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Antony Anderson: The most divisive election in Canadian history

Commentary

Canadians’ ignorance of our own history is a pervasive and regrettable problem. The Hub is pleased to play a small part in attempting to turn this tide by presenting a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

December 17, 1917: The conscription election is held

How do you deal with fellow Canadians when they’re traitors to Empire, King, and Country? 

How could you be loyal to any country that insisted you die for a foreign monarch and a distant war? 

These were the irreconcilable accusations French and English Canadians hurled at each other as they lurched towards the most bitter, divisive election in our history. By 1917, close to 130,000 Canadians, all volunteers, had been wounded or slain in a bloodbath that was supposed to have been a short, jolly romp to thrash the Hun. The francophone solitude had no desire to march off to ravenous killing fields. The grieving anglophone solitude demanded the government bring in conscription to compel the slackers to do their duty. 

Prime Minister Robert Borden had originally promised not to bring in conscription but the first patriotic surges had dimmed and not enough men were rallying to the cause. Determined to maintain Canada’s commitment, Borden decided to break his pledge, knowing full well this would inflame Quebec and farming communities across the West desperate for hired hands. Anxious for a show of unity, Borden set out to establish a coalition government which would then bring in the dreaded legislation. Liberal leader of the opposition and the first francophone prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier refused to join. He would not break faith with his own people. The vast majority of his MPs held steady and did not cross the floor. Borden managed to persuade ten prominent Liberal anglophones to join the new Union Cabinet in a temporary uneasy alliance that gave the barest glimmer of unity. He called the election for December 17th.

To win the election, Borden did everything he could to rig the vote. Historians have called him cynical but that misses the mark. In 1917, the war was not some distant abstraction. Every family had been touched by death. Borden himself had sat at the bedside of wounded soldiers in Europe and wept. He felt duty-bound to honour their sacrifice so he was ruthless. He took the vote away from conscientious objectors and from immigrants who had arrived after 1902 from “enemy alien countries”, (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire). He gave the vote to soldiers at war for the first time. He gave the vote to certain women for the first time, specifically those women with a father, husband, son or brother in uniform. The gerrymandering was breathtaking but it was all done, as Borden saw it, to defeat barbarism, preserve decency and democracy, save the Empire, and uphold Canada’s honour. In the furious campaign, both sides accused the other of treachery and moral corruption. Each was convinced of their own righteousness. Each refused to listen to the other.   

On December 17, 86 percent of the electorate cast their vote, the highest turnout in a Canadian election to this day. 1,077,569 loyal Canadians, 57 percent of the electorate, voted for conscription. Two of those votes were cast by future prime ministers, then in uniform, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker. On the other side of the emotional chasm, 548,611 loyal Canadians, 35 percent of the electorate, voted Liberal. Triumph and devastation ruled the day. 

The Union party won a solid majority with 153 seats while the Liberals managed to hold 82. The provincial results revealed the true extent of the “racial” division. The anti-conscriptionist Liberals were decimated in the Maritimes and Ontario and nearly wiped out in the West. The survivors were anchored in Quebec, taking 62 of the 65 seats. The largely anglophone Union government had secured a poisoned mandate to compel Canadians into uniform by taking national unity to the brink. 

Despite all the rage and rancour, the wounded Dominion endured. The war would at last end the following year before many of the new conscripts would even reach Europe. The Union party no longer had a reason to exist and was dissolved for the next election. Tempers cooled though no one forgot. 

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the election was embodied in the person of the Liberal candidate for North York, Ontario, a former minister of labour in Laurier’s Cabinet, an anglophone who had remained loyal to the old leader. The candidate paid a predictable price for that loyalty in imperialist Ontario. Two years later, however, William Lyon Mackenzie King would go on to win the Liberal leadership, thanks to the support from francophone delegates who remembered his loyalty to Laurier.

King would become prime minister in 1921 and for the next two decades would make national unity his holy grail. To keep the Dominion safe from any future conflagrations across the ocean, he would wrench control of Canada’s foreign policy from the lethal imperial grip and then ensure that his country’s foreign policy was a masterpiece of evasion and circumventions and hesitations and inaction—and most Canadians would agree with his approach for a very long time until another world war tore apart that conventional wisdom. For a deeper dive, please read “Embattled Nation: Canada’s Wartime Election of 1917” by professors Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie (Dundurn Press 2017).

Michael Geist: The government guts the Online News Act in an attempt to fix a mess of its own making

Commentary

The government this morning released the final Online News Act regulations, effectively gutting the law in order to convince Google to refrain from blocking news links in Canada and to fix some of the legislative mistakes that have been apparent from the start. While proponents of the law will point to the $100 million contribution from Google as evidence of success, privately most in the industry and government acknowledge the obvious: Bill C-18 was deeply flawed and a massive miscalculation that has created far more harm than good.

Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge seemingly agrees as she was willing to make changes that were derided by the government throughout the legislative process. Indeed, by the time St-Onge took over the file that was a challenging salvage job, Meta’s $20 million in news deals were lost and blocked news links on Facebook and Instagram were a reality. The prospect of the same happening with Google was too much for the industry and the government since the lost deals would have been at least double that amount (many believe in the $40-50 million range) and lost news links in search would have been catastrophic.

As the regulatory process unfolded in the fall, the top priority was therefore to ensure Google news links did not disappear, even if that meant essentially re-writing the legislation. That is effectively what the government did with the release of today’s final regulations and regulatory impact assessment. The $100 million from Google is likely to yield relatively little new money after subtracting $20 million lost from Meta, an estimated $50 million from existing Google spending is folded into the new funding model, and $5-6 million to cover administrative costs of the new system. In other words, the entire Canadian news industry picks up roughly $25 million in new money, set against lost links on Facebook and Instagram and lost investment in the sector due to regulatory uncertainty. That is disastrous and helps explain why the deal also comes with the government’s increased bailout for newspapers with the expanded labour journalism tax credit and the expectation that the CRTC will use Bill C-11 to funnel more money to broadcasters to cover news costs.

The relatively small amount of new money also helps explain why the government has directly engaged in determining how it will be allocated. While its Bill C-18 pitch changed over time—from payments for links to levelling the bargaining playing field—it ends with a simple shakedown. Google has money and this tax-like approach forces them to pay up to make the contentious policy battle go away. The government had claimed that it would not become directly involved in either negotiating payments or determining how the money would be allocated. It was—in the words of Rodriguez—merely setting the table for the two private sector sides to reach a deal with mandated arbitration lurking in the background.

Today’s final regulation discards both claims and overhauls the law, adding a Google-specific regulation that specifically grants it an exemption from arbitration in return for the $100 million payment and a specific reference that the payment is not about payments for links. The Google-specific provision is exhibit A for the absurdity of the legislation as it literally creates a singular exception for one company:

Despite subsection (1), in the case of the digital news intermediary that is the search engine with the greatest share of Canadian Internet advertising revenues among all search engines in respect of which the Act applies, the Commission must interpret the agreements as contributing to the sustainability of the Canadian news marketplace if and only if, for each year covered by the potential exemption order, the agreements provide for monetary compensation in accordance with the formula

The regulations also make it clear that no further “non-monetary” compensation is needed and removes the link to both links and copyright, two of the most contentious aspects of the law:

The agreement need not provide any consideration for merely facilitating access to news content or for otherwise making news content available in a manner that would fall under a limitation or exception in the Copyright Act.

Moreover, the regulations create a cap on the revenues allocated toward broadcasters and the CBC (a problem of the government’s own making), which ensures that most of the money will go to print and digital outlets (caps of 30 percent to broadcasters, 7 percent to the CBC). That’s a significant change that the government opposed for months. But not all print outlets will benefit, since the government is also tying the money to news that is “intended to be made available online” and expanding the definition of “journalist” for the purposes of calculating how much each entity might receive by including “full-time equivalent employees who, in the previous calendar year, were employed by each news business for the purpose of producing, for news outlets operated by that business, original news content that is intended to be made available online”.

The combined effect of this regulation should be obvious: excluding some smaller and ethnic outlets altogether while reserving most of the remaining money for larger entities such as Torstar or Postmedia who employ more journalist-adjacent personnel. I suspect many of the smaller players could see this coming, but they’ve been tossed under the bus in the effort to send more money to bigger outlets who stood to lose the most from Bill C-18 (and who incidentally lobbied the most for the legislation).

While not in the regulations, added to the mix is a battle to become the new fund manager. The regulations speak to “reasonable administrative expenses”, which I understand may be in the 5-6 percent range, or $5-6 million. Since Google need only negotiate with one such fund, look for a major battle between News Media Canada, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, and perhaps other players for the shot at the administration money. There should be credit to St-Onge for sensible changes to the law (certainly politicians from all parties will be outraged to learn their local publications get nothing), but to be clear, it means the government has not only negotiated the actual payment but now largely determined how the money will be allocated, eliminated provisions that only months ago were deemed essential, and literally created a regulation exempting a single company. Together they effectively bury the original Bill C-18 and resurrect it as the law the government spent months rejecting.

This column originally appeared on michaelgeist.ca.