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Popular Culture in Edmonton During the Second World War

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David Leonard

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

For King and Country

On the morning of 2 June 1939, the people of Edmonton were abuzz with excitement. Rumors of war in Europe and the lingering effects of the Great Depression were, momentarily, secondary news items, for the City was about to experience the first-ever visit of its Monarch. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were about to arrive, in the third week of their North American tour, intended to foster greater Commonwealth solidarity and encourage closer ties between Great Britain and the United States. In Europe, the power and military threat of Germany dominated public attention, and although the British Prime Minister was outwardly optimistic about "peace in our time," politicians of all colours in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth were apprehensive about the designs of Adolf Hitler and the capacity of Britain to withstand another major war.

The city which greeted the Monarch when he stepped down from the train at the Canadian National Railway station was one of great cultural diversity. It had risen as a northern metropolis in the wake of the Klondike gold rush; between 1900 and 1914 its population, including that of Strathcona, had zoomed from 2,321 to 72,S 16. During the First World War, however, Edmonton experienced a massive recession. Over-extension of credit and rapid depopulation brought economic hardship to thousands of people, and the physical face of the city became stratified into an Edwardian motif which lasted into the late 1930s. For Edmonton, and indeed much of the rest of Alberta, the Depression had really begun with "the Great War", with brief respites occurring just after the Armistice and during the late 1920s. Vacancy rates remained high as businesses stagnated, while many people relocated their homes to outlying communities such as St. Albert, Jasper Place and Beverly to avoid high taxes.

During the late 1930s, however, the physical appearance of the city began to change. In 1938, the value of building permits soared from $865,560 to $2,806,340.1 That same year, both the T. Eaton Company and the Hudson's Bay Company completed new "department stores" in the downtown core, bringing a new style of shopping to many people. With many art deco elements, they, and the recently completed Birks Building, were bringing a sense of modernity to the city centre. Fluorescent lighting and block glass were now being used, while the huge neon sign on the Agency Building a short while earlier had initiated a wave of such advertising along Jasper Avenue. The Roxy Theatre was built in 1938, while the Capital was extensively renovated the same year. Construction of the Varscona, Garneau and Odeon were soon to follow.

In sports, the Edmonton Eskimos commenced playing football in the recently built Clarke Stadium in 1938. Golf, cricket, baseball and lawn bowling also were popular in the summer, as were curling, skiing and hockey in the winter. All sports were non-professional, and there were no "leagues." In the arts, the Art Museum and famous Edmonton photographer Ernest Brown's Birth of the West Museum had survived the Depression, while the Civic Opera was now three years old.

By 1939 the worst of the Depression was over, although the economy was far from healthy. While tax assessment was lower than at any other time since the 1920s, $924,806 would be in arrears to the city at the end of the year. Crops in the surrounding rural areas had been good in recent years, and in 1939 they were described as the best in a decade.2 Wheat prices that year rose to 54 cents a bushel, up 20 cents from the low of 1932. However, the capacity of people to purchase was still limited.

During the late 1930s there had been several hopeful signs of growth in the city as well. In 1936, Canada Packers had brought some encouragement with its major new packing plant in the east end. It was obvious that use of air transportation also was greater than ever. By 1937,42 planes were operating out of three hangars at Blatchford Field. Two years later Trans-Canada Airlines was established, providing regularly scheduled Dominion-wide air service to and from Edmonton. The first trolley bus also appeared on the city's streets in 1939, marking the beginning of the end to the old "radial" street railway system.

In 1939 the political scene in Edmonton was still dominated by the economic mores of the Depression. In the 1935 provincial election Social Credit had swept the polls, bringing radical and confusing new monetary theories to the attention of Albertans. The following years saw Edmontonians, and other Albertans, caught up in the swell of controversy over the viability of Social Credit and its chief proponent, Premier William Aberhart. Two of Edmonton's six Members of the Legislative Assembly were Social Crediters. Although Aberhart had his local supporters, he was intensely disliked by many others, and much vilified in the press. The Edmonton Journal was scathing in its attack on the Premier, so much so that Aberhart attempted, unsuccessfully, to impose a censorship law over the province's newspapers.

In Parliament, Edmonton East was represented by the Social Crediter Orvis Kennedy, while a Liberal, James MacKinnon, sat for Edmonton West. In civic politics, the three year reign of the radical "fighting Joe" Clarke was brought to an end in 1938 with the election of the more conservative, business oriented John Fry as mayor.

Edmonton remained characterized by extreme cultural diversity. The federal census of 1941 would disclose that while most people [62,775] claimed British ancestry, eight other nationalities numbered over one thousand or more: 6070 Ukrainians, 4997 French, 4658 Germans, 3967 Scandinavians, 2923 Poles, 1512 Dutch, 1449 Jewish, and 1256 Austrians.3 A host of other nationalities totalled 4,210. In Edmonton's 133 places of worship, services were conducted in the English, French, German, Ukrainian, Russian, Danish, Swedish, Lebanese and Chinese languages. Among the social clubs at the time were the Hungarian Cultural Club, the Ukrainian Institute, the Chinese Benevolent Society, and L' Association Canadienne Francaise d' Alberta. This international mix was augmented by the great ethnic diversity of the communities which were located close to Edmonton. To the north were the francophone centres of St. Albert, Bon Accord, Legal, Villeneuve, Morinville and Riviere Qui Barre. To the northeast, a strong German presence was found around Bruderheim. Farther to the northeast and east, in communities like Smoky Lake, Willingdon, Mundare and Vegreville, the predominant culture was Ukrainian. At Neerlandia, a Dutch community flourished, while other ethnic groups dotted the countryside as well.

Diversity aside, the "upper crust" of Edmonton society had al ways been British. Although a number of francophones and a few others of non-British ancestry had become powerful financial and community leaders, Edmonton's politics and public affairs were conducted with a distinctly British flavour. The leading newspapers carried extensive British news coverage, while the society columns invariably reflected British upper class tastes. This situation also was usually reflected in local politics. Elected to City Council in 1938 were Mayor Fry and Aldermen J.H. Macdonald, M.B. McColl, J.H. Ogilvie, S. Parsons and A.B. Paterson. The Chamber of Commerce featured similar representation, while the incorporated social clubs also were predominantly of British origin. The political stability and relative prosperity of Alberta no doubt did much to secure the concurrence, albeit passive, of the non-British peoples with this circumstance, in particular the migrants from the devastated regions of Eastern Europe.


1. Henderson's Directory for Edmonton, 1938, p. 14.

2. Edmonton Journal, 5 July 1939.

3. Canadian Census for 1939, Vol. 6 [population], p. 273.

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