Wednesday, February 25, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Canada at War

            Canada entered the Second World War by declaring war on Germany on 10th September, 1939, exactly a week after Great Britain had done so. As mentioned in a previous post, there was a great deal of division within the country during this time regarding support for Britain and the war itself. During the increasingly turbulent events in Europe in late 1939, it was becoming increasingly clear that if Britain fell to Germany, Canada could be threatened. In 1940, American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King signed the Ogdensburg Agreement, which ensured American support in defence of the continent should the need arise.

Mackenzie King (left) and FDR during the signing of the Agreement

            By 1942, Canada entered a state of ‘total war’, which means a war fought with no limits put on the resources used to achieve victory. Mackenzie King wanted Canada’s major contribution to the Allied war effort to be the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Air crews were brought to Canada from all over the Commonwealth for training (see last week’s post).

            Though it came with an obvious and astronomical price, the Canadian economy experienced a major upsurge as a result of the war. The effects of the Great Depression were made a distant memory in the wake of the sudden economic boom. Mackenzie King created the Department of Munitions and Supply in 1940 under C.D. Howe, who quickly organized Canada’s war economy. The government created the National Selective Service to place workers in industries. Canadian industry experienced major manufacturing changes, and was adapted to produce diesel engines, synthetic rubber, roller bearings, electronic equipment, and high octane gasoline in vast quantities. Also during this time, after a decade of hardship, the prairies experienced bumper crops to contribute to the war effort.

Workers are busy on the P-39 Airacobra assembly line at Bell Aircraft's Niagara Falls plant

            With so many enlisted men, Canada faced labour shortages as early as 1941. Women were encouraged to enter the workplace and participate in the total war effort. The 1942 National Selective Service Act recruited women, who ultimately did everything but actively serve, and earned 60% less than the men’s salaries.

            Mackenzie King was determined to avoid problems of greed and inflation of wartime goods and prices. He set up the Wartime Prices and Trade Board to ensure a large enough supply to meet both civilian and military needs through rationing. Taxes were raised to help offset the massive cost of the war, and the government also turned to the idea of Victory Loan drives. Nine of these were conducted between 1941 and 1945, and nearly $12 billion was collected. In terms of social support, the government increased its role with the 1940 Unemployment Insurance Act, the 1944 Family Allowance and the 1945 ‘baby bonus’ cheques.

            Regarding conscription, Mackenzie King wanted to do anything possible to avoid repeating the major WWI issue. In early 1942, Quebec voted 79% against it, compared to Ontario’s 17%. The National Resources Mobilization Act allowed the government to call men for the defence of Canada but not for overseas service. The mood in English-speaking Canada slowly shifted in favor of conscription. Mackenzie King’s solution was to hold a national referendum and ask Canadians to relieve him of his promise against conscription. As expected, he was supported by the English but the French were outraged. Mackenzie King then hesitated as he feared the Quebec reaction, but by 1944 the casualty rate was so high that volunteer replacement was insufficient. It was finally agreed that a small number of men be sent overseas. The fallout from Quebec was critical but did not destroy King’s government. By stalling until the end of the war, he avoided a major division and the bloody riots that had been seen during the previous war.

            Canada’s contribution to the Allied war effort was major and well-recognized on the world stage. At one point after the fall of France in 1940, Canada was the second-largest Allied power after Britain. The legacy of bravery and pride created in the First World War was continued by the next generation of Canadians, and their contributions are still evident in every aspect of daily life today.

            Thanks for reading,


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