Chapter 6. The War Years, 1914–45
Thirty-one years passed between the start of the Great War and the end of the Second World War, between an assassination in Sarajevo and an atomic explosion over Hiroshima. Canada was at war for nearly a third of that period. For another third, it was mired in an economic depression with terrible social consequences. The years left over include peace and economic prosperity (albeit unevenly shared), along with a catastrophic influenza pandemic, a small but deep depression from 1918-21, and massive labour unrest. Looked at this way, the “short 20th century” got off to a terrible start.
The wars provide a reliable theme in the writing and reading of Canadian history. They are invoked to show us times when the nation pulled together toward a common goal against a common foe. These were nation-making episodes. Vimy Ridge, in this account, is much more than a battle — and an unspeakably bloody battle at that. Vimy, Ypres, Passchendaele, Dieppe, Juno Beach: these are all hills that Canada went up as one thing and came down another.
As soldiers know all too well, war is mostly waiting. And while Canadian troops — and CWACs and Wrens and others — were waiting, the nation was not standing still. It found other ways in which to express itself. These include the general suspension of civil rights and the arrest and dispossession specifically of “enemy aliens” in both wars. The imposition of mandatory service — conscription — in both wars ran headlong into the old polarities of imperialism versus nationalism, although even imperialism was being recalibrated somewhat. The state conceded much to women during the Great War: from the position that temperance was a matter of individual choice and morality, the nation’s leaders moved to outright prohibition of liquor. Likewise federal and provincial politicians (all men at this time) abandoned the perspective that voting and life in the public sphere would place the moral and physical fibre of Canadian womanhood at risk, extending the franchise and pressing women and girls to serve the national interest by assuming roles in factories and civic life generally. It was also in wartime that Ottawa submitted much of its economic and military autonomy to the country with which it had been at loggerheads for the better part of a century and a half.
Certainties do not do well in times of war, although contradictions seem to thrive. While the first total war entailed a dramatic extension of democratic rights (while reeling them back in from some groups of immigrants), the aftermath saw a crackdown on workers’ organizations. The interwar years continued the theme of suspicion between the Canadian establishment and the working class, with one side claiming a monopoly on patriotic loyalty and the interests of Canada and the other increasingly characterized as a foreign movement to be extirpated. The inability of Depression-era governments to find and forge policies to fight crippling unemployment served to reinforce the walls between labour and capital. R.B. Bennett’s particular kind of anti-labourism cued up in the 1930s new certainties regarding the limits of democracy. This sent activist workers running to socialist, communist, agrarian, populist, and even fascist options — many of which articulated a goal of toppling the system rather than modifying it. These were new certainties going into the Second World War and it is one of the remarkable outcomes of that conflict that it produced a “post-war settlement” between labour, government, and capital that would frame prosperity for another 30 years.
At the end of the War of 1812, Indigenous allies of the British colonies hoped for respect in return for their involvement in the struggle against the United States. At the end of both World Wars, Indigenous communities again hoped that their warriors’ sacrifice and involvement would be repaid with respect. Another generation would pass before democratic reforms would include Indigenous voters. It would be another two decades before some of the worst aspects of state- and church-management of First Nations would see the light of day.
It isn’t that there was no appetite for reform, however. The next chapter demonstrates the extent to which Canada as a nation wished to see extensive changes in social, moral, biological, and political relations in the post-Confederation period. Viewed from that angle, one can see the war and Depression years as background to a prolonged dialogue on the sort of people Canadians might become.
appeasement: Refers to Britain’s policy of avoiding war with Germany by making concessions.
art deco: A visual and decorative style associated with the first three decades of the 20th century and, in its emphasis on symmetry and its association with technological advancement, is often regarded as the foremost modernist style.
balance of power: In international relations, refers to a complex of evenly weighted alliances that theoretically prohibit any one participant or side from going to war.
Balfour Declaration: In 1926, a statement released at the Imperial Conference and named for the conference chair, Lord Balfour. Formally recognizes the Dominions of the British Empire as autonomous nations capable of independent action internationally and in the workings of the new British Commonwealth of Nations.
Battle of Britain: A series of aerial attacks launched by Germany against Britain beginning in July 1940 and countered by an aerial defence. Along with the strategic night bombing campaign that followed (the Blitz), it can be said to have lasted for nearly one year.
Battle of the Atlantic: A nearly continuous series of naval confrontations that began in 1939 and ended only with the fall of Germany in 1945.
British Commonwealth of Nations: A voluntary association of Britain and its former colonies. Established incrementally after 1919 and especially in the Balfour Declaration (1926).
Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF): The name given to the troops sent overseas during the Great War (World War I).
Canadian National Railway: Created in 1919 out of several financially troubled railway companies that had been inherited by Ottawa, including the Canadian Northern Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway; constituted a trans-continental operation in competition with the CPR.
Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWACs): Established in 1941 as a separate non-combatant unit of the Canadian Army; provided support mainly as office staff, drivers/mechanics, and canteen workers; some served overseas.
concentration camps: A prison camp established to contain and punish captured populations. The British ran concentration camps for Boer prisoners in the Second Boer War; Canada placed suspected enemy aliens — Ukrainians and Germans in the Great War, Germans, Italians, and Japanese in the Second — in camps that were not punitive but nor were they appropriately provisioned; and the Germans infamously used concentration camps as the means of executing large numbers of Jewish prisoners (along with other “enemies” of the Reich). Concentration camps continue to be used.
Dieppe Raid: 19 August 1942; also known as “Operation Jubilee;” an attack on the north coast of France that was meant to gather intelligence for a larger subsequent invasion; of the 6,000 Allied troops involved, 5,000 were Canadian. The mission was badly planned, atrociously researched, and tragic in its execution. Nevertheless, it contributed intelligence that helped at Normandy three years later.
dollar-a-year men: Leading entrepreneurs, financiers, and manufacturers on loan from their companies to the federal government for the duration of the Second World War for a nominal fee of one dollar.
Dunkirk: Refers to the hurried evacuation of Canadian, British, and other troops from the port of the same name following their retreat in the face of Germany’s invasion of northern France in 1940.
First Quebec Conference: Held in August 1943; a top-secret high level meeting between leaders and representatives of the Canadian, British, and American governments. Canada’s actual involvement did not extend far beyond hosting the event.
flapper: Term used to describe fashionable young women in the interwar years; associated with hedonism, social rebellion, and style.
Governor-General: The Crown’s representative in Canada; appointed by the King or Queen.
Hyde Park Agreement, Hyde Park Declaration (1941): A wartime pact between Canada and the United States; allowed Canadian-made goods manufactured for export to Britain to be covered under the Britain-USA Lend-Lease Agreement.
interwar: The period between 1918 and 1939.
isolationism: The policy of isolating one’s nation-state from international turmoil and alliances.
jingoism: Term coined in the 1870s; denotes patriotism applied in an aggressive foreign policy. Canada’s involvement in the Second Boer War contained elements of jingoism.
Juno: The invasion of France in 1944 – code-named Operation Overlord – targeted a series of beaches, each of which was assigned its own operational name associated with alphabet call-letters. The American forces struck at Utah and Omaha; the British attacked Sword and Gold; the Canadian assault came at Juno. Originally the British and Canadian beaches were named for fish (i.e.: Swordfish, Goldfish) and Juno was called Jellyfish, but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill objected to the idea that soldiers were bound to die on a beach code-named “Jelly” and insisted on the change to “Juno.”
King-Byng Affair: Also known as the King-Byng Thing, a constitutional crisis arising from Mackenzie King’s test of Governor-General Byng’s authority to call an election when requested by a Prime Minister.
Ku Klux Klan (KKK): An explicitly racist, anti-Catholic illegal organization with roots in the American South; established a presence and substantial following in Saskatchewan in the 1920s, where it played a role in the outcome of the 1929 provincial election. Largely dissipated thereafter, the Klan briefly reappeared in the 1970s in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario.
League of Nations: A post-Great War international assembly established in 1919, of which Canada was a founding member. Its principal objective was to create conditions of collective security through a mutual defence pact and the application of economic sanctions; failed largely because of the United States’ refusal to join and member states’ (incuding Canada’s) fear of being embroiled in conflicts (military or economic) abroad.
Lend-Lease Agreement: Prior to declaring war against the Axis Powers in 1941, the United States agreed to support the Allied war effort by selling materiel to Britain on a deferred-payment program. Canada was able to take advantage of this arrangement, which led to rapid industrial recovery and expansion. See also Hyde Park Declaration.
Manhattan Project: 1942-46; a secretive and international Second World War research and development project conceived to develop the first atomic bomb. Canada contributed the uranium and, at what was still a prototype reactor on the Chalk River in Ontario, developed the processes for extracting weapons-grade plutonium.
mediums: Individuals thought to possess the ability to act as a bridge between the living and the dead; they were the “media” through which messages could be transmitted; part of an early 20th century trend toward spiritualism that was fed, in part, by the enormous mortality of WWI.
muscular Christianity: A late 19th century combination of Christian piety and athleticism, especially as regards masculinity.
Ogdensburg Agreement: 1940, a wartime accord signed between United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King; produced the Permanent Joint Board of Defence.
Permanent Joint Board of Defense: Established in 1940. See Ogdensburg Agreement.
Phoney War: Having declared war against Germany on 3 September 1939, France and Britain made no effort to engage the enemy in combat for the next eight months. Note that in Canadian and British English it is always spelled “Phoney,” with an “e”, whereas in American English it is spelled “Phony.”
popular front: A political alliance of left-wing, progressive parties and organizations to counter fascism in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
prisoner of war (POW): In modern warfare there are conventions regarding the appropriate treatment of captured soldiers or POWs. Most POWs are held for the duration of the war in guarded “POW camps.” Camps were established in Canada to handle POWs from the European theatre of war in the Second World War.
Progressive Party: Formed in 1920 as an alliance of the various United Farmer MPs elected to Ottawa; initially a rural protest party with strong roots in Ontario.
Regulation 17: In Ontario, a provincial program to reduce the availability of French language education; introduced shortly before the Great War; contributed to tensions between Francophone Quebec and Anglophone Ontario and the federal government.
resistance armies: Also resistance forces, resistance movements; forces aligned against either a legitimate regime or an occupying regime; an unofficial army typically comprised of soldiers who have deserted the national armed forces, as well as civilians who offer services and support to actual fighters and sometimes fight themselves.
RCAF (Women’s Division): Formed in 1941 when women from the British Royal Air Force (RAF) arrived in Canada to assist training. Embarrassed, the RCAF agreed to accept women and became the first branch of the armed forces to actively recruit women.
Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF): Established in 1924 on the remains of several Great War flying corps with Canadian personnel.
Section 98: Refers to Section 98 of the Criminal Code, which bans “unlawful associations;” introduced following the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919; targeted organizations which advocate political change through violent means; used to target the Communist Party in the 1920s and 1930s.
Status Indians: A legal identity created in the Indian Act, 1876. The Act determines who is, in law, an “Indian” and who is not for the purposes of government services, annuities, suffrage, etc.
Statute of Westminster (1931): An act of the British Parliament, it codified in law the principles of the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which included legislative autonomy of Canadian (and some other colonial) parliaments. Widely regarded as the moment when Canada gained independence.
U-boat: German term for a submarine.
V-J Day: Victory in Japan Day, 15 August 1945; marked the end of the war against Japan and thus the end of the Second World War.
Victory Bonds: Voluntary savings scheme originating in the Great War; purchasing 5 to 15 year bonds was a means of lending funds to the federal government with which to conduct the war; paid back with interest on their maturation.
Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS): Last of the women’s corps to be established; founded in 1942, it was disbanded in 1946 and reformed as a reserve force during the Korean War.
- Why did Canada enter the First World War at the same time Britain did, but not the Second World War?
- Why did Borden — opposed to women’s suffrage — agree to give women the vote during WWI?
- In what ways and why did so many political leaders and military figures fail to anticipate the character of early 20th century warfare?
- What does the term “total war” refer to and how is it useful in historical studies?
- In what ways was Canada changed by the Great War?
- What were the main features of the early feminist movement and what were its goals?
- How did the Liberals emerge as the leading federal party in the interwar years?
- What was the immediate economic and social impact of WWII?
- In what ways was Newfoundland’s experience of the Second World War distinct from that of Canada?
- How were women’s lives changed by the war? What was different about women’s experiences in 1939-45 compared to 1914-18?
- What factors led to the internment of Japanese Canadians?
Cook, Tim. “‘He was determined to go’: Underage Soldiers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” Histoire sociale/Social history, 41, Number 81 (Mai-May 2008): 41-74.
Dick, Lyle. “Sergeant Masumi Mitsui and the Japanese Canadian War Memorial,” Canadian Historical Review, 91, Number 3 (September 2010): 435-63.
Humphries, Mark. “Wilfully and With Intent: Self-Inflicted Wounds and the Negotiation of Power in the Trenches,” Histoire sociale/Social history, 47, Number 94 (Juin/June 2014): 369-97.
Mawani, Renisa. “Regulating the ‘Respectable’ Classes: Venereal Disease, Gender, and Public Health Initiatives in Canada, 1914-35,” Regulating Lives: Historical Essays on the State, Society, the Individual, and the Law (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press): 170-95.
Shaw, Amy. “Expanding the Narrative: A First World War with Women, Children, and Grief,” Canadian Historical Review, 95, Number 3 (September 2014): 398-406.
- Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster performing in a CBC radio broadcast of The Army Show © Canada Dept. of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada (PA-152119) is licensed under a Public Domain license