But winning the war was the first priority for Robert Borden and his Conservative government. To this end, Borden promised to maintain a field force of 500,000 soldiers and to supply food and munitions to the Allied forces. As the war dragged on and Canadian casualties rose, fewer men volunteered for overseas service. To deal with this problem, Borden decided to introduce conscription. The conscription crisis of 1917 split the Liberal Party. Liberals who supported conscription agreed to run as Union government candidates in the ensuing election, but one of the conditions for their support was an agreement to deal with reconstruction issues, including centrally directed improvements to Canadians' health care.
The need for action was starkly revealed when the Halifax Explosion occurred on December 6, 1917. With 1,963 dead, 9,000 injured and 25,000 homeless, and with Halifax struck by a six-day blizzard immediately after the catastrophe, the city needed medical assistance, supplies and support. Canadians responded promptly, but with so many doctors and nurses serving on the Western Front, assistance came more rapidly from Massachusetts. The services needed to deal with the orphans, the blind and the disabled from this disaster were paralleled by those required for 160,000 returning wounded servicemen, many of whom had lost limbs or were disfigured by burns. The Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment had been created in 1917, and it not only developed training facilities for amputees but also opened or took over sanatoria to treat cases of tuberculosis. For the first time, the federal government was funding health services for Canadians, who had traditionally been expected to pay for their own care or to seek aid from municipal or provincial facilities.