Over the course of the war, Canada experienced unprecedented wartime industrial expansion. As the war progressed and exports from occupied European countries dwindled, the demand for Canadian goods and services grew.
The Department of Munitions and Supply was formed in 1940 with a mandate to maximize wartime production. Not only did the Department rigidly control the use of raw materials, but it also shifted industries’ focus from producing civilian goods to producing goods for the military. Similarly, in 1941, the National War Labour Board was formed for the purpose of stabilizing wages; its aim was to control production costs.
Canadian industries produced billions of dollars' worth of goods annually, spurring the rapid expansion of many secondary industries—primarily those related to defence and transportation. The steel industry, for example, modernized and expanded considerably during the Second World War, opening new mines across the country. The conversion of existing industrial enterprises and the rapid addition of new facilities meant that, at times, quality control suffered. Canadian military equipment, vehicles, and accoutrements were initially deemed inferior to those produced in the United States, which boasted a much larger and more experienced military industrial complex.
Alberta and western Canada in general were largely shut out from the awarding of military contracts for armaments and supplies on account of a lack of a developed industrial infrastructure and the distance to coastal ports. Some businesses, such as the Great Western Garment Company, the largest garment manufacturer in the Commonwealth, and Aircraft Repair Ltd., an Edmonton-based aircraft repair business, did benefit from contracts and increased demand brought about by the war.
Much of Alberta’s new industrial activity was concentrated in Edmonton, which served as the administrative and supply hub for three major projects: the Alaska Highway, the Northwest Staging Route, and the CANOL Pipeline. Edmonton was also a key distribution and transport hub for the Americans’ fortification of Alaska. Other Alberta cities and towns experienced growth prompted by the war, notably the establishment of military bases and British Commonwealth Air Training Plan facilities.
By 1940–41, a shortage of labour was beginning to affect critical wartime industries. To remedy the situation, the Canadian government passed the National Selective Service Act in 1941. This legislation required all males between the ages of 17 and 45 to register and it also prohibited these individuals from working in non-essential industries. Similarly, young, unemployed women were selected for placement in positions deemed critical to the war effort.
As of September 1942, employees wishing to quit their job or employers wishing to dismiss an employee had to provide the National Selective Service Board with at least one week’s notice. War industry workers, civil servants, and teachers were prohibited from leaving their jobs. The labour situation in the country was such that stay-at-home women and mothers were being recruited for part-time work.
Boas, William S. Canada in World War II: Post-War Possibilities. Montreal: William Boas & Co., 1945.
Smith, J. M. Canadian Economic Growth and Development from 1939 to 1955. Ottawa: Royal Commission on Canada's Economic Prospects, 1957.