Canada in the World Wars and Interwar Years

Canada in the World Wars and Interwar Years

World War I

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated, setting off a chain of events leading to World War I. By August 4, Britain had declared war on Germany and, as part of the Empire, Canada automatically entered in the fray. Although Canada had no choice in the matter, as foreign affairs were still conducted from Britain, the war was initially popular even among French Canadians, including Henri Bourassa.Fact|date=June 2007 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%.

The conscription crisis of 1917

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 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, 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 the ship drifted towards the harbor. 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 crosses. After the explosion, Halifax dropped out of the war effort, focusing primarily on survival.

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

Post-war society

During the war, the women'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 (but only if they were over 21 years of age). 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.

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."History of the Canadian Peoples, 1867-Present," Alvin Finkel & Margaret Conrad, 1998] 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 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

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 refused to send federal aid to the provinces and only introduced 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 this time 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). It took until 1939 and the outbreak of war for the Canadian economy to return to 1929 levels, however.

New parties

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.

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 mobilised the 1,500-man Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion to fight in the Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigades.

On to Ottawa Trek

The depression had crippled the economy and left one in nine Canadians on relief. [cite book | last=Zuehlke | first=Mark | year=1996 | title=The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 | publisher=Whitecap Books | location=Vancouver | id =ISBN 1-55110-488-1 ] 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. [cite book |last = Hoar (Howard)|first = Victor|year = 1969|title = The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: Canadian Participation in the Spanish Civil War|publisher = Copp Clark|location = Toronto] 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. [cite book| last =Berton| first =Pierre| title =The Great Depression, 1929-1939| publisher =Penguin| date =1990| location =Toronto| pages =542-543| id = ISBN 0-14-015770-0]

World War II

The Canadian economy, like the economies of many other countries, improved in an unexpected way--the outbreak of the Second World War. Canada had been a founding member of the League of Nations, but elected to remain neutral throughout the 1930s. Mackenzie King even met with Adolf Hitler and decided he was not a threat. When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Mackenzie King was finally convinced that military action would be necessary, but waited until September 10 to declare war (unlike World War I, when Canada was automatically at war as soon as Britain was). 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. The first military 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). [ 'I'm the proudest girl in the world!'] , CBC Archives. ] 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. [ Canadian women serving overseas] , CBC Archives. ]

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." [ Canada's own 'Rosie'] , CBC Archives. ]

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 had declared "conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription."

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 Canadian. 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 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 pointFact|date=September 2007). 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

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. [ Japanese Internment] - CBC] 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. [ Japanese Canadian Internment] , University of Washington Libraries] During the period of detention, the Canadian government spent one-third the per capita amount expended by the U.S. on Japanese American evacuees.

ee also

*History of the Canadian Army.
*Military history of Canada.

External links

* [ Dear Ellie: Letters from the West (Fictionalized story of travel in Western Canada in 1937 with archival photos)]


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