Turning Point – 1943

Francophone Servicemen and Their Language During the Second World War

After the First World War the government left its servicemen to their own devices until 1936. Apart from keeping the Royal 22e Régiment in the Permanent Force, virtually nothing was done to advance the presence of Francophones and the French language. Without facilities to accommodate them, and remembering the bitter conscription crisis of 1917-18, Francophones stayed out of the forces. At five percent, their proportion of total strength in 1939 was almost unchanged from what it had been in 1914. The army counted 184 Francophones among a total of 4,169 servicemen of all ranks.

Between 1939 and 1945 the proportion of Francophones in the services, including the conscripts for territorial defence, was estimated at 20 percent. Early in the war serious consideration was given to creating a Francophone army brigade, for which ample strength was available. Ultimately, however, the Francophone units would be dispersed throughout the forces. French was seen in some rare translations of training brochures and heard in conversations among Francophones, but virtually all written material appeared in English, even material written by and for Francophones. However, the air force did establish a Francophone bomber squadron.

The unilingual Francophone wishing to serve his country in battle, but in his own language, would be given no choice but to join the infantry. Indeed many men volunteering for armoured or artillery services were sent to the infantry because of their poor English.

As Jean-Yves Gravel has put it, without basic equality it was hard to exact the equality of sacrifice that was called for in both 1914-18 and 1939-45. In the army, the most advanced of the three services in dealing with Francophones, the Deputy Adjutant-General, Major-General WH.S. Macklin, wrote on 23 May 1946: "No one has ever explained to me how the Canadian Army could have absorbed a satisfactory proportion of French Canadians if compulsory enlistment had been applied in 1939. There were no duly trained officers to properly accommodate these elements and we would never have been able to resolve the difficulty in the midst of conflict." 83