World War II and its Aftermath
Many Albertans were suffering from the decade’s bleak agricultural conditions and from the Depression when World War II was declared in 1939. Although the Social Credit party was undergoing many conflicts, it was returned to power in Alberta’s 1940 election.
With a mix of nationalism, thoughts of adventure, and economic desperation, thousands of people enlisted in the war effort. Statistically, Alberta’s enlistment rates were some of the highest in Canada.
Generally, University staff and students did not immediately mobilize with the declaration of war. By 1940, it was apparent that Britain was in dire need of increased support so the University launched a tremendous war effort.
The University had continued a Canadian Officers’ Training Corps (COTC) unit on campus. The University was authorized to provide training as a replacement for physical education. A number of campus buildings were given over to the war effort. Women also enlisted as nurses and in the women’s division of the armed forces: Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS). Only a small percentage of women actually served overseas. Women’s roles were as nurses, drivers, clerks, office personnel, ground crews, and storeroom workers.
Factories opened in Alberta. The departure of so many people left gaps in the work force so many women entered as paid workers. Army bases brought a military presence to Alberta that required modern buildings, hangars, and runways. Besides boosting the construction industry, Alberta’s 17 Air Training Schools gave service industries a tremendous business and brought a new vigour to many towns and cities.
The Alaska Highway was an incredible undertaking, which was under the direction of the US Army Corps of Engineers and the United States Public Road Administration. The Canadian National Selective Service placed many University of Alberta engineering graduates and undergraduates to work on the highway. Edmonton provided the Northwest Staging route for the US defense plans to protect Alaska.
During the war, farm incomes rose and there was a renewed interest in Alberta’s coal and oil resources.
Voluntary enlistment depleted staff and student numbers. In 1944, the National Selective Service issued a directive that university students in professional schools or who were pursuing scientific work were expected to continue their studies. The University’s agriculture, medicine, energy resources, and engineering developments made significant contributions to the war effort.
In 1941, President Kerr resigned over the Senate's decision regarding Mr Aberhart's Honorary Degrees. His successor was Dr Robert Newton. Newton was Acting President for one session, and then became the University’s permanent President in May 1942. Kerr’s resignation and World War II further underscored the need to resolve some governance issues. This, in turn, resulted in the formation of the Survey Committee in 1941 and the passing of a new University Act in 1942.
Throughout Alberta, wartime measures included wage and price controls, as well as food and fuel rationing.
Aberhart passed away in 1943. Ernest Manning was his successor and under his leadership the Social Credit party gained credibility throughout Alberta.
Home front volunteer initiatives included saving stamps and victory bonds. There were large volunteer community drives to collect paper, rubber, and scrap metal. Women’s auxiliaries were formed to collect items for hospitals, the armed forces, and European bomb victims. The YWCA played a significant voluntary role by providing social clubs, a housing registry, and day cares.
Albertans were reshaped by World War II. Returning service men and women brought back different world views and experiences. Many non-Anglo Albertans received legitimacy from mainstream society because they fought alongside fellow Canadians. Women had entered the paid labour force in unprecedented numbers. Volunteer advocacy groups were formed. Returning veterans had to rebuild relationships and careers.
Government programs were established to help veterans. The Land Veteran’s Act provided veterans with land for farming, mainly in the Peace River district. The government provided equipment and built roads.
Post-war Alberta experienced a population shift from rural to urban. The University set up huts and suites on campus. Edmontonians provided rooms in their homes for approximately 1,400 students. This serious housing shortage was resolved when the government established programs to build homes for veterans, with entire subdivisions being developed.
Campus buildings that were used in the war effort were returned to the University. Some departments were raised to Faculty levels and new construction was undertaken.
The University of Alberta was filled with veterans who took advantage of a government program that paid their tuition and gave them subsistence allowances. Evening classes almost doubled space required for classrooms and laboratories.
The 1947 discovery of oil in Leduc heralded many provincial economic and social transformations. Alberta’s energy resources and expansion became a dominating influence—socially, politically, and economically.
Overall, there was a great societal push for normalcy and for the security of family, home, and religion. Church attendance grew, as did the birth rate. Many women who were paid workers during the war returned to the comfort, or depending on one's perspective, the confines of being wife, mother, and homemaker.
Baby boomers would, in their turn, have a phenomenal influence over Alberta’s economy, social values, women’s rights, culture, and politics.