by Doug Nesbitt
But the hardest thing I’ll ask you, if you will only try
Is take your children by their hands and look into their eyes
And there you’ll see the answer you should have seen before
If you’ll win the wars at home, there’ll be no fighting anymore
- final verse of Phil Ochs’ “What Are You Fighting For?”
Remembrance Day is one of the few times each year we all agree upon the necessity of Canadians learning and cultivating a knowledge of history to help inform the decisions we make as individuals and as a society.
However, the political interests of certain sections in Canadian society have led to some very dangerous myths being built around Remembrance Day events, news articles, and TV specials.
Perhaps the most pervasive and unquestioned myth is that the two world wars helped forge a united Canada while our soldiers defended freedom and democracy overseas.
This myth not only fails to acknowledge that World War One was, as many Canadians and veterans understood at the time, a horrendous bloodbath between European empires – empires responsible for famines, genocides and bloody wars of conquests around the world. Canadian elites and politicians took the country to war without a vote in parliament because the British Empire – responsible for millions of famine deaths in India and Ireland – went to war to defend “plucky little Belgium.” But even Belgium was an empire at the time, overseeing and profiting from their nightmarish and genocidal occupation of the Congo.
A unifying war for freedom and democracy clashes with the actual record of Canada during the wars. The real history of the wars proves quite conclusively that what rights and democracy we do have in Canada emerged from the struggles of workers, women, farmers, and immigrants here at home. These people fought against war profiteering, government collusion with big business, and widespread abuses of state power during the wars.
The following is a brief look at how the home front was the bloody battlefield in which many of our freedoms were won.
The War Between the Classes
During both wars the home front was marked by widespread hardship. Rationing of nearly all consumer goods was implemented. Real wages stagnated as rents and other costs of living climbed rapidly. Unemployment was wiped out through the war effort, but the welfare state did not exist in either war. Even a simple program like workers compensation for injuries on the job had only been implemented in a few provinces by 1914, and Unemployment Insurance was only achieved in 1940. Old-age pensions were introduced in 1927 for people over 70 years of age. The struggle over wages became absolutely central to people’s survival.
Amidst austerity and rationing, civilians were encouraged by relentless state propaganda to police each other against hoarding, black markets and “aiding the enemy” through normal everyday gossip. Some of this was sensible, but it also had an ugly side. For example, even before conscription was brought in midway through both wars, men who didn’t volunteer were publicly shamed in the press, from the pulpit, and by politicians. Some pro-war groups even forcibly pinned white feathers on these men in a public symbol of cowardice.
One group was largely immune from all this. As millions lived through years of privation, war profiteering was rampant among the business class and political elite. Scandals were common and repeatedly exposed businesses gaming the system and colluding with government. This was epitomized in the First World War by the infamous Ross Rifle debacle. Businessmen, federal ministers and top military officials conspired to profit by arming Canadian soldiers with the inferior Canadian-made Ross Rifle which jammed when it got wet or muddy. Lives were lost because of this. Canadian soldiers began ditching their standard issue Ross Rifles and scrounged for the more reliable British-made Lee-Enfield. Politicians and the military brass knew what was happening but Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, wasn’t dismissed from his post until late 1916.
With war profiteering rampant, the politically moderate Trades and Labour Congress (forerunner to the Canadian Labour Congress) threw its weight behind a campaign for the “Conscription of Wealth”. If the working class was going to sacrifice itself in Belgium and France, the TLC demanded the economic elite sacrifice their enormous profits. But labour didn’t have its own political party and Prime Minister Robert Borden took advantage of the situation. His war-time national coalition government of Liberals and Conservatives introduced a temporary income tax in 1917. That income tax turned out to be permanent and it was not the progressive form of taxation sought by Canada’s workers and labour movement.
The war brought economic hardship, political authoritarianism, enormous loss of life, the destruction of families, and the development of a pernicious culture of state-sanctioned surveillance. Conditions were much worse in other countries. This sowed the seeds of a global revolt.
Beginning in 1916 and lasting into the early 1920s, every continent was rocked by general strikes, mass mutinies, colonial rebellions, and sweeping revolutions that toppled age-old empires.
In Canada, this initially took the form of a huge strike wave from 1917 to 1921. Most strikes centred on wages and union recognition. Wages were a key issue because as there was no social safety net. Battles for union recognition were also central because there were no laws requiring employers to recognize unions or bargain collectively. Workers also formed unions to gather dues which could be used to pay for doctors and funerals. Canadian healthcare in both wars was a privately-run system where profits and prestige came before people. Where workplace compensation legislation did not exist, money also had to be spent on suing employers for unsafe work conditions.
Workers also had to confront the armed wing of the state. Soldiers were routinely called upon to defend employers on the grounds that strike actions hurt the war effort. This created the conditions in which labour disputes quickly escalated into major confrontations involving multiple workplaces and dividing entire cities.
Canada’s first general strike did not happen in Winnipeg, but in Vancouver in August 1918. When popular anti-war labour activist and socialist Ginger Goodwin was murdered by police, a general strike was called. The Winnipeg General Strike erupted later in May 1919. Few Canadians know that Winnipeg’s General Strike was accompanied by general strikes in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, and the Nova Scotian manufacturing centre of Amherst. A short-lived general strike erupted in Toronto while Montreal’s powerful metal workers walked off the job. In all these strikes, veterans played a major role participating in the strikes, though some veterans also participated in strike-breaking forces.
The Winnipeg General Strike posed a real challenge to the economic and political order, and this is why repression was so high. Winnipeg’s strike committee was arrested, and its immigrant members deported to war-torn Europe. Pickets and protests were attacked by strikebreakers, deputized thugs and the RCMP, resulting in injuries and death.
Workers struggles declined in the early 1920s, but they lasted in Cape Breton until 1925. Communist-led coal miners and steelworkers took on greedy, government-backed employers, such as the British Empire Steel and Coal Company which was the biggest corporation in Canada at the time. The Canadian army was called on more than one occasion to suppress the strikes. In the last all-out strike in 1925, a quarter of the entire Canadian army was stationed in Cape Breton to enforce Besco’s effort to starve out the miners. During that strike on June 11 1925 miner William Davis was murdered by company police in a clash between strikers and the company.
The Second World War witnessed a similar workers’ revolt. A wave of struggles erupted for union recognition and improved wages. Workers also defied the no-strike pledge made by the influential Communist Party which had done so much to build unions in the 1930s. When the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler in June 1941, the Communists declared their no-strike pledge arguing that strikes hurt the war effort and by extension Canada’s war allies, the Soviet Union. But this didn’t stop workers from fighting.
The workers’ movement was revived in late 1941 when gold miners in Kirkland Lake, Ontario struck for union recognition. The strike was defeated through cooperation between the provincial and federal governments and employer, but a pan-Canadian solidarity campaign for the gold miners stoked militancy and confidence. Building upon the lessons of the tumultuous 1930s, workers action escalated throughout the war. Wildcat strikes were widespread and with labour shortages and high production demands, workers began to make gains and build confidence. The rising strike wave compelled Mackenzie King to adopt Privy Council Order 1003 in 1944 which, for the first time, led the government to legally recognize unions and force employers to negotiate with unions.
Shortly after the war, a new system of Canadian industrial relations known as the “Rand Formula” was achieved through the militant 99-day Ford Windsor strike in late 1945 and backed up by the Hamilton Stelco strike in 1946. The Windsor and Hamilton strikes were just the high points of a strike wave that rocked the country immediately following the war. The right to form a union and bargain collectively had been secured on the home front by workers action.
The War for Democracy
In both wars, opposition to state power and austerity on the home front led directly to major third-party breakthroughs across Canada. New parties delivered new choices at the ballot box. More importantly, millions of Canadians began to believe that democracy could extended to the economy. In many ways, both wars fuelled widespread support for socialism.
This explosion of democratic activism served to break the stifling two-party system which was entrenched in the 1870s. Provincially-organized “United Farmer” and “Independent Labour” parties emerged from the grassroots late in the First World War and challenged the establishment parties across the country. In 1921, the farmer-led Progressive Party became the official opposition. Provincial results were just as astounding.
In 1919, Ontario elected a coalition government led by the United Farmers of Ontario and supported by the Independent Labor Party. In 1920, Manitoba’s farmer and labour candidates won more seats than the Liberals who formed a weak minority. In 1922, the United Farmers of Manitoba won the election. Meanwhile, the United Farmers of Alberta took power in 1921. United Farmer and Independent Labour candidates formed the opposition in the 1920 Nova Scotia election by winning 30 percent of the vote. In Newfoundland, the Fisherman’s Protective Union led by William Coaker was the kingmaker. Coaker pulled the plug on the ruling People’s Party in 1919 and formed a coalition with the Liberal Reform Party which came to power. BC’s fragmented left and labour parties couldn’t pull off a serious challenge in the 1919 election, but together accounted for 20 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, women’s organizations successfully fought for and won the vote in the prairie provinces in 1916, and then most other provinces by 1919. PEI and Newfoundland followed in the early 1920s, and Quebec later in 1940.
As with labour’s demand for an income tax for the wealthy, Borden’s government responded opportunistically to the democratic feminist movement for democratic rights. Borden introduced a limited federal vote for women designed to help him win the 1917 election that was fought almost exclusively over implementing conscription. The only women allowed to vote were those with sons serving overseas or those whose husbands were soldiers. Despite this, suffragettes organized and fought to expand the vote to all women and achieved this in 1918 at the federal level, and then won the right to run in federal elections a year later.
Many suffragettes were involved in farmer, labour and socialist politics and were also instrumental in the emergence of the farmer and labour party challenges. Even though most of these new parties collapsed in the early 1920s, it was this popular pressure that expanded the meaning, understanding and practice of democracy in Canada. It laid the foundations for similar future efforts.
During the 1940s, Canadians were deeply committed to the necessity of defeating fascism but held deep reservations about the conduct of the war. War profiteering remained a problem and wages and union rights were being held down. Opposition to Mackenzie King’s Liberal government mounted quickly after the 1940 election in which the Prime Minister promised not to introduce conscription.
In 1942, a federal Gallup poll rocked the country. It showed the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation leading both the Liberals and Conservatives. The CCF was even the most popular party among Canadian soldiers serving overseas. The poll had a huge political impact because polling was only really developed in the 1930s and was done very infrequently. The CCF had languished in the 1930s but now it seemed a real political threat to the Liberals and Tories.
In subsequent elections, the CCF formed the opposition in BC in 1942, narrowly lost the Ontario election of 1943, and took power in Saskatchewan in 1944. In 1945, the CCF won the most votes in Manitoba but the electoral system delivered it fewer seats than either the Tories or Liberals.
During the war, even a handful of Communists were elected provincially in Manitoba and Ontario. The first and only Communist ever elected to parliament was Fred Rose of Montreal in a 1943 by-election and again in the 1945 federal election (Rose was expelled from parliament in 1947 after becoming implicated in the Gouzenko Affair, a spy scandal and one of the first salvos of the Cold War).
Facing a serious electoral challenge from the CCF riding high on a big wave of industrial unrest, Prime Minister King tacked hard to the left on social and economic matters. In the later war years and through the late 1940s, King’s Liberals, like so many governments around the world, began to concede what would become the foundations of the post-war welfare state. This was only made possible by millions of Canadians pushing employers and government through industrial and political action.
Challenging State Power
Without even a vote in parliament, Canada’s politicians loyally followed Britain into a war between European empires. The lack of a vote in parliament and the willingness of so many to side with the British Empire alienated many Quebecois. Conscription would lead to a deep crisis of Confederation.
At the outset of both wars people volunteered to fight. There was no conscription. Prior to 1914, Canadians remained loyal to the idea of an all-volunteer military. Many viewed conscription with suspicion and a despotic power used by countries like Germany and Tsarist Russia. This attitude held up in 1914 as Canadians thought the war would be “over by Christmas”.
However, casualties on the front escalated dramatically in 1915 and 1916. Volunteers had virtually dried up by 1916. The government felt compelled to introduce conscription and mobilized a massive and unprecedented propaganda campaign. Conscription was implemented in August 1917 after the heavy losses at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.
To further secure support for conscription, Prime Minister Borden called an election for late 1917. While extending the vote to war widows and wives of soldiers, Borden stripped conscientious objectors of the vote as well as “enemy aliens” who had arrived in Canada after 1902. Pro-conscription Liberals joined Borden’s Tories to form the “Unionist” ticket. Laurier headed up the opposition Liberals.
Opposition to conscription in Quebec went deeper than just a belief that Canada had slavishly followed Britain to war. Just like working for English-speaking bosses and owners at home, francophone soldiers were forced to take commands in English. The government also refused to mobilize long-standing all-francophone militia units. Everyone also knew quite well that conscription would disproportionately target Quebec which had far lower volunteer rates.
Opposition also ran very high among farmers in every province. Farmers opposed conscription because essential farm labour would be robbed from them. Borden responded by promising not to conscript the sons of farmers.
Borden’s pro-conscription Unionist coalition handily won the 1917 election but won only 3 of 65 Quebec seats. Following the election, Borden abandoned his promise to exempt the farmers’ sons. This would help add fuel to the electoral insurgency of farmer parties.
Following the election, the government enforced the conscription act making 400,000 men liable for conscription. About 95 percent sought exemptions.
Protests against conscription began to mount across Quebec. One Montreal anti-conscription protest in August 1917 had already transformed into a riot leaving one person dead. But the major conflict was the five-day “Easter Riots” of March-April 1918.
On March 28, federal police arrested a young man at a Quebec City bowling alley when he could not produce exemption papers. A crowd of two thousand formed and marched on the jail. The police released the man, but the crowd still attacked and wrecked the facility and beat up several cops. Fearing further rioting, the Quebec mayor immediately called in federal troops. Martial law was declared and several thousand soldiers began to arrive in the city. The soldiers were called from the prairies and Ontario because the army brass doubted the loyalty of French-Canadian troops.
Crowds upwards of 15,000 were confronted by hundreds of armed soldiers. Buildings were set ablaze, protesters threw rocks and got into brawls with soldiers, and cavalry charges dispersed crowds. The conflict culminated in a confrontation whereby soldiers reported being fired on by snipers. Unable to identify the snipers, the soldiers fired into an unarmed crowd killing five and wounding a hundred more. The crowd dissolved and the riots were over. Fearing an insurrection, a substantial English-Canadian force remained in the city and surrounding towns for the duration of the war.
The next anti-conscription action was carried out by soldiers themselves. A month after the armistice in Europe, conscripts mutinied in Victoria. They refused to be shipped to Russia to serve in a fourteen-nation effort to encircle and destroy the besieged revolution in Russia. The mutiny was put down but the Canadian soldiers who were stationed in Russia saw virtually no action. The soldiers occupying various Russian ports saw little interest in suppressing the Russian Revolution. Unlike the summer of 1914, people now understood that war was no longer about glory and adventure.
Conscription returned again in 1944 despite Prime Minister King claiming otherwise during the 1940 election campaign. In a typically Liberal line, King declared “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” A referendum was held in 1942 which again ignited major opposition and protests in Quebec but nothing like the Easter Riots. The CCF and Communist Party supported conscription in the war against fascism.
Was conscription necessary? In both wars, conscription proved largely pointless. Insignificant numbers of soldiers were drafted and even fewer served at the front. Nevertheless, conscription served to divide the country and add new grievances to the old grievances held by Quebec’s majority, continually exposing the unequal union that is Confederation.
In addition to the civil liberties repealed in both wars through the War Measures Act, the Canadian government ruthlessly targeted ethnic and racial groups they deemed the enemy.
The most infamous example is the arrest and deportation of 22,000 Japanese-Canadians to internment camps for the duration of the war based on no evidence whatsoever. The vast majority were full Canadian citizens born in Canada, and most were residents of British Columbia. They were dispersed to camps across the country, forced to live in substandard and often inhuman conditions, and put to work in logging camps, sugar beet farms, and other labour for the war effort. Children in the camps were denied access to nearby schools and forced to develop their own education programs. Their homes, businesses, fishing fleets, and possessions were confiscated without compensation and never returned after the war.
Fewer Canadians know this also happened immigrants from Germany, Italy, Hungary, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries during the First World War. At least 8,000 people, almost all of them men, were arrested and sent to one of 24 camps without any due process. Banff National Park was partially built by this forced labour. Some of those interred stayed in camps until 1920. Upwards of 100,000 others were registered as “enemy aliens” and subject to immediate deportation and afforded few if any rights.
Remembering the Home Front
The claim that Canada was united by the war does not simply hold up. Divisions between Quebec and Canada became increasingly prominent in both wars. Class conflict escalated to unparalleled heights. Workers and farmers were central to the ushering in of a multi-party democracy in the First World War that, for the first time, saw women secure the vote.
When the world was plunged into war once more, a dramatic expansion of social and economic rights was achieved through workers struggles and the beginnings of the welfare state.
Collusion between business and government in repealing fundamental freedoms, profiting from war production and suppressing popular movements through force was the crucible in which Canadians further democratized the political system and dramatically expanded our rights and freedoms.
Recovering this history means carrying on the struggle against the same foe: the Canadian economic and political elite that would sacrifice us for empire and profits.