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 importance of learning history to help us make decisions today as individuals and as a society.
However, the vested interests of certain sections of Canadian society have led to some very dangerous myths being built around Remembrance Day.
Perhaps the most pervasive and unquestioned myth is the forging of a united Canada while our soldiers defended freedom and democracy overseas during the two world wars.
Many Canadians and veterans have always understood the First World War as a horrendous bloodbath between European empires. It was not a war for democracy and freedom. The conflict had been brewing for decades as the European empires jockeyed with each other to expand their projects of plunder. The empires that went to war with each other were responsible for famines, genocides and bloody wars of conquests around the world.
When war broke out across Europe in the summer of 1914, Canadian elites took the country to war without a vote in parliament. They justified the decision as loyalty to the British Empire. In Britain, the rulers sold the war as upholding their alliance with “plucky little Belgium.” Belgium was an empire, too, and was profiting handsomely from their genocidal occupation of the Congo.
The “War To End All Wars” set the stage for the Second World War. Both the Great War and the Versailles peace treaty created catastrophic political and economic turmoil across Europe. It laid the foundations for the rise of huge fascist movements. The peace had only redrawn the boundaries of empires and unleashed new colonial repression. It made the Second World War more complicated. Although it was still a war between empires and their alliances, millions of ordinary people fought the war to defeat fascism.
During both wars, the struggle for freedom and democracy in Canada was not happening on the battlefield, but on the home front. On the home front it was workers, women, farmers, and immigrants who fought against war profiteering, government corruption, and abuses of state power. It was on the home front that the fight for workers’ rights, a social safety net, and democratic self-government was advanced.
The following is a brief look at how the home front was the bloody battlefield in which many of our freedoms were won.
Rationing, the Ross Rifle, and the Conscription of Wealth
During both wars the home front was marked by widespread hardship. Rationing of nearly all consumer goods was implemented. In both wars, 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 existed in only a few provinces at the outbreak of the First World War. Unemployment Insurance was only achieved a year after World War Two started. Old-age pensions for people over seventy were introduced between the wars in 1927. The struggle for good wages was absolutely central to people’s survival.
Living under austerity and rationing, civilians were encouraged by 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, before conscription was introduced in both wars, men who didn’t volunteer were publicly shamed by the press, pulpit and establishment politicians. In the first war, some groups forcibly pinned “white feather of cowardice” on men who had not signed up for military service.
As millions in Canada lived through years of privation, war profiteering was rampant among the business class and political elite. Scandals were common and repeatedly exposed. Businesses routinely gamed the system and colluded with government officials.
The depravity of the corruption was epitomized in the Ross Rifle scandal. During the First World War, businessmen, federal ministers and top military officials conspired to profit from the arming of Canadian soldiers with the inferior Canadian-made Ross Rifle.
Thrown into the trenches in 1915, Canadian soldiers quickly discovered the standard-issue weapon jammed when wet or muddy. Canadian soldiers began ditching their Ross Rifle and scrounged for the more reliable British-made Lee-Enfield.
Politicians and the military brass knew of the problem for many months. However, Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, wasn’t dismissed from his post until late 1916. But the damage was done. Lives were lost on the front, and the government was exposed as corrupt.
With war profiteering rampant, the Trades and Labour Congress (forerunner to the Canadian Labour Congress) threw its weight behind a campaign for the “Conscription of Wealth”. The TLC reasoned if the working class was going to sacrifice themselves in the trenches, the economic elite ought to sacrifice their enormous profits.
The demand was popular enough that Prime Minister Robert Borden took advantage of the situation. His war-time coalition of Conservatives and Liberals 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 labour movement.
The War Between the Classes
Both wars 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. These conditions sowed the seeds of revolts around the world.
Beginning in 1916 with the Easter Rising against British rule of Ireland, and lasting into the early 1920s, every continent was rocked by general strikes, mass mutinies, colonial rebellions, and sweeping revolutions that toppled empires.
In Canada, the revolt took the form of a huge strike wave from 1917 to 1921. Most strikes centred on wages, the 8-hour day and union recognition. There were no laws requiring employers to recognize unions or bargain collectively. This had to be won by workers, and the sure way to do it was union organization and strike action.
Workers quickly found themselves facing the armed wing of the state. Police and soldiers were routinely called upon to defend employers during labour disruptions. 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 1919, but in Vancouver in August 1918. When popular anti-war labour activist and socialist Ginger Goodwin was conscripted while leading a strike of smelter workers in Trail, he went on the run. He was hunted down and murdered by a police officers. Unions responded with a one-day general strike. A mob of nationalist and right-wing soldiers responded by attacking the Vancouver Labour Temple and the union members inside.
The Winnipeg General Strike erupted later in May 1919. The strike inspired 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. Countless other strikes took place as well during the spring and summer of 1919. In all these strikes, thousands of veterans were solidly pro-labour. Other veterans, often the officer class, joined violent 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 police, strikebreakers, and deputized thugs. Countless strikers and their supporters were wounded, injured.
The strike ended with “Bloody Saturday”, as North West Mounted Police charged huge crowds of strikers on horseback, trampling, clubbing, and shooting wildly. Two were killed. Then the military was deployed, occupying the city, patrolling the streets with mounted machine guns.
Workers struggles declined in the early 1920s, but they lasted in Cape Breton until the big strike of 1925. Coal miners and steelworkers took on the British Empire Steel and Coal Company. Besco, as it was called, 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 as they tried to shut off power and water to the miners’ homes. Miners responded by looting and destroying the company stores, and throwing the company police in the local jail. The strike ended when the military was called in to occupy industrial Cape Breton.
During the Second World War, a wave of struggles erupted for union recognition and improved wages. Workers also defied the no-strike pledge made by the influential Communist Party of Canada. The Communists had done a lot to build the unions during the Dirty Thirties, but when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Communists declared a no-strike pledge. They argued strikes would hurt the war effort and, by extension, the Soviet Union. But this reasoning didn’t stop workers from striking.
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.
Strike action began to escalate through 1942 and into 1943. Wildcat strikes were becoming 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.
Big labour battles continued after the war with the 99-day Ford Windsor strike in late 1945 and the Hamilton steel strike of 1946. Having lost 1,500 of their comrades during the war, the Canadian Seaman’s Union waged a spectacular strike in 1946 to win the 8-hour day.
The strength of organized labour led to the construction of an entirely new legal architecture for union recognition. This architecture was designed to undermine and undercut the power of shopfloor organization and action, and place unions in the firm hands of “responsible” trade unionists. However, working people made their greatest breakthrough in these years, as millions organized for the first time and built a powerful counterweight to the business class.
The War for Democracy
In both wars, all these grievances found expression in the formation of new political ideas and organizations. It was during the First World War that Canadians first established successful third parties. More importantly, millions of Canadians began to believe that democracy could be extended to the economy. In many ways, both wars fuelled widespread support for a more democratic and socialist society.
Provincially-organized “United Farmer” and “Independent Labour” parties emerged from the grassroots challenge the old line parties. In the 1921 federal election, the farmer-led Progressive Party became the official opposition. But the astounding results happened in the provinces.
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 Official Opposition in the 1920 Nova Scotia election after 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.
This huge explosion of democratic activism served to break the stifling two-party system established in the 1870s.
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 in 1940.
Borden’s government responded opportunistically to the women’s movement for democratic rights. In 1917, Borden allowed women to vote – but only if they had sons or husbands in military service. This served his goal of winning the 1917 election which was fought almost exclusively over implementing conscription. Despite this, suffragettes organized and fought to expand the vote to all women. This was achieved at the federal level in 1918. A year later, women won the right to run for federal office.
Many suffragettes were involved in farmer, labour and socialist politics, and instrumental in the emergence of the new farmer and labour parties. Although many of these new parties suffered major setbacks or collapse in the 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.
With another world war raging twenty years later, 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 ruling Liberals and opposition Conservatives. The CCF was even the most popular party among Canadian soldiers overseas. The poll had a huge political impact because polling was a new and surveys were infrequent. Formed in 1932, the CCF had many difficulties 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 British Columbia in 1942. It narrowly lost the Ontario election of 1943, and took power in Saskatchewan in 1944. In 1945, the Manitoba CCF won the most votes of any party, but won fewer seats than both the Tories and 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 that was part of the Cold War heating up.
Facing a serious electoral challenge from the CCF and 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
At the start 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 as a despotic power used by rivals 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. After the gas attacks of 1915 and the slaughter on the Somme a year later, volunteers dried up. The government turned to conscription. It mobilized a massive, unprecedented propaganda campaign. Conscription was implemented in August 1917 after Canada’s heavy casualties at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.
To further secure support for conscription, Prime Minister Borden called an election for December 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 Conservatives to form the “Unionist” ticket.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier headed up the opposition Liberals whose strength was in Quebec. In 1914, the parliamentary loyalties to the British Empire alienated many people in Quebec. The problem became even greater with conscription.
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. Indignities continued when the federal government refused to mobilize established francophone militia units. Everyone knew conscription would hit Quebec the hardest.
Protests against conscription began to mount across Quebec in 1917. One Montreal anti-conscription protest in August turned into a riot leaving one person dead.
Opposition to conscription was not limited to Quebec. Opposition was very high among farmers in every province. Farmers opposed conscription because essential farm labour would be taken from them. Borden responded by promising not to conscript the sons of farmers.
Borden’s pro-conscription Unionist coalition handily won the 1917 election. However, the coalition only won 3 of Quebec’s 65 seats. Following the election, Borden’s legislation made 400,000 men liable for conscription. About 95 percent sought exemptions. Borden abandoned his promise to exempt the farmers’ sons, stoking the rise of the farmers’ movement.
The conscription crisis escalated. On March 28 1918, 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 the police station 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 military force remained in the city and surrounding towns for the duration of the war.
The next big anti-conscription protest was carried out by soldiers themselves. A month after the war ended in Europe, conscripts mutinied in Victoria. They refused to be shipped to Russia and serve in an international effort to defeat the Russian Revolution. The mutiny ended and the soldiers shipped to Vladivostok, but they saw no action. The soldiers occupying various Russian ports saw little interest in suppressing the Russian Revolution. Unlike the summer of 1914, people now understood war had nothing to do with glory and adventure.
In World War Two, Prime Minister Mackenzie King brought back conscription, breaking his 1940 election promise. In typical Liberal fashion, King famously declared “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” The Liberals organized a conscription referendum in 1942. It again ignited major opposition and protests in Quebec but nothing like the Easter Riots of 1918. The CCF and Communist Party supported conscription in the war against fascism. The referendum was easily won, although 72 percent of Quebec voters opposed it.
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 succeeded in dividing the country again by nation, language, province and class.
Both wars were conducted under emergency legislative measures giving government authorities sweeping powers. In both wars, the Canadian government used these exceptional powers to ruthlessly target ethnic, racial and political groups deemed to be the enemy.
The most infamous example is the arrest and deportation of 22,000 Japanese-Canadians to internment camps for the duration of the Second World War. No credible evidence was produced to justify these actions, and Japanese-Canadians had no legal recourse. The vast majority of those interred were full Canadian citizens born in Canada. Most were residents of British Columbia.
Dispersed to camps across the country, Japanese-Canadians were forced to live in substandard and often inhuman conditions. They often worked in logging camps and on sugar beet farms. Children in the camps were denied access to nearby schools and forced to develop their own education programs with few resources. 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 hold up. Divisions between Quebec and Canada became increasingly prominent in both wars. Class conflict escalated to unparalleled heights. Workers, farmers and women were central to expanding democracy and breaking the two-party system.
When the world was plunged into war once more, a dramatic expansion of social and economic rights was achieved through workers’ struggles. It was these struggles that laid the foundations for the welfare state.
Corruption and abuse of powers by business and government elites, war profiteering, and political suppression was the crucible in which Canadians fought to improve and democratize life, and expand our rights and freedoms.
Learning this lost history means rejecting the myths peddled by those who beat the drums of war on Remembrance Day. The political and economic actors who prop up these myths are the very descendents of those who, in 1914, demanded we sacrifice our lives for their empires and profit.
Lest We Forget.