How the First World War changed Canada

How the First World War changed Canada

Canada, whose population in 1918 was eight million, sent 620,000 men to the Great War; almost 250,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. James Collection/Toronto Archvies/Vimy Foundation

After the fighting, a nation changed

From party politics to standard of living to national identity, the Great War transformed Canada, writes
J.L. Granatstein.

The Great War, lasting from August 1914 to November 1918, had a huge effect on Canada. In the hothouse atmosphere created by the conflict, attitudes changed faster, tensions festered more quickly and events forced governments and groups to take new positions at an unheard-of pace. The war changed everything.

First, there was the military aspect. In 1914, Canada had a tiny standing army, a two-ship navy and no air force. By the end of the war, 620,000 men and women had put on a uniform, an extraordinary effort from a population of just eight million. The army had a corps of four divisions and 100,000 men fighting in France and Flanders and winning laurels, while the casualty toll over four years approached almost a quarter-million killed and wounded. Some 22,000 men served in the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force, and the navy patrolled Canadian waters with some effectiveness.

The war’s impact on the relatives of those serving at the front was incalculable. The Canadian Patriotic Fund raised money to help families whose breadwinner was overseas, but nothing could compensate for the war’s losses. One mother in Winnipeg had seven sons in the army and two were killed; countless families lost fathers, sons, brothers and uncles. Did Canada lose a soldier who might have been a great prime minister? One who would find a cure for cancer? Or one who would have written the great Canadian novel?

In economic terms, the impact of the war was more measurable. As the war went on, munitions and other war-related factories sprang up across the country. The need for uniforms and soldiers’ equipment was huge, and initially patronage and shoddy work determined almost everything. The Imperial Munitions Board, founded in November 1915 with financial magnate Joseph Flavelle in command, soon had more than 600 factories churning out vast quantities of artillery shells, fuses and explosives, and building aircraft and naval vessels. When munitions manufacturers complained about their shrinking profits in late 1916, an angry Flavelle told them to “send profits to the hell where they belong.”

Flavelle’s factories, spread across the country but concentrated in Quebec and Ontario, employed 250,000 men and 30,000 women. The workshops attracted rural labourers into the cities, creating a housing crisis and putting agricultural production, as essential for the war effort as munitions, in great difficulty. “The high wages paid by the new munitions factories,” historian William Young wrote, “seemed to exercise an almost irresistible attraction for the comparatively underpaid agricultural labourers who flooded to the cities to work.” How could a farmer plant and harvest a crop without labour? How could he manage without his children? The government tried to speed mechanization, but the war left farmers unhappy. They received higher prices for their crops, but the factories and the front took away their sons and daughters.

The Canadian Council of Agriculture, formed in 1909, represented provincial agricultural organizations, and the war increased its political activity. The government had promised farmers’ sons exemptions from conscription as an inducement to vote for Sir Robert Borden’s coalition in the December 1917 election. The exemptions were suddenly cancelled the following spring, after the Germans launched major attacks on the Western Front, and that broken promise spurred political activity. Within a year, a new political party, the Progressives, was in formation touting a “New National Policy” based around low tariffs. The Progressives found some federal and provincial success, but rural Canada, having lost much of its population to the cities, would never be a dominating political force again.

The war dramatically changed old party politics, too. Conscription, or compulsory military service, was the dominating issue in the 1917 election, the Borden government using it as a club to break the Liberal Party into pro- and anti-conscription wings. The conscriptionist Grits joined Borden in his Union Government, and the Union election campaign shamelessly bashed French Canada for its low enlistment rate. If Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals won the election, one Unionist pamphlet said, “the French-Canadians who have shirked their duty in this war will be the dominating force in the government of this country. Are the English-speaking people prepared to stand for that?” To guarantee an electoral victory, Borden had earlier gerrymandered the vote, disenfranchising recently naturalized “enemy aliens” who might have voted Liberal, and giving the vote to female relatives of soldiers. The soldiers’ vote was similarly tampered with, and the election result went solidly for Borden in English Canada and heavily for Laurier in French Canada. The nation had split on linguistic lines. And when the call-up of men began in January 1918, there was widespread evasion, police raids (even on Roman Catholic seminaries suspected of sheltering dodgers), and, eventually, a large Easter riot in Quebec City that was put down by the army but with several lives lost.

In the end, the Military Service Act conscripted 100,000 men, 24,000 of whom made it to France by the Armistice. The conscripts helped keep the infantry battalions up to strength during the battles of the Hundred Days that defeated the Germans. But the fury created by conscription in rural Canada and in Quebec was long-lasting. The Conservatives suffered in both communities for a generation or more, and the English-Canadian resentment of “slacker” Quebec lasted just as long. The Liberals, for their part, won francophone support for the foreseeable future with their anti-conscription stand, and Prime Minister Mackenzie King kept that support through the Second World War with his deft handling of the military manpower issue.

Marching and fighting in gas masks was "an abomination of the flesh," wrote one Canadian officer. "I know of nothing more uncomfortable." PA-002897/Library and Archives Canada

No one in either French or English Canada much liked the other Canadians, the newcomers from eastern and southern Europe who spoke neither of the main languages, ate strange foods and practised their religions in strange ways. The newcomers took jobs in the city factories, denying such work, some claimed, to “real” Canadians. There was genuine resentment in English-speaking Canada that the recent immigrants did not join the army and widespread suspicion that German-speakers, no matter how long they had been in Canada, or those from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially Ukrainians or Galicians as they were called, were somehow disloyal. Many enemy aliens faced internment for little or no reason except their ethnicity. There were anti-German riots in Berlin, Ont., and the town duly changed its name in September 1916 to Kitchener, after the British minister of war. Returning veterans attacked Greek immigrants in Toronto, and politicians, students and the media raised suspicions about university German professors, some of whom were fired.

Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution also fed official and public concern; the government, the Dominion Police and the North West Mounted Police spied on ethnic groups, trade unions and the radical left, shutting down their newspapers and heavily censoring others. Capitalism and good order seemed under attack, and after a huge General Strike in Winnipeg in May 1919, the paranoia increased still more. The strike seemed to be led mainly by trade union members of British origin, but that didn’t matter to the government, which sent in the army and crushed the strikers. Suddenly Canada seemed full of fear and unrest. The war had created new demands, new movements, new repression.

Then there was inflation and the rising cost of living. The federal government had not really tried to control prices, and wartime shortages and rationing—introduced late in the war—drove up the costs of food and almost everything else. The farmers were profiteering, city dwellers complained, and there were demands that Joseph Flavelle, the head of the Imperial Munitions Board, be punished for his pork-packing company’s high profits. “Equality of Sacrifice,” a popular slogan, demanded that the rich pay more, and the government reluctantly introduced excess profits and income taxes, the latter promised as a wartime measure only. The taxes were in fact minimal, and the revenues generated were small. The rich never did pay, and profiteering was rife. The Mackenzie King government in the Second World War learned from the mistakes of the Great War how to finance a wartime government—with tough price controls, high excess profits taxes and higher rates of income taxation.

The war touched everything, even the ties that bound Canada to the Empire. The government had begun the war with the idea that it was business as usual and that Great Britain would pay the costs incurred by Canada. Neither idea lasted very long in what quickly became a total war. Soon, Britain was so strapped that it could not even lend money to Ottawa, and the government felt forced to seek a loan of $40 million in New York, a first for the Dominion. More loans would follow, and Ottawa had to beg and borrow for relief, as Britain by 1917 had become unable to pay for wartime shipments from Canada, and the war hugely increased imports of specialized metals and machinery needed for munitions production from the United States. One measure was the Victory Bond campaigns, which raised some $2 billion; another was pressuring Britain to provide US$15 million a month from its loans from Washington to let Ottawa cover its shortage of American dollars. U.S. investment in Canada also increased as British investment sagged, and imports of goods from the United States were 1,000 per cent of British exports to Canada by 1918. In essence, the war began the process of switching Canada from the British financial world to the American one.

The new financial reality was one thing; the course of the war was another. The United States had stayed out of the war until April 1917, and its first troops did not get into action for more than a year. This “too proud to fight” attitude did real damage to the way Canadians saw their neighbours. American strength guaranteed eventual victory, but in truth the actual U.S. battlefield role in the Allied victory was relatively minor. Soldier Will Bird, later a frequent Maclean’s writer, said of his comrades’ view of the Americans: “They had not done anything to help, and we forgot them; when remembered, they were derided.” Americans nonetheless bragged incessantly that they had won the war, infuriating Canadians, who believed they had a moral superiority because the Dominion had been involved from the outset. This attitude would be long-lasting, reinforced by the United States’ delayed entry into the Second World War.

As this all suggests, Canada had emerged from the war convinced that it mattered. The war had simultaneously reinforced the nation’s Britishness and its sense that Canada should have more control over its destiny. To Sir Robert Borden, this meant more control of foreign policy in Ottawa—not independence but autonomy, a neat halfway house that could be defined in many ways. Borden persuaded the British to let Canada and the other dominions get a place at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference and a seat in the new League of Nations. This was a recognition of the Canadian Corps’s role and the manufacturing and agricultural effort at home, a sign that Canada’s new status merited recognition.

Once the war “over there” was finished, the men came home. The nation they found was different in so many ways, and the reception they received was not what they had expected. In many cases, their old jobs had been filled. The government’s promises of benefits were there—but a free farm in Kapuskasing in northern Ontario was not much of a reward for serving in battle. Many of the soldiers who returned home from France carried mental and physical wounds that plagued them for the rest of their lives. The veterans’ hospitals were good, and there was rehabilitation and care for the wounded. But pensions were tough to get, and the payments were derisory. Canada, it seemed, was not going to be a land fit for all its heroes, but most of the citizen soldiers nonetheless eventually found jobs or finished their schooling, creating a life for themselves and their loved ones. Still, Canada’s Great War would never be over for those who served—and for all those whose lives it changed forever.


J.L. Granatstein is a former Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum and author of many books, including Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace.