We are cowards in front of a word, and that word is conscription. So far as I am concerned, I never was afraid of conscription. I am not afraid of conscription. All the men who are with me in my battalion are conscripts and they are proud of it. They are conscripts to their own consciences.
(Toronto Globe, 6 Mar 1916, 9)
John Alexander Cooper was a Toronto militia leader, press editor and original president of the Canadian Club when it was founded in 1897. He was born in Clinton, Ontario on 5 February 1868, graduated from the University of Toronto in 1892 and joined the Queen’s Own Rifles in 1896. A long-time advocate for militia and defence issues, Cooper was authorized to raise the 198th Battalion from Toronto.
Although connected to the militia for over two decades, Cooper admitted he was often embarrassed about discussing his activities “lest anyone should say I was spending my time and my money foolishly.” However, after the outbreak of the Great War, Cooper celebrated the martial awakening in the country, observing, “A man can wear a military uniform on the streets nowadays without feeling that anyone despises him at least.”
Despite the greater visibility of the military in Canadian life, Cooper was unsatisfied with the uneven response to the war. He argued that the voluntary system was dead because “it puts a burden upon patriotic citizens, and lets the unpatriotic go free.” He championed conscription as the only equitable form of military service.
Before departing overseas in February 1917, Cooper addressed the Canadian Club in Toronto, where he emphasized:
I am a soldier of my country; I am willing to do my duty, implicitly, promptly, fully, and whether my country glorifies me with a uniform or keeps me in a back office. I am prepared to do everything which my country demands of me.
Hoping to keep his battalion intact, Cooper appealed to Prime Minister Borden, reminding him that many of his men were recruited from the Toronto constituency of Militia Minister Edward Kemp. “I have had more than twenty years experience in the Militia,” Cooper assured Borden, “and have done considerable writing on military subjects.”
When the Canadian Buffs were broken up in March 1917, Cooper still desired to get into the firing line. He reverted to the rank of major, joined the 19th Battalion and was later posted to 4th Division headquarters in France.
In 1919, he was appointed by Ottawa to become director of the Canadian Bureau of Information in New York City. He retired as head of the Canadian Motion Pictures Distributors’ Association in 1944.
Cooper died in Toronto on 17 January 1956.
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