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Background: Canada at War

Declaration of WarCanada formally declared a state of war with Germany on 10 September 1939, one week after similar declarations by the British and French governments. The delay was largely symbolic—there was never any doubt Canada would support her overseas allies. Symbolic or not, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King insisted on a proper debate in Parliament. King wanted Britain and the rest of the world to understand that Canada was no longer a colonial entity, but a nation unto itself, capable of making her own decisions. The Prime Minister also wanted to send a message to her allies that Canada’s support for the war effort was not unconditional, nor should it be taken for granted. King made the following entry in his diary on 9 September, the day before he announced Canada’s formal entry into the war: “From now on, Canada stands as a nation not only among the nations of the British Commonwealth, but as a nation among the nations of the world.”

The delay had more to do with domestic politics, notably the support of Quebec’s French-Canadian population for the war effort. Traditionally the majority of Quebecers of supported the military and its use to ensure the security of the nation. Only a small percentage of Quebec’s French Canadian population supported Canada’s involvement in yet another European war that required the deployment of large numbers of troops overseas. French-Canadians had vehemently opposed the conscription of manpower during the First World War. Prime Minster King understood that a repeat of that debate would once again pit French against English and likely cost him and his government the support of a majority of Quebecers in the next election. The Prime Minister believed the only way to avoid such events was for Canada to fight a war of limited liabilityemphasizing the utilization of the nation’s resources and limiting the deployment of troops overseas. King understood that finding a way for Quebecers to embrace and engage in the war effort was critical to maintaining their political support.

Canada’s entry into the war led to a gradual shift away from the government’s initial position of limited liability to one of full engagement by the end of 1940. The Nazi conquest of Western Europe forced King to abandon his position of limiting Canada’s direct participation in the conflict. By the end of 1940, the nation's entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities and its human resources were devoted to the war effort. By the end of the war, 43 percent of those eligible for military service—one million men and women—had joined up. Approximately 45,000 Canadian soldiers, sailors, and airmen would die, and more than 55,000 would suffer serious injuries. 

Canada’s economy, ravaged by the effects of a decade-long, global depression, was completely transformed by demands of the new wartime economy. Competition for manpower between an ever-expanding military complex, and a thriving economy resulted in mass numbers of women joining the workforce outside of the home. (Parts of this Web site examines the evolving roles of women during the Second World War.) The new wartime economy, driven by government contracts for armaments and supplies, resulted in an unprecedented level of government intervention and regulation that affected businesses, public agencies, and private individuals alike. This expansion of the federal government’s role in the management of the economy often occurred at the expense of provincial autonomy.

Following the government’s proclamation of war, large numbers of unemployed men flocked to recruiting offices, lured by the prospects of a steady wage and a sense of individual and national pride. Within the first few months of recruiting, 70,000 individuals joined up. Canada’s military had been largely neglected since the end of the First World War. It was ill-equipped, poorly funded, and short on manpower. The army consisted of 4,500 regulars and 51,000 reservists. The Air Force and Navy were in even worse shape, boasting fewer than 20 modern aircraft and six destroyers, respectively.


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            For more on Alberta during World War II, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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