A Many-Layered Legacy
CANADA’S FIRST WORLD WAR EXPERIENCE SHAPED OUR COUNTRY IN PROFOUND WAYS.
The impacts of the First World War continue to be felt today, a century after the armistice.
While the guns fell silent on the Western Front at eleven o’clock on November 11, 1918, the echo of the war’s long scream has reverberated to the present. One hundred years later, we can still see the First World War’s legacy throughout Canadian society.
No Canadian went to war in August 1914 in order to see Canada step out of Britain’s shadow, for the government to enact income tax or to enfranchise women, to drive for an emerging Canadian identity, or for one of the many other outcomes that occurred during or after the four long years of conflict. Yet those legacies and more can be traced back to the war, which, like most conflicts, had unintended consequences. The war that is expected is rarely the one that is experienced.
To examine the legacy of the war is to untangle many contradictions, including the unity and division it produced, along with intense feelings of patriotism and loss. There is a complexity that must be acknowledged in any attempt to unravel the intertwined threads of consequences.
The legacy of Canada’s Great War has affected the very social fabric of the country as well as what it means to be Canadian.
BORDEN PROMISED CONSCRIPTION. THE VIOLENT POLITICAL DEBATE THAT FOLLOWED PITTED ENGLISH AGAINST FRENCH BUT ALSO FARMERS AGAINST THOSE IN THE CITIES.
Wartime Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden wrote in his diary on November 11, 1918, “The world has drifted from its old anchorage and no man can with certainty prophesy what the outcome will be.” By the conflict’s end Canada was indeed forever changed by the struggle and strain, and, over the last century, the country and its people have grappled to make sense of the war’s long reach.
The First World War was the largest, most intricate, and most witheringly difficult thing the young country Canada had done up to that point. The Dominion was mobilized for a war overseas in August 1914, when it had neither any wartime industry nor an army from which to draw, other than three thousand professional soldiers. Yet in rapid time Canadians were roused to the urgency, as the overseas war of attrition demanded an all-encompassing, ultimately nearly unlimited, war effort. In the end, more than 630,000 men enlisted or were conscripted — about one in three adult males — along with several thousand women serving as nurses or as medical assistants known as VADs for the British Voluntary Aid Detachment in which they served.
The Canadian Corps on the Western Front, one hundred thousand strong by the end of 1916, fought within the British overseas armies, but it had its own symbols, such as the maple leaf, its own identifiable units, its own officers, and, later in the war, its own senior commander.
The corps earned a fierce reputation, starting with the defence against overwhelming German forces and chlorine gas at the Battle of Second Ypres in Belgium in April 1915; fighting hard at the battles of Mount Sorrel in Belgium and the Somme in France in 1916; and in the string of victories, first in France at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, and at Hill 70 in August, followed by Passchendaele in Belgium at the end of that year.
The Hundred Days campaign, starting in August 1918, saw the Canadian Corps spearhead crucial battles at Amiens, Arras, Cambrai, and Valenciennes in France, and at Mons, Belgium. Throughout the war, the Canadians paid a terrible price for being acknowledged shock troops, thrown into battle after battle as an attack formation, with eventually some sixty-six thousand Canadians being killed or dying of their wounds.
While much of the country’s focus was on raising an overseas force for combat on the Western Front, Canadians also supported the war effort from home. In the Dominion of about eight million people, there were no munitions factories before August 1914; but the need to feed the maw of war led to some 250,000 Canadians entering the workforce in hundreds of new companies. By 1917, more than a quarter of all shells fired by the British forces on the Western Front were made in Canada. Equally important was food production, with farmers sending hundreds of millions of bushels of wheat and other supplies to Britain, an absolutely vital aspect of Canada’s war effort.
But with no end to the demands for men and matériel, the country was pushed to the brink. When voluntary recruiting failed to bring in enough soldiers by late 1916, Borden was pressured to enact conscription, as Britain had done. He worried about the effect on unity, but his heart was with the soldiers overseas, many of whom he visited in hospitals. Young boys and men tried to stand or even to sit up to greet him, their broken bodies an indication of the awfulness of industrial warfare. Borden was outraged to learn that the shortages of soldiers required that they be sent back to the line, sometimes before they had even healed.
In May 1917, Borden promised conscription. The violent political debate that followed pitted English against French but also farmers against those in the cities and organized labour against those who owned the means of production. In a war where Canadians came together like never before in supporting the soldiers, or in patriotic war-related work, the pressure of the war also exposed old fault lines and created new ones.
One of the greatest symbols of both unity and disunity was Canada’s vast army of the fallen. Across Canada, but not uniformly dispersed, tens of thousands of official death notices brought news of grief, in staid government language, stating that a loved one had been killed or lost to battle. Parents exchanged sons for Memorial Cross medals. The legacy of pain lay like a shroud across the country.
And yet the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919 was almost as
devastating as the four-year-long war, with the number of deaths coming in a shorter time period. Why did Canadians erect thousands of monuments and memorials to the First World War fallen and almost nothing for the flu victims?
One reason must be the immense tragedy of the war and its deep well of loss. The act of sending Canadians off to serve and to disappear in the muck of the Somme or Passchendaele continues to haunt, its emotional power seemingly far beyond that of the devastating flu. There is something about the First World War that lingers, and maybe it has to do with the excitement and pride of the war effort giving way to sorrow at the unending casualties, the shock of the war’s length and trauma, and perhaps that of the young killing the young on foreign fields. It is also the tremendous legacy of that loss that feeds a strong emotional response that has not been easy for Canadians to put to rest.
The absence of the bodies is another factor contributing to the war’s troubling legacy. Most of the fallen were buried overseas in Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries; or, in the case of the almost twenty thousand with no known graves because their bodies were lost or destroyed, their names are inscribed on the Menin Gate in Ypres and the Vimy monument in France. These vast cemeteries and overseas monuments remain poignant symbols of loss and anguish, and yet they are also sources of pride and memory making. In commissioning a national war memorial in 1925, the federal government instructed that the designer should capture the “spirit of heroism … exemplified in the lives of those who sacrificed.”
The grouping of the war dead, as opposed to the flu victims who are spread throughout almost every community in Canada, also plays a role in focusing the enduring sorrow. The overseas cemeteries are compelling silent legacies that bear witness to lives cut short, with the sheer number of graves offering some quantification of the staggering losses. These sites of mourning draw Canadians to them every year; but those who go must make a conscious choice and travel great distances, all the while anticipating a rendezvous with the lost Canadians who are always lying in wait.
The survivors sought meaning in the war and especially looked for a sense of closure. In the early 1920s, Canadians turned to ennobling the fallen. They were Christ-like figures who had sacrificed for oppressed peoples and who died in the defence of liberal ideas of freedom. This veneration of the dead
helped some of the grieving families and communities to heal. And there was solidarity in grief. The fallen were not allowed simply to disappear. Commemorative plaques for schools and businesses, the naming of geographic places and memorial structures, stained-glass windows, and reflective books were just some of the means to mark the war’s dead.
In communities across the country, citizens built empty sepulchres and memorials, many of which bear the names of the fallen, to embody their lost bodies. These local monuments were called cenotaphs from the Greek for “empty tomb.” Several thousand in number, they became focal points for the survivors to come together to pay their respects on Armistice Day, or, after 1931, Remembrance Day. The monuments and Remembrance Day are still with us and, along with the poppy and two minutes of silence, are important icons of loss from a war that infuses the Canadian symbolic and geographic landscape.
The dead were sanctified, but it was more difficult to deal with the living. Some 173,000 soldiers and nurses were injured, and 138,000 were counted as wounded on the battlefield, although the latter number included double or triple wounds to the same person. Nonetheless, the number of maimed men was shockingly high, with about seven out of ten soldiers serving in France being wounded or killed.
The mass of broken men required state intervention to create a series of hospitals and treatment centres across the country. There were prosthetic-limb and glass-eye factories. Surgeons, doctors, nurses, and new specialists, such as massage therapists, all tried to ease these maimed men and women back into society. The resulting health care system was a crucial foundation of state medicine in Canada, and the war conditioned federal and provincial governments to accept responsibility for the care of the wounded and the large costs associated with it, a legacy still with us today.
The veterans, initially known as returned men, came back changed. Some of that change was for the better. The Khaki University, an army-run education program that drew teachers from the ranks and educated fifty thousand Canadian soldiers in the front lines and in reserve areas, taught hundreds of men who were illiterate to read and to write, while others received technical training or an opportunity to study at a British university.
There were also more visible physical changes, as most men put on seven to ten kilograms of weight during the course of the war from steady, starchy meals and regular exercise. Ironically, the war was good for the bodies of many who donned the uniform, and most soldiers became “dentally fit” during the war, with hundreds of thousands of men benefiting from improved teeth. These are war legacies that have been forgotten, but they surely mattered to individual men and their families. There were also negative long-term health factors, such as venereal disease, of which there were some sixty-six thousand recorded cases among Canadian soldiers during the war.
Veterans were a living legacy of the war — a new, large, and identifiable group of Canadians. There had been veterans in the past, some eight thousand from the South African War, for example, but now they were a force in society. Two would become prime ministers (John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson), while many more were elected as Members of Parliament or became leaders in business, universities, and all manner of professions.
The veterans often banded together to influence the direction of the new Canada that emerged from the war. One of their immediate goals was to reverse the wartime abolition of alcohol that for many reformers was thought to be a permanent wartime legacy of good. Nellie McClung, who fought for women’s enfranchisement and to ban alcohol, used wartime rhetoric in the battle against booze: “We despise the army of the Kaiser for dropping bombs on defenceless people, and shooting down women and children — we say it violates the laws of civilized warfare. The liquor traffic has waged war on women and children all down the centuries.” Most soldiers did not agree, and almost all relied heavily on their rum ration in the trenches to help to endure the strain. Temperance seemed a permanent legacy of the war, but it did not last long, with veterans in the lead for bringing back alcohol. Veterans were less concerned with addressing the adoption of daylight saving time, another wartime legacy, to improve farming productivity, that is still in effect today in most of Canada.
“Friends wanted to hear glorious stories of the battlefield,” recounted Pierre van Paassen, a soldier who later became a journalist, “and you felt like vomiting when the subject was mentioned.”
Unable to find words to share conflicted feelings, veterans banded together to find solace in one another and to soothe invisible wounds. They often only found comfort in the company of those who had been through the war. Countless veterans battled to overcome the conflict that had imprinted itself on their minds and amputated some aspects of their inner selves.
There were about nine thousand recorded cases of shell shock during the war, along with unknown thousands of additional men who went uncounted. Long before medical authorities had agreed upon a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, the embryonic medical system for veterans offered help in some cases. But too often men were shunted to the periphery and labelled “burnouts.”
Thousands of returned men never found a way to cope with the war as they struggled with their physical and mental wounds. Sir Arthur Currie, the final Canadian Corps commander, who himself endured what we would now call posttraumatic stress disorder, believed that the “health of almost everyone who served throughout the war was, to some extent, adversely affected…. It might be difficult to say that a [later] affection of the lungs, or heart or nerves is unquestionably attributable to war service, yet a man would have to be superhumanly wise to say it was not.”
Violence was all too common in the veterans’ postwar lives, with many frustrated warriors abusing alcohol as a form of self-medication. Loved ones sought to pierce the shield of silence, usually unsuccessfully. Sometimes the men recovered and found ways to go forward; sometimes they lived in lifelong isolation or ended the pain through suicide. This particular legacy of the war is especially difficult to assess; these men were often lost to the medical system, and their fate is known only to their families.
And yet, while shell shock and the lingering effects of the war became a prevailing trope for understanding the carnage of the Western Front as well as a metaphor used by writers, filmmakers, and playwrights ever since as a symbol of the horror of war, it appears that most veterans came back physically healthy and mentally fit. They returned to their loved ones and tried to get on with their lives.
REINTEGRATION WAS NEVER EASY, EVEN FOR THE ABLEBODIED AND UNTRAUMATIZED, AND THE CANADIAN STATE COULD NOT ASSIST ALL VETERANS.
But reintegration was never easy, even for the able-bodied and untraumatized, and the Canadian state could not assist all veterans. There were too many men and not enough jobs in 1919, as the country stumbled slowly from war production to manufacturing goods for peacetime. Preferential hiring in the civil service created jobs for some twenty-six thousand veterans, although it was not enough. Relatively generous pensions — far superior to those available in war-poor Britain or bankrupt Germany — were issued to the wounded, with some seventy-seven thousand veterans receiving payments in the early 1930s. But there were few veterans with an amputated leg, a blinded eye, or an even worse wound who felt they had received a square deal from Ottawa.
“That terrible restlessness which possesses us like an evil spirit,” wrote veteran George Pearson, made it difficult for returned men to settle down in their previous jobs. Many sought open spaces and freedom from hierarchy. One thing the state could do was to provide cheap farmland and low-interest loans, which it did for 24,709 veterans. About a third of the land was expropriated from First Nations, and much of it was rocky and unsuitable for growing crops. With inflated wartime food prices dropping in the postwar years, many of these new farmers’ dreams were destroyed as they faced back-breaking work for barely break-even yields. About half of the veterans’ farms went bankrupt within a decade. The land appropriated from Indigenous people and the hard lives of veterans-turned-farmers were grim legacies of the government’s fumbling attempt to aid the returned men.
The one positive result was that planners and politicians dur- ing the Second World War — pushed by First World War veterans — learned from these errors and instigated a far more forward-thinking series of plans to reintegrate service personnel in 1945 back into society via what was known as the Veterans Charter. That sweeping set of programs contributed significantly to decades of prosperity in Canada.
There was no thought of how to pay for the war effort when Canada entered the fray in August 1914, but war is not cheap. By 1918, Canada had a titanic debt of some three billion dollars, and one of the money pits was the nationalization of several failing railways. These railways, amalgamated under Canadian National in 1919, were seen as too big to fail, even though, as one historian wrote, investigations into nearly bankrupt companies revealed “a shocking recital of fraud, duplicity, collusion, incompetence, and mismanagement.” They were a financial drain for many years, until the most profitable of the lines were finally determined through market forces, becoming yet another wartime legacy that’s still with us.
The state also intervened in June 1916 to create of a series of government-led research groups that would form the foundation for the future National Research Council. To this day the NRC continues to create world-class research and technology.
There were other wartime financial legacies, including a seismic shift away from British markets, with London no longer serving in its traditional role as Canada’s financier. To pay for the rapidly escalating costs of the war, the government was forced to go cap in hand to Washington to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Americans, neutral in the war up to April 1917, charged ungenerous interest rates on these huge loans, but at least Canadians held a large part of the debt through war bonds. Desperate for more money, Ottawa introduced income tax in 1916 for businesses and then, the next year, for individuals. The new tax did not amount to much during the war, but the government did not relinquish this power after the armistice.
The war galvanized Canadians like never before, but they also turned on one another in the crusade to defeat Germany. During the high tensions of the early war years, when there were wild rumours of German-American cross-border invasions and several acts of sabotage by German agents or sympathizers that included the assassination of Canadian soldiers, anxious Canadians looked for enemies in their midst.
German Canadians were assaulted, forced from jobs, and had their businesses boycotted or burned down. Many thousands changed their names to avoid persecution, thereby erasing thousands of German names between the 1911 and 1921 censuses. In 1916, Berlin, Ontario, changed its name to Kitchener, in honour of the British War Minister Lord Kitchener, to avoid conflict.
Hyper-vigilant Canadians also turned on Austro-Hungarian immigrants, who, like German Canadians, were labelled enemy aliens because the British Empire was at war with AustriaHungary. Close to nine thousand people were interned in two dozen isolated camps across the country, a little more than a third of them classified as prisoners of war. The majority of civilian internees were Ukrainians.
Some families were torn apart, while in other cases wives and children accompanied men to the remote camps where the internees engaged in manual labour for a mere twenty-five cents a day. While most Ukrainians were released before the armistice, several of the internees were shot trying to escape, and others had their health irrevocably damaged. Some eighty thousand other people were tracked by the state and forced to carry identification papers, while some fifty thousand Canadians, those labelled enemy aliens, were disenfranchised before the December 1917 federal election.
These acts, especially the internment, led to deep and lasting scars in the Ukrainian community, something that was formally acknowledged in 2005 by a government apology and a few years later by an endowment to fund educational or com-
memorative projects that explore the painful acts committed during the war years.
The state’s harsh treatment of potential dissenters also extended to organized labour, with the government often breaking strikes by using its powers under the War Measures Act. Farmers, too, felt ignored by the two federal parties, especially in April 1918 when the government broke its promise to exempt farmers’ sons from overseas service. “We as farmers are downtrodden by every other class,” remarked a bitter delegate to the United Farmers of Alberta convention during the war. “We will organize for our protection.” Across the country the betrayed farmers banded together and built upon existing farmers parties or created new ones, sometimes with additional elements from the labour movement. These new parties touched a chord, with the United Farmers of Ontario winning that province’s election in 1919.
At the federal level, a new third party, the Progressives, with little organization but riding a wave of anger, sent sixty-four members to the House of Commons in the 1921 federal election and formed the official opposition. Because of their demands for change, the new Liberal prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, called them “Liberals in a hurry,” but he found ways to work with members of the new party during the first half of the decade.
The Progressives and others would later give birth to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1932, which became the New Democratic Party in 1961. The war’s legacy of alienation of Westerners, farmers, French Canada, and labour led to the creation of new parties and movements, and it continues to inform modern politics.
No Canadians were more angered by the war than the people of Quebec. French Canadians both within and outside the province did not feel the pull of Empire that was so powerful with their anglophone compatriots, and while some French-speakers were motivated to aid France, and tens of thousands fought for Canada, the Quebec clergy in local parishes was against the war.
When the casualties came by the thousands, they fell most heavily on English Canada, resulting in old grievances being stirred and the creation of new animosities. Quebec was singled out in the media and by the hyper-patriotic for not doing its part in the war. French Canada was an easy target in the narrow assessment that looked only at manpower and that ignored the crucial role of farm production. In 1916, Ottawa newspaper
Le Droit expressed anger over language rights and the growing attacks against French Canada, asking, “Of what use is it for us to fight Prussianism and barbarity [overseas] when the same conditions exist at home?”
The act of conscripting young men for overseas service was divisive across the country, but it was felt most deeply in Quebec. Widespread protests centred in Montreal flared up throughout the summer of 1917, bringing thousands to the street every night to hear fiery orators who proclaimed the need for resistance, while those on the fringe raved about the coming insurrection and even the assassination of Prime Minister Borden.
This public unrest lay dormant over the winter, but on Easter weekend of 1918 in Quebec City, after several nights of rioting brought on by the arrest of French Canadians who were not carrying their conscription-exemption cards, English-Canadian militia units were rushed to the volatile city. Starting on March 28, 1918, thousands of anti-conscription protesters roamed the streets, breaking windows and setting fire to federal build-
ings. On April 1, after the sun set, another large crowd faced off with the armed militia. Insults were traded back and forth, and matters degenerated rapidly when a handful of FrenchCanadian agitators, hiding in the crowd of thousands, or stationed on rooftops, fired on the militiamen. The riot act was read to disperse the crowd, and then the militia opened fire. When the shooting stopped, four Quebecers lay dead, and one hundred more were wounded.
“Many will come to Quebec to visit the spot where it occurred, to see the places where the machine guns were laid on the mob and to see the streets where the men fell,” proclaimed one Quebec Member of Parliament in the aftermath of the killings.
“We Quebecers who live there will constantly have a remembrance of the disgrace that took place.” The legacy of the martyred dead in Quebec City and of the violent reaction to conscription lived on long past the war, a memory that overshadowed the sacrifices of many thousands of French Canadians who had served king and country and the many more who worked in factories or farms in support of the war effort.
The fragile unity of Confederation, of compromise and conciliation between English and French, as uneasy as it sometimes was, had been irrevocably shaken in 1917 as the English majority ran roughshod over the French, followed by the tragic shootings in the last year of the war.
The story of the war in Quebec, especially after the rise of the Quebec independence movement in the 1960s, was invoked very differently from the story told in English Canada, which saw the war as an event that transformed the country, moving it from a colony to status as a full nation.
In Quebec, the war’s legacy was as a malignant force that had unleashed terrible passions and had led to humiliating oppression.
The roles of women in society were also fundamentally changed by the war. During the conflict, most of the patriotic organizations were organized by women, who also carried out the work. These organizations raised some fifty million dollars in donations, along with another fifty million raised by the Canadian Patriotic Fund — a group formed by the country’s political and business elite but largely run by middle-class women — to care for soldiers’ dependants. This work led to a massive change in the giving habits of Canadians.
In the war years women entered the workforce to replace the young men who went overseas, but most lost their jobs upon the soldiers’ return in 1919. Historians have attempted to untangle the impact of the war on women, with some suggesting that there were few long-term effects. However, a revealing 1994 National Film Board production, And We Knew How to
Dance, explored the story of a dozen women and offered another view. The interviewees, aged 86 to 101, revealed tremendous pride in contributions they had undertaken even as they dealt with gender discrimination and fended off sexual advances from male managers. They testified that they felt their wartime efforts had helped to ease the way for future social change.
Munitions worker Willa Marshall believed that “the women showed that they could do something outside of the house, which gave them power.” While not all women would have echoed Marshall, one wonders how many of them passed on the newfound independence gained from working in munitions factories or as an ambulance driver to their daughters, who would further break down gender barriers in the Second World War, serving both in uniform and in wartime industries?
One undeniable wartime legacy was enfranchisement, an act that came as a reward to women who allowed, even pressured, sons and husbands to go off to war. That it was the result of various federal and provincial governments brazenly seeking women’s votes is true; and that it would certainly have come at some point is also true; but the vote was located in and associated with the war. While Indigenous women and some other visible minorities were denied the franchise, the majority of women were able to vote in most provinces and at the federal level by the end of the conflict. It would be a long road to full equality for women in Canada, with many battles ahead, but the First World War was an undeniable part of that process.
Another important if largely forgotten wartime legacy was grounded in the desire of many Canadians, led forcefully by women in the maternal health field, to save lives. Infant mortality was a scourge in Canada. Before the war, for instance, about one in four babies died before reaching their first birthdays in the fetid conditions of Montreal, and babies born during the war were many times more likely to die than a soldier in uniform.
These shocking deaths were exacerbated by poverty and by a poor understanding of hygiene, issues that were increasingly addressed after the war and that were sometimes coupled with the idea of regenerating or replacing the terrible losses of the war with a new generation of healthy babies. “If we are to be a great nation,” exhorted Helen Reid, a wartime organizer and postwar reformer, “we must begin at the bases, the health of the nation, and see that we have healthy boys and girls born to be our
future citizens.” More attention was afforded to the care of babies through domestic-science education programs and pasteurized milk. Countless babies survived past their first year to live full lives as a result of the reaction to the wanton destruction and loss of the Western Front.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was formed largely by white, English-speaking Canadians, but it also included thousands of visible minorities, new Canadians, and Indigenous Canadians, all fighting and dying together. The CEF required a remarkable act of coming together, especially in a country with deep divisions and equally deep prejudices. While the unity of the trenches did not last long in postwar Canada, new Canadians and Indigenous Canadians were all admitted to the Royal Canadian Legion, and bonds of camaraderie brought together those who had stood side by side in the trenches long into the postwar years.
While all veterans faced similar challenges, there were unique experiences. To take but two examples, Japanese Canadians and Indigenous Canadians returning from serving overseas had been treated as equals in the trenches by their white comrades but came back to a racist society that sought to deny them many basic rights of citizenship. Two hundred and twentytwo Japanese Canadians served during the war, and about a quarter of them were killed.
Some survivors banded together and used their war service to demand equality. After a long struggle, Japanese-Canadian veterans received the right to vote provincially in British Columbia, where most of them lived, in 1931. It would be almost two decades before other Japanese Canadians could vote in B.C., and this came about only after almost all of them had been forcibly relocated during the Second World War.
There were also several thousand Indigenous Canadians who served overseas during the First World War. Those who enlisted from their home communities on reserves were formal wards of the state. They had few rights in Canada, with
money and land controlled by Indian agents, and they could not vote. Overseas they were allowed to vote in the 1917 federal election, their status as citizen-soldiers overcoming entrenched racism.
Many were empowered by their service, demanding change and greater rights when they came home. In 1919, Mohawk veteran Lieutenant Frederick Loft (Onondeyoh) started a movement, the League of Indians of Canada, to address longtime grievances. Loft sought to unite disparate Indigenous bands to work together and to free themselves “from the domination of officialdom and from being ever the prey and victims of unscrupulous means of depriving us of our lands and homes and even … the rights we are entitled to as free men under the British flag.” The Department of Indian Affairs and other federal bodies fiercely opposed Loft, especially over reforms to reserve lands. Yet, while veterans failed to create a national movement, the League underpinned future Indigenous groups that took up the same call for change, a fight that continues to this day.
While postwar Canada churned from the immediate effects of the war, there were steady changes to how the country’s leaders tried to position Canada on the world stage. Few Canadians sought to break from the British Empire after the war, but the conflict sparked new feelings of independence. In charting Canada’s course forward, Loring Christie, Borden’s adviser in matters of foreign affairs, wrote that the war had won new recognition for the country. “Canada is not a colony, she is mistress of her own destiny. Canada is not a possession; the Canadian people and no one else are the owners of Canada.” A signature on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 was an emblem of this strengthened autonomy, although Canada signed as part of the British Empire. Canada’s entry into the flawed League of Nations was also an important step forward in the country’s contribution to global diplomacy.
It fell to Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who took power in 1921, to ease the country toward full control over its foreign policy. His first great challenge was in screwing up his courage to say no to the British during the Chanak Affair in 1922. Canadians were not interested in another war in a far-off land, and, while London expected Ottawa to contribute an expeditionary force to come to the aid of a threatened British military garrison in Turkey, a cautious King delayed until the crisis had passed, thereby avoiding, in his words, the imperialists dragging “Canada into the vortex of militarism.”
King built on this success by signing — independently of Britain — fishing-rights treaties with the United States and by strengthening Canada’s Department of External Affairs. These were part of the gradual evolution towards the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which ultimately provided control of foreign policy to the dominions. Canada was free to pursue its own diplomatic policies.
Astrengthened Canadian culture and identity also emerged from a war that inspired survivors to write, paint, and mount plays that explored the experience. A.Y. Jackson, an official war painter during the war, spoke of the new confidence: “We are no longer humble colonials. We’ve made armies. We can also make artists, historians, and poets.” Canadian vaudeville groups like the Dumbells, created by soldiers who had served overseas, toured Canada for a decade after the war, while several members of the Group of Seven, including Jackson, had painted in an official wartime capacity. John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” resonated throughout the Empire, becoming the signature poem of the war and, afterwards, of the need to remember the sacrifice of the fallen.
New Canadian heroes were created: the nurses, the Victoria Cross recipients, and knights of the sky such as Billy Bishop. In French Canada, Thomas-Louis Tremblay, commander of the Van Doos, officer and diplomat Georges Vanier, and Victoria Cross recipient Jean Brillant were all celebrated. A well-honed publicity machine overseas — established by William Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, the expatriate Canadian millionaire — consisted of journalists and service personnel writing and publishing newspaper accounts, contemporary histories, illustrated magazines, and short film features, and disseminating these stories to Canadians and throughout the Empire.
Beaverbrook also sought to forge a historical legacy — in his words, “to lay down the bedrock of history.” By the summer of 1916, he established an official war art, photography, and film program to document Canadians’ war prowess. The Australians followed his wildly successful lead, and the British government of David Lloyd George elevated Beaverbrook to the role of minister of information in 1918 to raise awareness of the Empire’s war effort. The resulting art, photography, and film created a visual legacy for Canadians to know the war and to continually reimagine it to this day.
During and after the war, writers, historians, and artists emphasized the Canadian contributions as being different from those of the British. Symbols such as the maple leaf, identifiable Canadian units, and even Currie, as the final Canadian-born corps commander from June 1917 to the end of the war, became recognizable icons of Canadian uniqueness. W.L. Grant’s 1923 school textbook, History of Canada, proclaimed that the country’s wartime exertions had given “Canada forever her place among the nations of the world.”
Canadians rankled when they were lumped in with the British, and there was a fierce demand for Canadian recognition, which was particularly evident in the 1920s as patriotic, hyper-nationalist American publications and films claimed that the United States had won the war. Canadians were quick to point out that they had played a far greater battlefield role than
CANADIANS RANKLED WHEN THEY WERE LUMPED IN WITH THE BRITISH, AND THERE WAS A FIERCE DEMAND FOR CANADIAN RECOGNITION
the Johnny-come-lately Americans, even in 1918, the crucial year of victory. “America counted her profits,” wrote one bitter Canadian, “while Canada buried her dead.”
The Canadian war effort contributed significantly to the long process of English Canadians carving out an identity that was separate from the British, although other communities, such as Indigenous people, new Canadians, and French Canadians, drew from the war in different ways to strike their paths forward.
While the war profoundly changed Canada, it also destroyed Newfoundland as an independent nation. The proud, selfgoverning dominion went to war in August 1914, but Newfoundland had over-reached in its relentless contribution and was pushed to the brink. Some Newfoundlanders felt that their beloved Rock never recovered from the terrible losses at Beaumont-Hamel, Cambrai, and other key battles, not to mention the heavy debt that resulted from the war. By 1933, Newfoundland was not only bankrupt but also so unstable that it lost responsible government — the ability to govern itself — and Britain took over administration of the crown colony.
During the Second World War, Newfoundland became a crucial naval and sea base for the Battle of the Atlantic and the defence of North America, with American, British, and Canadian service personnel acting as friendly invaders and spending their considerable wealth freely. The two wars profoundly shaped the colony and moved it inexorably toward confederation with Canada in 1949. The considerable number of diehards who resented the loss of their country traced what they saw as the tragedy of Confederation back to the First World War. While Canada celebrated Dominion Day, later Canada Day, on July 1, that day is still a time for Newfoundlanders to mourn the men who were killed at the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel in 1916 and to contemplate the war’s unintended legacy.
The echoes of the war reverberated through the second half of the century, and a new generation of Canadians discovered the Great War in the 1960s, often through sharp condemnations of the generals as portrayed in history books, films, plays, and even a resurgence of poetry. And yet, with the fiftieth anniversary of the First World War coinciding with the one hundredth anniversary of the country in 1967, the two nation-building anniversaries became conflated.
The war — and especially the Battle of Vimy Ridge, where Canada built its overseas national memorial — was elevated into a crucial signpost in the evolution of the country. In that formative year of 1967, it was Prime Minister Lester Pearson, himself a veteran of the war, who described Vimy as “the birth
of the nation.” It was not, but Vimy was a form of symbolic shorthand for the entire war effort and its profound legacy, which perhaps was felt even more deeply during the country’s one hundredth anniversary as Canadians looked back on historical events that had transformed them as a people.
Over time, symbols such as Vimy or Beaumont-Hamel were pressed into national service, just as many French Canadians clung to conscription as a legacy of untrammelled English bullying. Toward the end of the twentieth century and into the start of the twenty-first, the war continued to inform Canada’s cultural landscape, with generations of writers, playwrights, and filmmakers who did not directly experience the trauma of the trenches reinterpreting the war. Timothy Findley’s novel
The Wars, John Gray and Eric Peterson’s play Billy Bishop Goes
to War, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, and the film Passchendaele by Paul Gross, for example, all tackled the subject, illuminating the many ways it shaped generations of Canadians.
This re-engagement with and reimagining of the war started more forcefully in the 1970s, at the same time that large numbers of First World War veterans were succumbing to old age. By the end of the twentieth century, cemeteries on Canadian soil contained more veterans than the overseas burial grounds for those who lost their lives during the war.
In May 2000, Canada brought home the body of one of its unknown soldiers from his resting place near Vimy Ridge and interred him at the base of the national memorial in Ottawa. “Wars are as old as history,” said Governor General Adrienne Clarkson in her eulogy. “Over two thousand years ago, Herodotus wrote: ‘In peace, sons bury their fathers; in war, fathers bury their sons.’ Today, we are gathered together as one, to bury someone’s son. The only certainty about him is that he was young. If death is a debt we all must pay, he paid before he owed it.”
The burial of one of Canada’s own was a symbolic act that attracted widespread media attention and came at a time when Canadians were paying more attention to the country’s veterans in the aftermath of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War in 1995.
Since then, the number of Canadians attending Remembrance Day ceremonies has visibly increased. The national ceremony in Ottawa, at the war memorial unveiled in 1939 and known as The Response, saw the number of attendees grow from a few thousand in the early 1980s to upwards of thirty thousand since 2014, the start of the First World War’s centennial. Across the country each November 11, Canadians go to their local memorials, nearly all of which were erected to mark the dead of the First World War but which now represent all war dead, to reflect upon those who served their country in times of war and peace.
The slow and relentless war of time against the veterans of the CEF had no armistice, and those who served in the First World War had almost all died by the start of the twenty-first century. John Babcock, who had enlisted as an underage solder, was the last of his comrades; he was 109 when he passed away in 2010. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said of Babcock: “He symbolizes a generation of Canadians who, in many ways, were the authors of modern Canadian nationhood.” With their deaths, the tangi- ble link to our shared history is now severed; but the veterans’ legacy lives on in tens of thousands of letters, diaries, and memoirs, hundreds of hours of archival film footage, tens of thousands of evocative photographs or pieces of art, and uncountable numbers of artifacts and relics that are infused with stories and meaning.
The blood of those veterans who lived through the war, and some soldiers who were killed, also pumps through the veins of millions of Canadians. The families of their descendants have formed the modern Canada. These ties of blood and belonging will ensure that the war is not easily forgotten.
The vast digitization of artifacts and the creation of online resources have allowed Canadians to better explore their fam-
ily histories. Because of the mass of records and the age of the material, the First World War, with its intersection of personal, community, and state history, may be the single most digitized historical event available on the Internet.
In recent years this rich resource has stimulated innovative school-based projects, allowing teachers and students to research the names on their local cenotaphs or other memorial markers, using digitized personnel files from Library and Archives Canada, and then to build on such studies with access to the wide variety of other records available, from letters to newspapers, from dedicated chat rooms to virtual exhibitions.
To this day, Canadians have a great emotional response to the First World War, embodied in phrases such as "Lest we forget,” “the war to end all wars,” “the birth of the nation,” and “the passing of the torch,” or in symbols and rituals such as Remembrance Day, the poppy, two minutes of silence, and the thousands of monuments across this country and overseas. In 1919, in the aftermath of the destructive war, Manitoba
Free Press editor John Wesley Dafoe walked the battlefields, drawn to the sites that hold and “may continue to hold, a unique place in Canadian consciousness.” Indeed, over the decades Canadians have been drawn back to the battlefields, but never have there been so many and in such concentration as on April 9, 2017, when some twenty-five thousand Canadians returned to Vimy Ridge in an astounding display of unity, pride, and sorrow. To mark the one hundredth anniversary of the battle, they came together to honour those who were lost and to shed a tear on a ridge that is very far from Canada and yet very close to our hearts. Ninety-one-year-old Stan Egerton was one of those Canadians on the ridge. He went to honour his father, who served in the First World War, and his two brothers who were killed in the Second World War. When asked by a reporter about his thoughts of the meaning of Vimy, the monument, and the war, he replied, “I’d rather not say.”
There are silences and gaps in personal honouring, even as nations remember and forget. Public acts of commemoration involve raising up and parsing out selected aspects of the past while downplaying or forgetting others. And yet, for the mass of Canadians who travelled thousands of kilometres to take part in this epic event, there was a desire to know and to connect, to ground the war of one hundred years ago in the present, to bear witness to the loss and grief, and to commemorate service and sacrifice. The return to Vimy reminds all Canadians of the war’s long reach and of how that scarred and shared history continues to infuse the ever-reinvented Canada.