Chapter 6. The War Years, 1914–45

6.1 Introduction

The years from 1914-1945 are marked by turmoil, what one historical text calls “decades of discord.”[1] Not only was there conflict abroad, there was also tension at home. The workings of parliament and the democratic order in Canada underwent change, some degree of transformation, abuse, and challenge. The culture of Canada like many western democracies changed dramatically because of the war. The increasingly interventionist state might be ascribed to many causes but there was certainly a sense that the sacrifices of the Great War entitled all Canadians to greater security and care. There was an interesting bridge to cross here, one that took Canadians from a society of families, through the atomistic society of individuals, to a vision of Canada as a social state. Not socialist as yet, but the cost of two World Wars and one enormous economic Depression changed people’s expectations.

Imagine someone just old enough in 1914 to enlist or to replace a militia volunteer at their position in a factory or shipyard. Boys and girls of 15 born just before the turn of the century were part of that particular cohort. Some of them saw war; Canada’s substantial mortalities in Europe would ensure that many would never return home. Those who did, however, and assuming they survived the 1918 influenza pandemic as well, would reach their 20th birthday in the year of the Winnipeg General Strike perhaps while the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force was providing a small backstop for the anti-Bolshevik forces in eastern Russia. They’d live through a brief economic depression before the economy began to recover in earnest. Prohibition would come and go, women would enjoy unprecedented and expanding legal rights, and then, just as their work lives were getting well underway, the worst economic downturn in the history of capitalism would hit them. The whole of the 1930s this cohort’s own 30s would see the economic advances of the pre-war years and what recovery there was in the 1920s blow away in dust. If they weren’t married before 1929, they were less likely to marry in the next decade than any generation of 30-somethings in Canadian history. If they were too young to fight in the Great War they might well prove too old to fight in the Second World War. From adolescents to middle-aged adults, the Canada they knew was almost constantly in a state of crisis.

Does this generation matter? Given the number of young immigrant couples who arrived between 1891 and 1911, they certainly do. The birth rate a pre-WWI baby boom created a generation of Canadians that was too young to know the certainties of the Victorian era, too young to know a Canada that wasn’t already ethnically diverse, and old enough to grow both cautious of and eager for, change.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain and describe Canada’s involvement in the two World Wars.
  • Assess the impact of both wars on Canadian society and economy.
  • Describe the domestic social, economic, and political changes that took place between 1914 and 1945.
  • Account for and list the significant changes in the status of women in this period.
  • Outline the experience of Japanese-Canadians and Indigenous people in wartime.

  1. John Herd Thompson with Allen Seager, Canada, 1922-1939: Decades of Discord (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1986).


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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