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Morale and Morality on the Alberta Homefront

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Jeff Keshen

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryLike their fellow Canadians, Albertans responded in myriad ways to back the campaign against Nazism. "Beautiful Co-eds" at the provincial university sold tags on behalf of Finnish relief; in Millet, a small rural town just south of Leduc, one resident recalled her mother spending every spare moment knitting "sweaters, gloves and balaclavas for the boys"; war gardens abounded in Calgary and Edmonton so more food could be sent abroad; and when it came to Victory Bonds or salvage drives, Albertans rightfully claimed that they were second to none.1

Patriotism was also on display when it came to the treatment extended to those in uniform, particularly men from across Canada and the Empire stationed at the seventeen British Commonwealth Air Training Plan [BCATP] bases opened up across the province. For example, in the Penhold Log, the magazine printed for those stationed at the No.2 Service Flight Training School [SFTS] just southwest of Red Deer, one British airman joked that though newcomers might at first despair over a posting "akin to Siberia", soon the "great hospitality shown by the people" would ease their despondency.2 Thousands of Albertans extended dinner invitations to ease the loneliness of men who were distant from loved ones, helped auxiliary services like the YMCA or the Salvation Army by organizing dances, or if in business, by providing troops with special discounts [such as the owner of Calgary's Uptown Theatre who, on every night except Thursday, allowed those in uniform and their dates to watch a movie for twenty-five rather than thirty-five cents].3

The appearance of soldiers from so many places, as well as the presence of smartly attired local regiments, provided for considerable excitement. After all, even major centres like Edmonton and Calgary were still rather quiet communities whose populations in 1939 had not reached 100,000. In the latter, for example, even after three years of war, thousands turned out regularly at local parks and golf courses to watch troops drill.4 Meanwhile, in Lethbridge, then a town of approximately 25,000, more than a quarter of the population came to Kenyon Field in late 1941 to witness the opening of an addition to the Bombing and Gunnery School, during which the Royal Canadian Air Force put on some precision flying.5 Good feelings between the military and civilians also were forged through inter-battalion sporting contests to which the public frequently were invited, like that in March 1941 at Edmonton's Clarke Stadium. There were many friendly games between base and community teams as well, such as the regular softball games where the Calgary Tigers faced competition from the nearby No.2 Wireless and No.3 Flying Training Schools.6

Beyond such patriotism and enhanced social activity, however, the warm welcome extended to those in uniform in more than a few cases related to economic self-interest as well, especially in a province that had been so devastated by the Great Depression. Anywhere troops were stationed, nearby businesses prospered. In fact, it became easy for all military bases in the province to sustain their own newspaper because practically all costs were covered by firms eager to advertise. Hotels in Banff not only took out space in such publications across Alberta, but also in sources like the Moth Monthly, distributed at the No. 33 Elementary Flying Training School in Caron, Saskatchewan.7 In Red Deer, the 5¢ to $1 store "cordially invited" readers of the Penhold Log to examine its "well-stocked shelves", while those perusing the pages of the Slipstream. at the No.7 SFTS in Fort Macleod, were informed by the local photography shop that it had colour film and “special RCAF frames”.8

BCATP bases also provided civilian jobs related to the construction of hangars; barracks, and airfields, as well in provisioning supplies and other forms of support - such as at Edmonton's Aircraft Repair Limited which by April 1941 employed more than a thousand. Recognizing the immense benefits furnished by the bases, not only in the short-term but also by creating permanent infrastructure critical for long-term growth, Edmonton politicians griped to Ottawa about the fact that all but two of the training centres were located south of Red Deer. Perhaps this fact was more attributable to the treeless terrain of the southern foothills, but it was only accepted to a degree by this northern community during early 1942 when its economy was booming due to the arrival of thousands of Americans to construct the Alaska Highway. Almost overnight at the Municipal Airport "brush disappeared ... and massive hangars began blotting out the horizon". In less than a year the Americans spent over $3.5 million on the critical upgrading of facilities; in order to adequately service their Army Engineering Corps farther north, the level of outgoing air traffic by November 1942 reached a peak of five flights per minute.9

Yet, for Albertans, there was far more to the war years than patriotic demonstrations and a stronger economy. Besides the worry many a resident harboured for loved ones overseas, trends on the home front also accounted for considerable and painful upheaval. While the rural sector faced a record demand for food, military recruitment and war jobs reduced the availability of labour, and hence the ability of numerous farmers to seize this opportunity. Even with women taking on more responsibilities, as well as the help sometimes provided by students during their summer vacation, many farms could not survive especially given the lack of new machinery corning on the market and the imposition of government price controls over most produce by late 1941. Only the more efficient enterprises flourished, and in fact started to enlarge their holdings and become more capital-intensive by buying up land and usable machinery from those forced to pull up roots. Between 1941 and 1946, Alberta's rural population dropped from 61.5 per cent [489,600] to 55.9 per cent [448,900] of the total, while the average size of farms expanded from 433.9 to 462.9 acres, and their total value climbed from $711 million to $958.1 million. These patterns were evident throughout Canada as a whole where, during the first four years of the war, the agricultural population plunged by 25 per cent and gross output soared by 60 per cent.10

Notes

1. Gateway, 23 Feb 1940, 1; Interview with Laura Hamilton, Edmonton, Alberta, 20 May 1993.

2. Directorate of History, National Defence Headquarters [D. Hist.], 77/658, Penhold Log, April 1943, 6-7.

3. Glenbow Institute [GL], Manuscript Group [MG] 1961, Department of National Defence Collection [DND], Regimental Orders & Notices, 2 Oct 1940.

4. GL, MG 1951, Records of the Calgary Highlanders, Clipping from the Calgary Herald, 23 March 1943.

5. Canada Year Book, 1942, 88; D. Hist, 77/648, Lethbridge Herald, 19 Nov. 1941, 1.

6. GL, MG 1961, DND, 29 March 1941; City of Calgary Archives [CC], Record Group [RG] 26, Records of the City Clerk, File 2102, Corporal D.R. Lynes to Major Davidson, 30 April 1941.

7. D. Hist., 77/633, Moth Monthly, Dec. 1942, 31.

8. D. Hist., 77/658, Dec. 1941, 11; D. Hist, 77/650, Slipstream, June 1941, 2.

9. MacLean's, 1 November 1942, 19.

10. Canada Year Book, 1948-49, 163; Canadian Affairs, 15 Feb. 1944, 10.

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