Raid on Guelph novitiate drew national attention in 1918

The introduction of conscription in 1917 was the most controversial step taken by the Canadian government in the First World War.

Overall, opinion was about evenly divided, but there were significant pockets of resistance. The entire province of Quebec was firmly against the measure, as were farmers, particularly in rural Ontario.

Conscription seemed to add fresh fervour to the words and actions of the super-patriots, who were vocal in their characterization of Germans as heathens. They wanted the war pushed aggressively whatever the cost in dollars and human lives.

Much of their attention was directed at shirkers – young men who avoided military service by claiming to be agricultural workers (who were exempt from military service during the 1917 harvest), and those who faked physical incapacities to avoid service.

In the spring of 1918 they focused on a another target: the Roman Catholic novitiate at Guelph, which they believed was overrun with young men determined to avoid military service.

Charges that draft evaders had taken refuge at the college began to circulate in the spring of 1918. An article published in the Orange Sentinel, a paper published by the Orange Order, made the charge a much more serious one. That article was republished by several newspapers in Ontario.

That resulted in a visit by members of the military and government officials to the novitiate on June 7 at about 9:30pm. Major C. A. Macauley, who headed the group that included military personnel and Guelph police officers, presented their credentials.

Father Bourque, the rector of the Novitiate did not consider them acceptable. There followed much argument and several telephone calls. One was to the Minister of Justice. Macauley asserted that he accepted orders only from the Department of Militia.

Eventually he prevailed, and he and his men appear to have interviewed a number of people at the college, and found nothing there worthy of further action. While he and two of his men were in the college, the rest of the raiding party milled about outside, most with firearms drawn.

The visitors left the college at about 1am. Macauley returned the next morning for additional interviews. Military authorities promised that a full report would be issued within a few days. Macauley and other military personnel visited again on June 14.

Father Bourque was outraged at the visits by the military, and protested strongly to General Newburn, the Minister of Militia. Father Bourque was especially critical of the conduct of Macauley. He characterized the initial visit as a “preposterous display of force.” After the raid, the government imposed a blackout on publication of anything related to the raid.

That ban was lifted after two weeks. By then the visit was being characterized as a raid, and sentiments became heated during the ensuing two weeks. Publication of details of the raid made front-page news in Quebec newspapers, and editorials characterized it as another anti-Catholic insult.

When the official report about the raid did not appear, the Orange Order went into high gear.

Aiding them were members of the Guelph Ministerial Association, led by Rev. W.D. Spence. On June 19 the Novitiate’s administrators issued a statement declaring that no draft dodgers or evaders were at the school. That was partly in response to the sermons preached by Spence and several other Guelph ministers on June 14, which had denounced the novitiate as a nest of disloyalty.

A statement from the Ministry of Militia and Defence eventually came on June 20. It stated that the military status of each of the young men at the Novitiate would be examined carefully.

A complication in the controversy was that the son of Justice Minister C. J. Doherty was one of the students at the college. That revelation created a sensation. Doherty asserted that his son was below the age when he had joined the Jesuit Order as a novice, and that in any case he had been ruled as physically unfit for military service.

The Guelph Ministerial Association called a special meeting of its members on June 21. They made it clear that they did not intend to let the statements of Doherty go unchallenged, and that the affair would be the subject of their sermons on June 23.

Adding to the controversy was an apology issued by General Newburn to Father Bourque. After explaining that he was away from Ottawa for several weeks and had not seen the reports of the raid, the Minister of Militia wrote that “words cannot express to you my deep regret at the actions taken by the Deputy Provost Marshall, Capt. Macauley, on the evening of June 7.”

He concluded by stating the military status of all students at the Novitiate was under the consideration of the Department of Justice.

As a consequence of the raid, Macauley was transferred to Winnipeg. For his part, Spence claimed credit for having the government release details of the raid.

He had written to the government that, “Protestant ministers at Guelph have learned from the authorities all details pertaining to the visit of the soldiers to the Guelph Novitiate. We also learn that the censor has forbidden publication of the facts. We do not propose submitting to any such Kaiserism and intend to hold a public meeting and make known all the facts, expose the names, and demand justice.”

When news that one of the novices at the Novitiate had left to join the army, Spence felt vindicated.

He was certain there were 22 more at the Novitiate, three of them from Guelph, who should be subject to military service. He was determined to get every one of them into uniform.

Spence was also interested in a young man named O’Leary, who was at the Novitiate on the night of the raid and did not appear to be one of the novices. He subsequently disappeared. Spence and others were certain he was a draft dodger being harboured by Bourque.

Later, it was revealed that O’Leary was indeed a fugitive from the military. Bourque persuaded him to turn himself over to the army recruiter. He was soon on his way to military training in London.   

Bourque claimed none of the novices at the college were subject to military service, as they had all taken a vow of poverty and had agreed to spend their lives in the service of the Catholic Church.

Some people thought the exemption did not apply to those who had joined the Jesuit Order after the proclamation of the Military Service Act.

Yet another viewpoint was that all were subject to military duty unless they had been ordained.

The wording of the law was ambiguous on this point. With sentiments running so high, several newspapers urged the government to turn the matter over to the Supreme Court for a ruling on who was subject to the daft and who was not.

Obviously, the Minister of Justice, with a son at the Guelph Novitiate, could not possibly settle the question. It was also vital that the same rules apply to both those at the Novitiate and to students at the divinity schools of the various protestant churches.

Next week: Feelings remain high for a few more weeks.



Stephen Thorning