The eco­nomic ef­fects on Canada of the First World War

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - REMEMBRANCE DAY - JAMES MAR­TIN

Though our so­ci­ety was trans­formed, many labour and in­dus­try trends were al­ready un­der way, his­to­ri­ans say

The First World War is rightly seen as a trans­for­ma­tive pe­riod for Canada. Key Cana­dian-led vic­to­ries, such as the bat­tle of Vimy Ridge, con­trib­uted to what Vet­eran Af­fairs Canada calls “a na­tional com­ing of age” – at a se­ri­ous cost.

The young na­tion of less than eight mil­lion peo­ple paid a high price: more than 60,000 Cana­di­ans lost their lives to the war, and about 150,000 were in­jured in bat­tle. When the bat­tle­fields fi­nally qui­eted, those sac­ri­fices and vic­to­ries em­bold­ened Prime Min­is­ter Robert Bor­den to suc­cess­fully in­sist on Canada’s pres­ence at the Treaty of Ver­sailles, a move that later helped Canada achieve greater con­sti­tu­tional au­ton­omy from Great Bri­tain.

So­cially and po­lit­i­cally, the Canada that en­tered the “war to end all wars” clearly wasn’t the same Canada that emerged.

Eco­nom­i­cally, how­ever, the Great War may not have been the trans­for­ma­tive pe­riod – char­ac­ter­ized as the birth of Cana­dian in­dus­trial so­ci­ety – that is of­ten part of the coun­try’s mythol­ogy.

Rather, sug­gests his­tory pro­fes­sor Dou­glas McCalla, the pe­riod 1914-1918 of­fers “a turn­ing point around which our en­tire [na­tional] nar­ra­tive is or­ga­nized.”

The Uni­ver­sity of Guelph pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus and for­mer Canada Re­search Chair in Cana­dian Ru­ral His­tory adds, “Many of the things that the war was said to have rev­o­lu­tion­ized re­flected things that al­ready ex­isted in 1914.

“There were broad trends in ef­fect from the 1880s to the 1920s, and the war doesn’t show up as a break in those trends. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t have a big im­pact on the econ­omy in many ways, but it didn’t trans­form the econ­omy.”

Although the war years are of­ten cited as when Canada shifted from be­ing a ru­ral to an ur­ban so­ci­ety, in­deed, the 1921 cen­sus marked the first time more Cana­di­ans lived in ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties than else­where, Dr. McCalla says “the trend had be­gun long be­fore the war.”

Such was also the case, he ar­gues, for the oft-re­peated claim that the war saw a huge jump in the num­ber of Cana­dian women do­ing “men’s work.” The fa­mous pho­tos, pro­duced by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, of women work­ing the assem­bly lines in mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries may have cap­tured the coun­try’s col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion – but not nec­es­sar- ily the re­al­ity of women in the work force.

“We don’t have great statis­tics about women and mu­ni­tions, but we do have those very evoca­tive pho­tos of women do­ing un­usual jobs,” says Trent Uni­ver­sity gen­der and women’s stud­ies pro­fes­sor Joan Sang­ster.

“That’s the is­sue: Th­ese jobs were un­usual, not usual. Those mu­ni­tions jobs weren’t na­tion­wide; they were pri­mar­ily in On­tario and some parts of Que­bec. Many of the women who took them were al­ready work­ing women. One study says that 50 per cent of the mu­ni­tions women had al­ready been work­ing in other fac­to­ries or do­mes­tic labour. They were al­ready in the work force, they were just look­ing for bet­ter pay.”

Dr. Sang­ster says that, although wartime women were mostly em­ployed in what were tra­di­tion­ally “fe­male” jobs, such as nurs­ing, re­tail sales, do­mes­tic ser­vices and, given the in­creased com­plex­ity of wartime gov­ern­ment, of­fice work, the mu­ni­tions myth per­sists per­haps as a way for Cana­di­ans to cope with the rav­ages of the war.

“The war was a tragic loss of life – I’d use the word slaugh­ter – so peo­ple were look­ing for ways in which to see the war as a more pos­i­tive wa­ter­shed,” she says. “One of those was [the idea of] women do­ing non-tra­di­tional work. You hear peo­ple say things like, ‘All kinds of women did th­ese jobs. One woman pulled up to the mu­ni­tions fac­tory in her chauf­feur-driven limou­sine.’ I can as­sure you, very few women did th­ese jobs as pa­tri­otic work. Th­ese were work­ing-class women, many of whom were al­ready work­ing in other jobs.”

Dr. McCalla has not seen a no­tice­able uptick in the per­cent­age of women in the Cana­dian work­place dur­ing the war, in mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries or else­where. “The trend [for more Cana­dian women work­ing] started in the 1890s, and ran straight through the war with­out any ob­vi­ous bend up­ward.”

Even if sup­posed sud­den trans­for­ma­tions were sim­ply con­tin­u­a­tions of long-term trends, the war did see eco­nomic changes. Most, how­ever, were tem­po­rary, such as the fed­eral gov­ern­ment more than tripling its spend­ing, peak­ing at 16 per cent of GNP in 1918. (Fed­eral spend­ing was al­most back to pre-war lev­els by 1926.)

What Dr. McCalla sees as per­haps the long­est-last­ing eco­nomic change com­ing out of the First World War, a change per­haps even wor­thy of be­ing deemed “trans­for­ma­tive,” was Canada’s ap­proach to war it­self.

Still smart­ing from labour up­ris­ings such as the 1919 Win­nipeg Gen­eral Strike – brought on, in large part, by the stresses the do­mes­tic work force felt from the over­seas de­ploy­ment of 424,000 troops – and unchecked in­fla­tion rates that car­ried past armistice, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment com­mis­sioned many eco­nomic stud­ies right at the very on­set of the Sec­ond World War.

“There was con­cern right from the start about man­ag­ing prices, man­ag­ing labour, avoid­ing ex­cess prof­its,” he says.

Whereas Cana­dian in­dus­try dur­ing the First World War largely fo­cused on man­u­fac­tur­ing ar­tillery shells, for ex­am­ple, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment went into the Sec­ond World War with a de­lib­er­ate strat­egy to build up air­craft pro­duc­tion as a legacy in­dus­try that would thrive in peace­time.

“No­body in 1914 ex­pected a long war, but as the grand of­fences failed, the re­al­iza­tions dawned on pub­lic of­fi­cials that they were in for a very long haul. So, right from the start in 1939, [the gov­ern­ment] was say­ing, ‘What went wrong in 1914-18, and how can we avoid that?’”


Af­ter the First World War bat­tle­fields emp­tied, PM Robert Bor­den fought to rep­re­sent Canada at the Treaty of Ver­sailles, a move that helped Canada achieve greater con­sti­tu­tional au­ton­omy from Bri­tain.

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