“Conscription if necessary … not necessarily conscription”

A contentious statement made by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King1 during the 1942 Plebiscite on Conscription. It is emblematic of King’s convoluted and ultra-cautious (though indisputably successful) political management style. In the course of the plebiscite campaign, seeking to reassure French Canadians that even a YES vote would not automatically ensure the introduction of the draft, King explained his new policy to Parliament as “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.” As Canada entered the Second World War, King was deeply conscious of the damage to national unity caused by the Conscription Crisis during the First World War.2

He was determined to avoid a repeat of the polarization between English and French Canada over the same explosive issue. This chasm was characterized by a strongly supportive English Canada and a fiercely anti-war rhetoric in French Canada where the war was essentially viewed as a British conflict. Consequently, King vowed that in the Second World War, the government would not introduce Conscription.

However, three years later the pressures of high casualty rates and economic demands became inescapable. As a result, King called a national plebiscite for April 27, 1942 to release him from his pledge. Quebeckers voted overwhelmingly against conscription – or, strictly speaking against releasing the Prime Minister from his commitment NOT to introduce conscription, while in the rest of Canada, voters voted YES in similarly lopsided proportions.3

The quote has become a symbol of King’s “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” style of leadership, and of his painfully slow, methodical way of steering the ship of state. As the Constitutional Scholar and poet FR Scott – perhaps a unique exemplar of that combination of professions – immortalized him in a sarcastic ode4 upon King’s death in 1950 stating that he “[Did] nothing by halves / Which [could] be done by quarters.”

Beyond Mackenzie King specifically, the “Not necessarily conscription…” remark is often cited as the kind of logic-bending, parsing of words and hedging of bets necessary in governing a country like Canada, which is perpetually, it seems, as an episode away from an existential unity crisis. Of course, this dictionary if necessary, but not necessarily a dictionary.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


  1. Mackenzie King's 'not necessarily conscription' policy. CBC Digital Archives.
  2. Conscription, 1917. Canadian Museum of History.
  3. Conscription Referendum 1942. Electoral Geography.
  4. F. R. Scott. W.L.M.K.. University of Toronto Libraries.

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