1918 raid on novitiate remained a hot issue for months

Last week’s column described the immediate aftermath of a raid by the federal government on the St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Novitiate at Guelph on June 7, 1918. A newspaper, the Orange Sentinel, published by the Orange Order, had denounced the college as a refuge for draft evaders and dodgers, who were avoiding military duties by posing as young men training for the priesthood.

The article caused a sensation when it was republished in many daily newspapers, and rekindled anti-Catholic statements and sermons by several protestant ministers in Guelph. The raid turned up no obvious draft evaders, but that did not silence the statements and charges levied by the most militant members of the Guelph Ministerial Association.

Several factors inflamed the controversy, which quickly became a subject of national press coverage.

When there were no arrests after the raid, the Guelph ministers charged that the Novitiate was receiving preferred treatment from the federal government, in part because a son of a cabinet minister was a student there. Protestants, they complained, were being treated unfairly. As well, there were charges that the federal government was covering up something sinister because there had been a ban on the release of any information by the federal government. Federal authorities had tried to make the story, which was an inflammatory one in much of Canada and an incendiary one in Quebec, disappear through their policy of silence.

The Orange Order and several Guelph ministers kept the story alive through the early part of June, and on June 25 the federal government decided to release the documents related to the raid. That gave fresh life to the story.

An editorial in the Quebec Chronicle denounced the raid, and the piece was widely reprinted across Canada. It described the raid as a “disastrous and utterly senseless outrage,” and claimed that the information from the federal government clearly showed that the raid resulted from pressure by the Orange Order and a group of Guelph ministers.

By the last week in June the majority of the public, as well as several government officials, acknowledged that the raid had been a mistake. Lt. Col H.A. Machin, an MPP and the director of the Military Service Branch of the Department of Militia, gave a lengthy interview in which he charged that a “cabal of Methodists” was behind the raid and the continued controversy, and that those clergymen were a “menace of the province.” Col. Machin was himself a Protestant. The Guelph ministers turned their guns on him as a result of his statements, calling for his removal from the army.  

Unable to point to a single draft evader at the Novitiate, the Guelph ministers, led by Rev. W.D. Spence, a Congregationalist, shifted their criticism to the federal legislation authorizing the military draft. The act treated Protestants and Catholics unequally, they charged. They also continued their claims that the Novitiate, with the connivance of the federal government, was sheltering men who should be in the army.

Meanwhile, Father Power, the Superior General of the Jesuit Order in Ontario, went to Montreal to consult with his brethren. They were considering a civil libel suit against the Guelph ministers.

They produced figures that showed there was no influx of students to the Novitiate after the introduction of the Military Service Act.

Many of the Guelph ministers based their sermons of June 30 on the issue, charging the government with complicity in allowing Roman Catholics to evade military duty.

One received sustained applause at the end of his sermon. The Anglican ministers, though, did not mention the issue that day. Despite the loss of much of their public support, and the defection of the Anglican ministers in Guelph, the extremists in the Guelph Ministerial Association stuck by their position, claiming that they were not anti-Catholic, but merely sought fairness and equal treatment of all denominations. Rev. Dr. Gordon of the Woolwich Street Baptist Church, who was now acting as their spokesman, assured a special meeting of the Ministerial Association on June 26 that he would not retract any of the statements made by the association, and continued to demand “the whole truth” concerning the activities at the Novitiate. Interestingly, the ministers seemed to have no interest in the dozens of young men in the north of the county, the vast majority of whom were Protestants, who were openly defying the draft.

A week later, on July 3, Rev. K.H. Palmer of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church went to Ottawa to demand a full investigation into the claims of draft dodgers at the Novitiate.

He claimed to have the support of many Catholics, who wished to have the issue resolved. Like his colleagues, he insisted the issue “was not a matter of Protestant versus Roman Catholic.” But in a sermon delivered at a Toronto church, Rev. Palmer stated that the Pope was, effectively, governing Canada.

The Guelph affair figured largely in the speeches delivered at Orange ceremonies on July 12. The largest, as was the custom in those days, took place in Toronto, where 7,000 members representing 119 lodges marched and listened to speeches. An MP, H.C. Hocken, who was editor of the Orange Sentinel, was one of several to speak on the Guelph affair at length. He demanded a full parliamentary investigation into the affair.

Others urged that the war be pushed to the limits of Canada’s ability, noting that Orange lodges had supplied 65,000 of Canada’s troops. Several speakers suggested that the speaking of German be banned in Canada, and all Germans should be jailed until the end of the war. One speaker wanted the military exemption for all clergy removed, and another wanted the property of non-British people to be seized by the government.

The bloodthirsty rhetoric of July 12, while receiving ample newspaper coverage, did not result in a rise of public feeling. The Guelph affair slipped into the background, only to be revived at the Methodist general conference in October.

At that meeting several ministers pushed again for a full government inquiry. They were convinced that much had not been revealed concerning the Guelph Novitiate. A motion renewing the call for a full federal investigation resulted in an acrimonious debate. In the end, the Methodists voted to take no action in the matter by a vote of 144 to 107.

With the exception of a handful of Members of Parliament, no one in the government wanted a big investigation. It would only serve to increase animosity, and was unlikely to reveal anything new, even though many Orangemen were convinced that much was being covered up.

Still, several ministers tried to keep the issue alive, even after the war ended in November 1918 and the government ended the draft. Rev. K.H. Palmer of Guelph kept up his rhetoric. He was a member of a delegation to lobby the cabinet in Ottawa during mid December.

They succeeded in recruiting Col. Sam Hughes, the controversial former cabinet minister and prominent Orangeman, to their cause. Eventually they were able to secure the promise of an inquiry from Arthur Meighen, the Interior Minister, for the appointment of a Royal Commission.

He told the House of Commons that he wanted “the whole thing to be dug from top to bottom.”

By then it was early April 1919, and the war had been over for over five months. The idea of keeping the issue of the raid and of draft dodgers taking refuge at the Guelph Novitiate attracted little public interest outside a small group of anti-Catholic fanatics and Orangemen.

The raid and the ensuing outspoken statements by members of Guelph’s clergy and their supporters became something of an embarrassment to themselves and to the Royal City in the early 1920s.

For decades no one wanted to remember the episode, let alone talk about it.


Stephen Thorning