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Families and Children

The Second World War affected children in many ways. Alberta’s youth was forced to face many of life’s harshest realities at very young ages. Children were the targets of propaganda, much of it communicated through films, books, and teachers at school. Young Canadians, including Alberta children, were presented stories of service and sacrifice by Allied military personnel in their efforts to defeat the enemy. They were also provided with examples of young Canadians' volunteering their time to aid the war effort.

Wartime comic bookThe changes and sacrifices faced by Alberta’s youth ranged from putting up with shortages of toys, treats, and clothing and food to the absence and loss of family members. For those a bit older—17 or 18—the war was much more real. Some of these individuals participated directly and, for them, the war did become a matter of life and death. In Edmonton, 1,400 high school students volunteered for service during the Second World War; 115 never returned.

Most young people were eager to do their part for the war effort. They volunteered for a variety of organizations and agencies. Many joined cadet training programs and Girl Guides and Boy Scouts of Canada. Guiding and scouting programs emphasized discipline, physical fitness, and the importance of helping one’s community. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides organized recycling initiatives such as collecting scrap metal and organizing bottle drives. Some girls joined Junior Red Cross Clubs and helped women knit scarves, mitts and other clothes for civilians and soldiers overseas. Children were encouraged to participate in salvage drives, purchase war savings certificate stamps, donate cans of food to the Tins for Britain campaign, and fill ditty bags for sailors.

Boy Scouts of CanadaThe care and supervision of children became something of a concern during the war. Initially, employers targeted single women, allowing mothers to stay at home to care for their families. By 1942, the shortage of workers was reaching a crisis situation and mothers entered the workforce in large numbers. Child care facilities—nurseries—were limited in number, and Alberta’s decision not to participate in the federal government’s daycare program only made matters worse. Alberta opted out when the two levels of government could not come to terms on the financing of childcare facilities.

The Alberta government’s position on the funding of nurseries had more to do with social policy—the employment of women was seen as an affront to traditional family values—than with the reality of the needs and circumstances of the war effort. The result was a sharp increase in the number of “latch-key children”—young, school age children left on their own without parental or adult supervision. Not surprisingly, the authorities reported a sharp rise in school absenteeism, juvenile delinquency, and youth crime. In reality, much of what was being labelled delinquency and crime was little more than pranks and misbehaviour.

The labour shortage also affected schools. Teachers left their posts to enlist or to take better paying jobs in war-related industries. Class sizes grew significantly and a number of rural schools closed. In Edmonton, school absenteeism rose by 50 percent as older youths chose work over an education. For those students who stayed in school, the war directly affected classroom activities.

Even small children were taught to contribute to the war effort. Here, a young girl is collecting stamps.Beginning in July 1940, cadet training for high school boys became compulsory. Students organized salvage campaigns, collecting paper, metal, glass, wire, and rubber. Classes that collected the most paper were rewarded with early releases and were allowed to display their school banner in their classroom. During spring and fall, many students were excused from classes to help relatives with farms complete the planting and harvesting of crops.

In 1940, Edmonton Public Schools integrated flag saluting ceremonies into the daily opening exercises. Some students, notably those from families who opposed the war (conscientious objectors), were excused from participating in the ceremonies on religious grounds. That same year, school trustees made participation in the flag saluting ceremony mandatory; those who refused to take part were expelled. This regulation remained in effect until 1944, when officials relented and allowed children previously expelled to return to class; these children were to stand quietly while the ceremonies proceeded.


Keshen, Jeffrey. Saints, Sinners and Soldiers: Canada's Second World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.

Kostek, M.A. A Century and Ten: The History of Edmonton Public Schools. Edmonton: Edmonton Public Schools, 1992.

The Alberta Teachers' Association. “World War II.” (accessed September, 2007).

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