Canada in the World Wars and Interwar Years: Wikis


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During the World Wars and Interwar Years Canada experienced economic gain, more freedom for women and new technological advancements.


World War I

Yiddish World War I recruitment poster
English World War I recruitment poster
Yiddish (top) and English versions of World War I recruitment posters directed at Canadian Jews.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated, setting off a chain of events leading to World War I. At the time, Canadians were more concerned with events within their own country than European affairs, specifically in the Balkans where crises and wars had been brutal perennials for generations. The summer of 1914 brought a second year of drought turning wheat fields into parched deserts while the two new transcontinental railways the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern fell further into debt, sending the thousands of men who had helped build them into unemployment. Canada was facing its worst depression since the 1890s. Canadians hoped the Great Powers of Europe could keep the peace as they had done many times before in earlier disputes of the century. Besides, so far Britain had no reason to join in the squabble forming on the main continent, leaving no obligation for Canada to join if war did break out between Russia, France, Germany and Austria-Hungary. News of war did not make a stir in Canada until Germany invaded Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan, and the British delivered an ultimatum to Kaiser Wilhelm: withdraw from Belgium by August 4 or Britain would be at a state of war with Germany.

A Canadian World War I recruiting poster

On July 29 1914, Britain warned its colonies to take precautions in case of war. Most recent wars had begun with surprise attacks such as the Russo-Japanese War. Soldiers and Canada's few sailors manned Halifax fortifications and brought guns to command the St. Lawrence river. In Victoria, British Columbia Premier Richard McBride signed a cheque for $1,150,000 and bought two submarines from a Seattle shipyard, so at least British Columbia's coast was not completely defenceless. On August 2 armed militia mounted guard on bridges, canals, tunnels and railway stations in preparation. In Ottawa, the Minister of Militia, Colonel Sam Hughes, had dreamed for years of leading Canadians to war and had for a long time preached and prepared for war with Germany and now had only to wait on London to make the first move, much to his irritation, but was persuaded by the octogenarian quartermaster general Major-General Donald Alexander Macdonald to be patient. On August 4 8:55 P.M., Canada got the news and Hughes was ecstatic: Britain was at war with Germany.

Canada was then automatically at war, as she did not yet have control over her foreign policy — not that there were many dissenters.[1] The war was initially popular even among French Canadians, including Henri Bourassa, who historically looked afoul at the British Empire. Liberal leader Wilfred Laurier created a 'party truce' for as long as Canada was in danger and had those dissenters in the liberal caucus hold their tongues. When asked what Canada 'must do' by the press, Laurier responded "When the call comes, our answer goes at once, and it goes in the classical language of the British answer to the call of duty, 'Ready, aye, ready!'". Prime Minister Robert Borden called a meeting of Parliament on August 18, and without division of significant debate, MPs approved an over seas contingent of 25,000 men with Canada bearing the full cost: a war appropriation of $50 million and a Canadian Patriotic Fund to support the families of men who would fight in Europe. The Cabinet spent many hours trying to devise adequate emergency legislation, resulting in the War Measures Act, decreeing the Cabinet would have the authority to do whatever it deemed necessary for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada.[citation needed]

In no way was Canada prepared for this scale of war. Its economy could not support it for more than a few months before being hit hard by its cost, as was with other participants. No one expected it to last longer then a few months though, many claiming it would be over by Christmas. Mass recruiting for the war effort began on August 6 with hundreds of telegrams notifying Militia colonel to begin recruiting men between the ages of 18 and 45. Hordes of British immigrants and the unemployed answered the call. Ontario, hard hit by the depression, accounted for third of the recruits, while two thirds of the recruits were British born. Few recruits came from the Maritimes and just over 1,000 were French. The cities of Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal sent enough men each for two battalions. By September 4 there were 32,000 men and 8,000 horses in camp, far more than had been expected. There was an immediate demand for equipment, uniforms and weapons. The Ross Rifle Company worked overtime as did the textile mills and clothing factories. With a force of 32,000 equipped and ready, it soon became apparent that Embarkation from the docks would be a nightmare. Extra ships had to be chartered to carry the additional men. Battalions were marched on to ships only to be marched back off when they didn't fit. Units ignored orders and schedules and crowded the docks not wishing to wait. When it was all done, the last of 30 ships had cleared the harbour, leaving 863 horses, 4,512 tons of baggage, vehicles and ammunition behind, for which another ship had to be called in to pick up.

The first Canadian casualties of the war occurred before these troops arrived in Europe. Sir Christopher Cradock's squadron was sunk at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile, claiming four midshipmen who became Canada's first war dead. By the time that the First Contingent reached England on October 14 it became apparent the war would not be over by Christmas. Germany's initial rapid successes in Belgium and France had come to halt and both sides were starting to dig into their positions.

Canadians fought at Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele, and other important battles, originally under British command, but eventually under a unified Canadian command. From a Canadian point of view the most important battle of the war was the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, during which Canadian troops captured a fortified German hill that had eluded both the British and French. Vimy, as well as the success of the Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop, helped give Canada a new sense of identity. With mounting costs at home, Sir Thomas Whyte introduced the first income tax in Canada as a "temporary" measure. The lowest bracket was 4% and highest was 25%.

More than 620,000 Canadians served in the war. Of these, more than 60,000 died and more than 155,000 were wounded.

The conscription crisis of 1917

French-Canadian recruitment poster emphasizing duty both to the King and to France

After three years of a war that was supposed to have been over in three months, Canada was suffering from a shortage of volunteers. Prime Minister Robert Borden had originally promised not to introduce conscription, but now believed it was necessary to win the war. The Military Service Act was passed in July, but there was fierce opposition, mostly from French Canadians (led not only by Bourassa, but also by Wilfrid Laurier), as well as Quakers, Mennonites, and other pacifists. Borden's government almost collapsed, but he was able to form a Union government with the Liberal opposition (although Laurier did not join the new government). In the 1917 election, the Union government was re-elected, but with no support from Quebec. Over the next year, the war finally ended, with very few Canadian conscripts actually participating.

Halifax Explosion

On December 6, 1917, the Imo, a Belgian relief ship collided with the Mont-Blanc, a French munitions ship in Halifax harbour, Nova Scotia, Canada. The crash set the Mont-Blanc, whose holds were full of benzol, picric acid, and TNT, on fire. The crew could not stop the benzol-fuelled fire and abandoned ship as it drifted toward the harbour. Twenty minutes after the crash, the fire reached the TNT and picric acid and the Mont-Blanc exploded with a force stronger than any man-made explosion before it, destroying most of Halifax and the surrounding towns. Halifax had served as a key link between the United States and Europe, helping organize convoys for trans-Atlantic crossings. After the explosion, Halifax dropped out of the war effort, focusing primarily on economic survival.

Post-war society

During the war, the woman's suffrage movement gained support. The provinces began extending voting rights to women in 1916, and women were finally allowed to vote in federal elections in 1918. Canada was also faced with the return of thousands of returning soldiers, with few jobs waiting for them at home. They also brought back with them the Spanish Flu, which killed over 50 000 people by 1919, almost the same number that had been killed in the war.

Crowd gathered outside old City Hall during the Winnipeg General Strike, June 21, 1919

The move from a wartime to a peacetime economy, combined with the unwillingness of returned soldiers to accept pre-war working conditions, led to another crisis. In 1919, the One Big Union was formed by trade union syndicalists with the intent of improving conditions for all workers, not just in a single workplace, industry, or sector. The OBU had some influence on the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which business and political leaders saw as an outbreak of Bolshevism, especially since the Soviet Union had recently been formed. The army was sent in to break the strike and the entire Winnipeg police force was fired and replaced with a much larger and better paid force of armed special constables. Although the Winnipeg strike is the best known, it was part of a larger strike wave that swept the country. Special constables, vigilante "citizens" organizations, and replacement workers were mobilized in strikebreaking throughout the country in this period.

Meanwhile, in western Canada, and to some extent in the Maritimes, populist reformers were pushing for increased provincial rights and a focus on agriculture, rather than the industrial focus of Central Canada. They formed the Progressive Party of Canada, which supported Mackenzie King when the Liberals had a minority government in 1925-26. King eventually lost support, however, because of the trade tariffs issue, as well as a liquor smuggling scandal. When his request that parliament be dissolved was rejected by the Governor General of Canada (see King-Byng Affair), he was forced to resign in 1926, but was re-appointed after his party won the election later that year, after which, at an Imperial Conference, King advocated for the redefining of the role of the Governor General and the gain of increased independence for Canada in the Balfour Declaration of 1926.

Radio first appeared in Canada in the 1920, but most Canadian-owned stations had weak signals compared with American stations. A decade later, the country had 60 different radio stations but 40% of Canadians could only tune in American stations.[2] Many of the Canadian stations that did exist simply rebroadcast American radio shows to Canadian audiences, and little funding was available for Canadian content. The most notable exceptions were religious radio shows, such as "Back to the Bible Hour," produced by Alberta's premier, William Aberhart. Pressure from Graham Spry and the Canadian Radio League encouraged Mackenzie King to request a Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting. The commission's report called for a national radio station to encourage national sentiment, and in 1932, the government of R.B. Bennett established the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, transformed into the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation four years later.

The Great Depression

The Single Men's Unemployed Association parading to Bathurst Street United Church in Toronto

Canada suffered greatly when the Great Depression began in 1929. While the decline started in the United States, it quickly spread to Canada because of the gold standard and the close economic links between the two countries. The Canadian economy was the second-worst affected in the world by the Depression, after the United States. The first area affected was wheat, which saw a collapse in prices. This destroyed the economies of the Prairie provinces, but as wheat was then Canada's largest export it also hurt the rest of the country. This was soon followed by a deep recession in manufacturing, first caused by a drop-off in demand in the United States, and then by Canadians also not buying unneeded luxuries. Perhaps most harmful, however, was the subsequent reduction of investment: both large companies and individuals were unwilling and unable to invest in new ventures. Unemployment rose to 25 per cent.

Government reaction

Prime Minister Mackenzie King said that everyone should believe the crisis would pass and he refused to send federal aid to any Tory-run Provinces, a decision which he never lived down. Additionally, he introduced only moderate relief efforts. The Liberals lost the 1930 election to Richard Bedford Bennett and the Conservatives. Bennett, a successful Western businessman, campaigned on high tariffs and large scale spending, but as deficits increased he became wary and cut back severely on Federal spending. With falling support and the depression only getting worse Bennett attempted to introduce policies based on the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in the United States, but this was largely unsuccessful. The government became a focus of popular discontent, even though its policies were largely the same as those of other Western governments. Canadian car owners who could no longer afford gasoline reverted to having their vehicles pulled by horses and dubbed them Bennett Buggies. Bennett's perceived failures during the Great Depression led to the re-election of Mackenzie King's Liberals in the 1935 election.

Although the United States began to see rapid improvements as a result of FDR's policies, Canada saw far less growth. Nevertheless, by 1936 the worst of the Depression was over. Mackenzie King implemented some relief programs such as the National Housing Act and National Employment Commission, and also established the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (1936) and Trans-Canada Airlines (1937, the precursor to Air Canada). However, it took until 1939 and the outbreak of war for the Canadian economy to return to 1929 levels.

New parties

William Aberhart addresses a rally (1937)

The Progressive and United Farmers Parties had achieved some success in the 1920s, but during the 1930s, their members generally joined other parties, like the Social Credit movement and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

In Alberta, a Christian radio broadcaster named William "Bible Bill" Aberhart became interested in politics partly because the Great Depression had been especially harsh on Albertan farmers. Particularly, he was drawn to the "social credit" theories of Major C. H. Douglas, a Scottish engineer. From 1932 to 1935, Aberhart lobbied for the governing political party, the United Farmers of Alberta, to adopt these theories. The basis of social credit is that the difference in production cost and individuals' purchasing power should be supplemented through government grants. When these efforts failed, Aberhart helped found the Social Credit Party of Alberta, which won the 1935 provincial election by a landslide with over 54% of the popular vote.

CCF founding meeting, Calgary, 1932

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was founded in 1932 in Calgary, Alberta, by a number of socialist, farm, co-operative and labour groups, and the League for Social Reconstruction. The CCF aimed to alleviate the suffering of the Great Depression through economic reform and public "co-operation". Many of the party's first Members of Parliament (MPs) were former members of the Ginger Group of left-wing Progressive and Labour MPs. In its first election in 1935, seven CCF MPs were elected to the House of Commons. Eight were elected in the following election in 1940.

The period also saw the rise of a small Communist Party of Canada, but only informally as the party was declared illegal under Section 98 of the Criminal Code of Canada. The party continued to exist, but was under the constant threat of legal harassment, and was for all intents and purposes an underground organization until 1936. The party greatly contributed in the mobilisation of voluteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

On to Ottawa Trek

Strikers from unemployment relief camps climbing on boxcars in Kamloops, British Columbia

The depression had crippled the economy and left one in nine Canadians on relief.[3] Nor did relief come free; the Bennett government had asked the Canadian Department of National Defense to organize work camps where the labour of unemployed single men was used to construct roads and other public works with little remuneration. The poor working conditions in the camps led to serious unrest, including a major strike in Vancouver in April 1935.[4] The strikers’ demands included adequate first aid equipment in the camps, the extension of the Workmen’s Compensation Act to include camp workers, and that workers in camps be granted the right to vote in Federal elections. Public support was enormous, and the action snowballed into a bigger movement when the men decided to take their grievances to the federal government. In June 1935, hundreds of men boarded boxcars headed East in what would come to be known as the “On to Ottawa Trek”.

The protest was halted, however, before it could reach the capital. In Regina, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) confined the protesters in a local stadium. Only the eight leaders of the protest were actually allowed to proceed to Ottawa, where they were granted a meeting with Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. Bennett attacked the group as radicals, and eventually had the delegation hustled out of his office. Upon returning to Regina to unite with the rest of the protesters, they organized large public rallies, which broke out into riots when the Federal government deployed police to break up the rallies and arrest the leaders. Two people were killed as a result of the riot and many more injured. When the trek was over the government provided free transportation back to the camps. These camps were soon abolished following Bennett's electoral defeat, and new, less extensive, relief work schemes were devised on farms and in forestry camps in conjunction with provincial governments, and pay rates changed from twenty-cents a day to five dollars a month.[5]

Canadian foreign policy in the Interwar Years

At the end of World War I Canada was a founding member of the League of Nations and was granted full membership. But the Borden and King governments made it clear that “Canada lived ‘in a fireproof house far from inflammable materials’ and felt no automatic obligation to the principle of collective security”.[6] Very much like the United States, after the great war Canada turned away from international politics. Instead, King focused his attention on good relations with the United States and on greater independence from Great Britain, moving into a position of near isolation. Thus, in 1922 King refused to support the British to enforce a peace settlement when revolutionary Turkey attacked and drove out the Greek in Asia Minor. At an Imperial Conference in 1923 it was agreed that no resolution was binding unless approved by each dominion parliament. Canada then for the first time signed a treaty without British participation, a fisheries treaty with the US, and it proceeded to establish its own embassy in Washington. Further steps to independence were the Balfour Declaration of 1926 and the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

Canadians were all the more preoccupied with domestic economic problems and chose to remain neutral throughout the 1930s. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria raised little concern in Canada, as did Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 or Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The Canadian government declared its neutrality on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 where Francisco Franco lead a military uprising, supported with military hardware and tens of thousands of troops by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy against the legitimate Spanish government. Nevertheless, many Canadians volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic in the International Brigades and couldn’t be deterred by the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1937, outlawing participation by Canadians in foreign wars. Eventually, 1,546 Canadians participated, mainly in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (also called “Mac-Paps”) of which 721 were killed. Except for France, no other country gave as great a proportion of its population as volunteers in Spain than Canada.[7]

Despite of its expressed neutrality, in 1936, Canada began a modest program of rearmament and in 1937, King let Britain know that Canada would support the Empire in case of a war in Europe. He visited Germany in June 1937 and met with Adolf Hitler. Like many other political leaders of the time, King was seduced by Hitler's charm and rehearsed simplicity and he supported the policy of "appeasement" of Germany. King and other leaders remained quiet when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 and Bohemia in 1939.[8]

With the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and the growing trickle of refugees arriving in the country, Canada began to actively restrict Jewish immigration by 1938. Frederick Charles Blair, the country’s top immigration bureaucrat, raised the amount of money immigrants had to possess to come to Canada from $5,000 to $15,000. As well, immigrants had to prove they were farmers, which no Jew coming from central Europe was. Senator Cairine Wilson was one of the country's leading voices against fascism and one of the few non-Jews lobbying for the refugees but she was unable to get Mackenzie King to intervene. He himself shared the anti-Semitism of many Canadians; in his diary he wrote: "We must seek to keep this part of the continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood." [9] “Through government inaction and Blair’s bureaucratic anti-Semitism, Canada emerged from the war with one of the worst records of Jewish refugee resettlement in the world. Between 1933 and 1939, Canada accepted only 4,000 of the 800,000 Jews who had escaped from Nazi-controlled Europe.” [9]

World War II

Canadian troops resting on board a destroyer after the Combined Operations daylight raid on Dieppe during World War II.

The Canadian economy, like the economies of many other countries, improved in an unexpected way with the outbreak of the Second World War. When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Mackenzie King was finally convinced that military action would be necessary, but advised George VI, King of Canada, to wait until September 10, after parliament had debated the matter, to declare war (unlike World War I, when Canada was automatically at war as soon as Britain was).[10] Ultimately, more than one million Canadians served in armed forces.

One of Canada's major contribution to the war was the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, in which over 140,000 Allied pilots and air crews received training at bases in Canada. Canada is widely recognised for its key role in the Battle of the Atlantic. The first infantry action of the war for Canadians came in 1941, when they unsuccessfully defended Hong Kong from the Japanese. Hong Kong was taken on December 25 with horrendous Canadian and British casualties. On August 19, 1942, Canadians were again defeated in the Dieppe Raid. Canadian troops fought in Italy in 1943, and in 1944 successfully captured Juno Beach during the Battle of Normandy. They were instrumental in liberating the Netherlands, for which the Dutch still fondly remember Canadians today.

Women began to play a more significant part in war efforts, joining the armed forces for the first time (aside from nursing) by means of the Canadian Women's Army Corps, the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division, and the Royal Canadian Naval Women's Service (Wrens).[11] Although women were still not allowed to enter combat, they performed a number of other roles in clerical, administrative, and communications divisions. A total of 45,423 women enlisted during the course of the war, and one in nine served overseas.[11][12]

With over a million Canadians serving in the Armed Forces during the war, enormous new employment opportunities appeared for women in workplaces previously unknown to them. To encourage women to work in factories, machine shops, and other heavy industries, the Canadian government offered free child-care and tax breaks. Elsie MacGill, an aeronautical engineer who supervised the production of Hawker Hurricane aircraft for the Canada Car and Foundry Company became a celebrated war hero known as "Queen of the Hurricanes."[13]

The conscription crisis of 1944

As in World War I, the number of volunteers began to run dry as the war dragged on. Mackenzie King had promised, like Borden, not to introduce conscription, though his position was somewhat ambiguous: as he declared to the House of Commons on 10 June 1942: "Not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary."

With rising pressure from the people, on June 21, 1940, King passed the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) which gave the government the power to "call out every man in Canada for military training for the defence of Canada", and only Canada. Conscripts could not be sent overseas to fight. English Canadians, expectedly, were displeased and took to calling these soldiers "zombies" who they stereotyped as French Canadians who were "sitting comfortably" while their countrymen died.

On April 27, 1942, Mackenzie King held a national plebiscite to decide on the issue, having made campaign promises to avoid conscription (and, it is thought, winning the election on that very point[citation needed]). English Canada was mostly in favour of conscription, but, as expected, French Canada was not. Nevertheless, the vote was yes overall and King was free to bring in a conscription law if he wanted. However, the issue was put off for another two years, until November 1944 when King decided on a levy of NRMA troops for overseas service. There were riots in Quebec and a mutiny by conscripts based in Terrace, British Columbia. An aged Henri Bourassa also spoke out against the decision.

Some 13,000 NRMA men eventually left Canada, but only 2,463 reached units in the field before the end of the fighting. 69 died in battle.

Japanese internment

A R.C.N. officer questions Japanese-Canadian fisherman while confiscating their boat.

When Canada declared war on Japan in December 1941, members of the non-Japanese population of British Columbia, including municipal government offices, local newspapers and businesses called for the internment of the Japanese. In British Columbia, some claimed that Japanese residents who worked in the fishing industry were charting the coastline for the Japanese navy, and many of their boats were confiscated. The pressure from the public was so great that early in 1942 the government gave in to the pressure and began the internment of both Japanese nationals and Japanese Canadian citizens. Most of the nearly 22,000 people of Japanese descent who lived in Canada, were naturalized or native-born citizens.[14] Those unwilling to live in internment camps faced the possibility of deportation to Japan.

Unlike Japanese American internment, where families were generally kept together, Canada initially sent its male evacuees to road camps in the British Columbian interior, to sugar beet projects on the Prairies, or to internment in a POW camp in Ontario, while women and children were moved to six inland British Columbia towns. There, the living conditions were so poor that the citizens of wartime Japan even sent supplemental food shipments through the Red Cross.[15] During the period of detention, the Canadian government spent one-third the per capita amount expended by the U.S. on Japanese American evacuees.[15]

See also

External links


  1. ^ Roger Graham, "Through the First World War," in The Canadians, 1867-1967, eds. J.M.S. Careless and Robert Craig Brown (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1967), 178.
  2. ^ "History of the Canadian Peoples, 1867-Present," Alvin Finkel & Margaret Conrad, 1998
  3. ^ Zuehlke, Mark (1996). The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Vancouver: Whitecap Books. ISBN 1-55110-488-1. 
  4. ^ Hoar (Howard), Victor (1969). The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: Canadian Participation in the Spanish Civil War. Toronto: Copp Clark. 
  5. ^ Berton, Pierre (1990). The Great Depression, 1929-1939. Toronto: Penguin. pp. 542–543. ISBN 0-14-015770-0. 
  6. ^ Brown, Craig in: The Illustrated History of Canada, Toronto, 1987
  7. ^ Jean, Michaëlle, Governor General of Canada, Speech on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion Monument, Ottawa, October 20, 2001,
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b
  10. ^ Granatstein, Jack (10 September 2009), "Going to war? 'Parliament will decide'", The Globe and Mail,, retrieved 13 September 2009 
  11. ^ a b 'I'm the proudest girl in the world!', CBC Archives.
  12. ^ Canadian women serving overseas, CBC Archives.
  13. ^ Canada's own 'Rosie', CBC Archives.
  14. ^ Japanese Internment - CBC
  15. ^ a b Japanese Canadian Internment, University of Washington Libraries

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