler's Farm, at Queenston Heights and Lundy's Lane, was based on the principle of universal military service. Under the Lower Canada Militia Act of 1803 and the Upper Canada Milita Act of 1808, the militia was composed of all able-bodied men (except Quakers and others whose religious convictions forbade military service) between the ages of 18 and 60 years. An annual muster of the militia was held, at which attendance was compulsory, under penalty of a heavy fine. In case of emergency, a levée en masse might be ordered; if this were not necessary, provision was made for the drafting of militiamen by ballot or lot. There was, it was true, no provision for the training of the militia; the period of active service was limited to six months; and there was an absence of any higher organization for war. In order to obviate the disadvantages arising from the six months' period of service, various devices were adopted. "Select Embodied" battalions were formed, which were kept permanently on foot, but were composed of successive drafts of six-months men; "flank companies" were organized, in which the men served continuously, but were at liberty to attend to their farms and businesses when not urgently needed; and regular provincial corps were authorized, composed of men who volunteered to serve continuously - and without intermission. The "brave York volunteers" whom Brock is said to have urged to "push on" at Queenston Heights were not volunteers in the modern sense of the word; they were men who had waived their right of discharge at the end of six months, and who might have been described as provincial regulars. But defective though the application of the principle of universal military service was in 1812, the principle itself was in force.


Universal military service did not disappear from the statute-books of Canada until long after 1812. It was not, indeed, until 1904 that the Canadian militia ceased to be theoretically at least, the nation in arms. In the Militia Act of that year the old declaration that the militia consisted of all male inhabitants of military age was changed to the provision that all male inhabitants of military age, with certain exceptions, "shall be liable to serve in the militia". But this was merely the legislative recognition of a change which had long since come to pass. In the half-century that had followed the War of 1812, the old militia had fallen more and more into disrepute. Little attempt had been made to develop or improve it; no provision was made for arming, clothing, or paying it; and the annual muster had become little more than a civilian enrolment, inconvenient because of the interruption of business, and sometimes excessively convivial. Such a militia offered little scope for those interested in soldiering; and it was not surprising that what military spirit there was in the country found expression in the formation of small volunteer corps, such as the troops of cavalry maintained for many years in Toronto through the efforts of the Denison family, or the species of infantry battalion in Montreal known as the Montreal Fire Brigade. When, at the time of the Crimean War, the Canadian government cast about for means of strengthening the military forces of the country, it seized on the idea of these volunteer formations. It did not indeed abolish the old militia, which now became known as the "sedentary militia"; but side by side with this, it set up a volunteer force which was to provide other branches of the service than the infantry of which the sedentary militia was com­posed. These volunteers were to undergo a specified number of days' training in the year, and they were under obligation to provide their own uniforms; but the government undertook to supply them with arms and accoutrements, and to pay them at rates ranging from $1 a day for a private to $2.10 a day for a captain. The authorized establishment of this volunteer force was fixed by the Act of 1855 at only 5,000; but it was the nucleus out of which has grown the volunteer militia of Canada to-day.


The great battle between the prin­ciples of voluntaryism and universal military service took place in 1862. In that year John A. Macdonaldbrought into the legislature a bill which, while it retained the volunteers as a special feature, threw the main burden of the defence of the country on the old militia, which it proposed to strengthen and develop. Unfortunately, however, the government went down to defeat over the bill; and the Liberal govern­ment which succeeded it was com­mitted to the voluntary system. The Act of 1863, which the new government placed upon the statute books, raised the establishment of the volunteer corps to 35,000; and on this force it placed the major portion of the duty of defending the province. It continued in existence the old militia, under the two categories of "service militia", chosen by ballot, and "non-service militia", corresponding to the former "sedentary militia"; but these for­mations existed only on paper. The old annual muster had been falling into disuse; and without it the old militia was virtually non-existent.


This was the system inherited and adopted by the Dominion of Canada at the time of Confederation. The Militia Act of 1868, which laid the basis of the militia system of the new Do­minion, merely continued the policy of 1863. The ";,volunteer militia" remained the chief feature of the Canadian mili­tary organization; and the old militia, while it was continued, and was sub­divided into "regular militia", "marine militia", and "reserve militia", was allowed from the first to degenerate into a dead letter. The annual muster of the whole militia disappeared; for two or three years a muster was held of the "regular militia"; then it became the custom to omit even this; and in 1883 the clauses enjoining the annual muster were at last wiped from the statute book. Thus passed away the last vestige of the old militia of Canada , which had won so many of the battles of 1812-15; and the new system of paid volunteers took its place. The change did not take place without protest. In the Fenian raids of 1866 and 1870 the new volunteer militia received its bap­tism of fire; and the volunteers them­selves found how ineffective the volun­teer system was, and how unfairly it worked. While they were not only undergoing the dangers and hardships of active service, but were suffering also serious financial loss, their less patriotic fellow-citizens, whom they were defending, were making money and were at ease in Zion. Many of the veterans of the Fenian raids urged the resumption of the universal military service of the old Militia Acts; but the government was deaf to their entreaties, and the country moved steadily farther and farther away from the idea that military service was a function of citizen­ship, until, under the stress of the greatest of all wars, it was compelled to revert to the idea in 1917.


Between 1867 and 1914, of course, the Canadian volunteer system was greatly developed and improved. A comprehensive headquarters organization was worked out, with a Militia Council and a chief of the general staff acting under the minister of Militia and Defence, after the British model. A number of special services were created, such as the Canadian Army Medical Corps and the Canadian Army Service Corps, which took over the duties performed by the auxiliary services of the British army before the withdrawal of the bulk of the British troops in Canada shortly after Confederation. A small permanent militia force, about 3,000 strong was formed for the purpose of doing garrison duty after the last of the British troops were withdrawn, at the time of the South African War. The country was divided into military districts or "divisional areas"; and in each of these was set up a district or divisional headquarters. Much progress was made along the lines of the establishment of military training schools, the erection of armouries and drill-sheds, the holding of training camps, and the improvement of arms and equipment. The various arms of the service were brought into something like a due relation with each other; and Canada 's volunteer militia began to assume the complexion of a coherent and self-contained defensive force.


Great, however, as the improvement was during these years, it still left much to be desired. In the first place, the system did not yield a sufficient number of men for even the most modest defensive purposes. The war establishment of the militia was fixed at 150,000 men; but out of a total of over one million men in Canada of military age, the paper strength of the Canadian militia before 1914 was never more than 60,000, and its actual strength was much below this. The numbers of those who presented annually for training was never more than 45,000, and was sometimes less than 40,000, many of whom were raw recruits. There were presumably many thousands of men throughout the country who had at one time served in the militia, but no attempt was made to keep track of these, and no provisions were made for a reserve, except of officers. In the second place, the arrangements for mobilizing the militia were hopelessly defective. There were no local mobilization store-houses; and there were scarcely any stores to put in them, had they existed. It took several weeks to mobilize at Valcartier in 1914 the 30,000 men of the First Canadian Contingent. Had it been necessary to mobilize immediately the whole of the Canadian militia to repel an invasion, the invasion would have been over before mobilization. had really begun. In the third place, the Canadian militia was at best imperfectly trained. Both officers and men had regarded the summer training camps more as a pleasant and inexpensive way of taking a summer outing than as anything else. In rifle-shooting some of the militia attained a high degree of efficiency, and Canadian marksmen gave as a rule a good account of themselves at Bisley; but the average over the whole militia was low. Here, as elsewhere, the voluntary system produced great inequalities. Some regiments and batteries, through the efforts of their commanding officers, reached a high degree of efficiency; other were a mere Falstaffian array.


When the Great War broke out in 1914, Canada was perhaps the least prepared of all the countries which became involved in the struggle. Even her sister Dominions, Australia , New Zealand , and South Africa , had already adopted the principle of universal military training. Canada herself in 1917 was compelled to adopt the principle of compulsory military service. Yet, after the conclusion of peace in 1919, Canada reverted to the old system of paid volunteers. The militia units since 1919 have owed much of their vigour to the services of many officers and men who served in the Great War; and despite pitifully small appropriations by parliament they have carried on with a success proportionate to their selfsacrifice. But the lessons of history have meant, apparently, nothing to the Canadian parliament; and the Canadian militia is to-day, in point of numbers, training, and equipment, even less prepared for war than it was in 1914.


See C. F. Hamilton, "Defence, 1812-1912", in A. Shortt and A. G. Doughty (eds.), Canada and its provinces, Vol. vii (Toronto, 1913), and The Canadian militia ( Canadian Defence Quarterly , 1928); E. J. Chambers, The Canadian militia (Montreal, 1907) ; G. Tricoche, Les milices françaises et anglaises au Canada (Paris, 1902); B. Sulte, Histoire de la milice canadienne française, 1760- 1897 (Montreal, 1899) ; and the numerous regimental histories published by E. J. Chambers and others.

Source: W. S. WALLACE, ed., "Militia", in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 400p., pp. 290-294.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College