The economic effects on Canada of the First World War
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.