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Edmonton

The Second World War had a profound impact on Edmonton, Alberta’s capital city. The city’s population grew by 25 percent during the war. Edmonton’s population was 90,417 in 1939 and grew to 111,745 in 1945. These figures ballooned during this time because of the presence of so many troops. The most drastic increase in population occurred in 1943 when Edmonton’s population jumped from 96,725 to 105,536 in just 12 months. The newfound prosperity driven by the war economy was a welcome relief to those seeking an escape from the lingering hardships brought on by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The jobs and opportunities created by the war did not come without a price: 666 young men from Edmonton were killed during the Second World War. Edmonton's per capita enlistment rate was among the highest in Canada. According to Linda Goyette’s Edmonton In Our Own Words, the Army, Navy, and Air Force established recruiting centres in Edmonton while the RCAF alone signed up more than 15,000 members through its Edmonton office.

Edmonton became a key British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) air crew training centre and aircraft repair depot during the Second World War. Soldiers, pilots, mechanics, and construction workers from the United States, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia were posted to or travelled through the city. Blatchford Field (Edmonton City Centre Airport) was transformed into one of the busiest air harbours in North America. The Aircraft Repair Centre employed upwards of 3,000 civilian workers making it one of the city’s largest war-related enterprises.

Many of the first men to enlist for service were veterans of the First World War, and many were unemployed, victims of the Great Depression. Most of these individuals were deemed too old for active or front line service, or they failed the physical and were later discharged. Those who remained in the services were assigned to non-combat roles or affiliated entities and charged with responsibilities such as guarding public property.

On 15 December 1939, 450 recruits belonging to the Loyal Edmonton Regiment were among the first Edmonton-based troops to ship out for England. Thousands of people gathered to see them off. The family names of those who joined the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and other Alberta and Canadian units reflected the changing demographics of the city. In marked contrast to the First World War, in which almost all recruits were of British ancestry, many of those heading overseas in 1939 and 1940 bore the names of families from many parts of Europe and the Aboriginal community.  

In addition to being a major recruiting centre and training hub for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, Edmonton was selected by the American military to serve as the main supply and transport centre for its activities in northwestern North America, notably the arming of Alaska. Edmonton was chosen for several reasons: it had good rail connections in all directions, including to the northern communities of Peace River and Grande Prairie; it was more than 1,000 kilometres (621.37 miles) inland from the Pacific coast, which meant that there was little or no danger of an enemy (Japanese) attack; and, as the largest, northernmost city in North America, it boasted much of the basic infrastructure needed to serve the basic needs of a large contingent of military and civilian personnel.  

The “American invasion” of Edmonton began in January 1942. Soon thereafter, more than 1,400 US troops (engineers and labourers) and many more civilian contractors arrived to start building the Alaska Highway. The 2,400-kilometre (1,491.29-mile) highway stretched from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska and traversed some of the most densely forested and remote regions on the continent. The road, which in fact wasn’t much more than a dirt right-of-way, was constructed in nine months and was used to fortify American military bases in Alaska to counter any threat of attack or invasion by the Japanese.

To house offices and personnel associated with its military operations and several major construction projects throughout northwestern North America, the US military leased over 50 Edmonton buildings. Beginning in 1943, the Americans, to relieve the pressure on Blatchford Field, constructed a new base, Namao, 10 kilometres (6.21 miles) north of the city. Between 1942 and the end of the war, upwards of a quarter of Edmonton's labour force was employed by the American military and its civilian contractors. Two other major efforts undertaken by the Americans were the construction of the CANOL Pipeline, built to ship oil from Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories to a newly constructed refinery in Whitehorse, Yukon, and the development of the North West Staging Route from Edmonton to Fairbanks, Alaska. The latter was completed to accommodate the fighter aircraft being ferried to the Soviet Union.

Women were exposed to many newfound opportunities during the Second World War. Over 1,000 women found work at the Aircraft Repair Centre completing tasks traditionally assigned to men. The war not only challenged traditional gender roles in the workplace, but it also made it acceptable for women to wear slacks and overalls.
Women entered other male-dominated professions: they became mechanics, streetcar conductors, postal van drivers, and meter readers. These jobs in the public domain usually required some degree of physical labour. Mechanics, for example, had to lift and manoeuvre potentially heavy objects, something thought to be too physically demanding for women. Many immigrant women, including enemy aliens, worked at the Great Western Garment Factory (GWG) and produced 25,000 articles of military clothing a week. Despite the long hours and physically demanding work, most women experienced a new economic freedom they had not previously known.

The economic boom created by the onset of the war helped pull Edmonton out of the Great Depression, but it also created a multitude of new problems. Civic services could not keep pace, nor could the city or city-based businesses offer wages competitive with those paid by the American military and its affiliated contractors. Rents skyrocketed as demand increased, and many found it hard to find affordable housing. Juvenile delinquency was also on the rise; the police observed a 60 percent increase in arrests.

Reference

Gilmour, Bob. “The Homefront in the Second World War,” in Edmonton: The Life of a City, eds. Bob Hesketh and Frances Swyripa. Edmonton: NeWest Publishers, 1996.

Goyette, Linda. Edmonton: In Our Own Words. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2004.


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