The Second World War brought about a host of political changes at the federal and provincial levels of government, and Alberta municipalities found themselves having to respond in kind. Alberta’s municipal leaders faced a host of new social, moral, and economic challenges brought about by rapidly changing societal circumstances, all of which were related to the onset of the war in one manner or another. Alberta municipalities met these challenges head on in ways that reflected their unique circumstances.
In cities like Calgary and Edmonton, the wartime era marked an economic groundswell and a growing population. Much of the growth and expansion of these two communities was a direct result of the implementation of a number of wartime projects and the influx of large numbers of military personnel, notably young men, as well as thousands of civilians seeking work. The establishment of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) and the development of new, or the expansion of existing, military bases affected numerous communities across Alberta. The construction of the Alaska Highway, the CANOL Pipeline project, and the Northwest Staging Route had specific consequences for Edmonton. Many towns and cities benefited from this large influx of people, but rapid growth of this kind resulted in challenges: housing, transportation, crime, and social and moral issues to name a few.
The establishment of businesses or industries relating to the (industrial) war effort brought prosperity to many communities still recovering from the economic hardships of the Great Depression. The war created new financial possibilities, while towns and cities throughout Alberta scrambled to compete for the work. BCATP training facilities, complete with tarmacs, hangars and repair shops, opened in small towns like Fort Macleod, Vulcan, and Penhold. Dozens of civilian personnel—flying instructors, doctors, technicians, chaplains, and cooks—swarmed to Alberta’s municipalities in search of work. Edmonton’s mayor, John Fry, expressed his concern over the competition for wartime industries when he stated in a letter to Ottawa, “We are slighted for Calgary, Lethbridge, Macleod, and Medicine Hat, who are all getting much larger programmes than we are.” The very infrastructure of Alberta communities, large or small, was evolving to adapt to a country and a world at war. Regardless of the wartime industry, Alberta’s urban landscapes had visibly changed. For example, communities like Lethbridge and Medicine Hat were also home to large prisoner of war camps. Parcels of land were allotted, facilities constructed, and guards recruited.
One of the most serious challenges facing Alberta municipalities was the shortage of housing created by the large influx of military and civilian personnel. In Edmonton, the City Council attempted to deal with the problem by setting aside funds and materials to be used for the construction of new houses. City officials also created an emergency Accommodation Bureau to help newcomers find adequate shelter. Lethbridge City Council looked to homeowners to help alleviate the problem and promoted the concept by arguing that opening one’s home to newcomers during this time of great need was a truly patriotic act.
The housing, transportation, and infrastructure needs of Alberta’s municipalities were exacerbated by the shortage of supplies designated for civilian consumption. It is important to remember that the vast majority of all production was geared to and designated for the military. To ensure that vital goods and services destined for the military were not diverted for unauthorized civilian use, the federal government established the Wartime Prices and Trades Board. This federal agency had sweeping powers and set forth the rules and regulations that determined what supplies could be used, in what amounts, and for what purposes. The RCMP and other federal officials were responsible for enforcing these regulations and for arresting black marketers trying to cheat the system. Try as they might, officials could not keep up and black marketers managed to sell and trade most everything, including food and personal items such as coffee, tea, and cigarettes (Edmonton), and larger items including cars, (Calgary).
Communities were also concerned over the safety and protection of their citizens, both civilian and military. There was a fear of enemy attack on North American soil; consequently, emergency procedures had to be drafted to account for everything from bombing raids to gas attacks. It should be noted, however, that there was a greater concern in coastal regions than in Alberta. Moreover, security concerns fluctuated throughout the course of the war: these were notably higher at the outset, waned somewhat, and increased sharply following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In spite of such rare events as the Japanese balloon bombs, most Albertans were aware that neither Germany nor Japan posed a serious threat on Canadian soil, particularly in Alberta. Regardless, the Canadian government continued to produce propaganda suggesting that Axis attacks were very much a possibility. In addition, civil defence programs and practice drills were common in Alberta’s communities: these were intended to ensure preparedness and security.
Alberta’s urban landscape underwent a considerable transformation during the course of the Second World War. Municipal leaders across Alberta struggled to find solutions to social and economic problems, some of which they had never before encountered. The urban communities were in a heightened state of transition, and urban planners had to race to keep up with the changes. The following sections on Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, and Medicine Hat examine the manner in which these communities were affected by the Second World War and their response to various issues.