The Great Transformation

Thomas S. Axworthy
Executive Director of The Historica Foundation of Canada

According to the distinguished historian John Keegan, “the written history of the world is largely a history of warfare, because the states within which we live came into existence largely through conquest, civil strife or struggles for independence.”1 World War I certainly proves Keegan’s thesis for it was one of the tipping events of world history: 20 million people died, the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires disintegrated, new states like Iraq and Yugoslavia were born, newly powerful states like Japan emerged, the League of Nations was invented and the European age which had dominated the world since the 16th century gave way to the ascendance of the United Sates. Millions of husbands, sons, fathers and brothers responded to the call of arms in 1914 and after burying their dead, when they returned to their homes in 1918, the world they had set out to defend had been changed almost beyond recognition.

Canada was far from immune to this transformation by war. In 1914 Canada was still a colony of Great Britain: when Great Britain went to war so did Canada. In 1901 about 60% of Canada’s population still lived in rural areas and manufacturing played a little part in Canadian exports compared to wheat, lumber or minerals. Canada was still a Victorian nation in morals and culture. Women did not have the vote and their accepted place was at home raising a family, not in the workforce. There was no income tax, and few government regulations: the Victorian tradition of laissez-faire, or little government, still prevailed.

George Woodcock calls the 19th century, “the century that made us.”2Two popular novels describe well the Victorian Canada of 1914: Sara Jeanette Duncan’s The Imperialist (1904) rhapsodized about the mission of the British Empire and Canada’s role within it. Meanwhile, Louis Hémon’s famous novel, Maria Chapdelaine (1913) equally extolled Quebec agriculture and the virtues of the Church.3 But the imperial certainties of English Canada and the agricultural Roman Catholic mission of French Canada, were both about to be shattered on the anvil of war. Nellie McClung, at her cottage north of Winnipeg in 1914, wrote with foreboding, as her son Jack clamoured to enlist; “instinctively we felt that we had to come to the end of a very pleasant chapter in our life as a family; something had disturbed the peaceful quiet of our lives; somewhere a drum was beating and a fife was calling.”4

Canada’s contributions to the war effort were immense. With a total population of 8 million there were about 3 million Canadians of working age, one million and a half of whom were men or potential soldiers. Prime Minister Robert Borden pledged a force structure of 500,000, hoping that a third of all eligible Canadian men would volunteer! In comparison, today in peace time, we have a population four times greater with a military just 10% of the size of our World War I predecessors. What is even more amazing, as Desmond Morton writes in A Military History of Canada, is that combining the 232,968 men who volunteered for the infantry, the thousands more who volunteered for the Royal Navy or Royal Flying Corps, the reservists, etc, “by 1917, though no one realized it, Borden’s target was close to being reached.”5

This army fought well, especially at Vimy Ridge. The Canadians were the first to feel the onslaught of what today we call “weapons of mass destruction,” when in April, 1915, soldiers of the First Canadian Division were chemically gassed at Ypres. On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, at Vimy Ridge the Canadian Army made history. For the first time the four Canadian divisions were on the same battlefield, led by a Canadian Commander, Sir Arthur Currie, rather than a British officer. After four days of fighting the Ridge was captured and Canadians had taken more land, cannons and prisoners than all previous British offensives. But the cost was high. Over 3,000 Canadians died at Vimy Ridge and 7,000 were wounded. In all, 60,000 Canadians died in the mud of France, a sacrifice immortalized in 1915 by John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.”

The hundreds of thousands of Canadians who enlisted fought to preserve the Victorian Canada that they loved, but in fighting to preserve it they contributed to a process that changed it utterly. Canada entered the war as a colony and emerged as a nation. When the League of Nations was founded in 1919, Canada was a member in its own right. In 1926, a Canadian Embassy was established in Washington, and the Balfour Declaration proclaimed that Britain and the dominions were equal in stature. In 1931 the Statute of Westminster legally ended the colonial status of Canada. When Canada again went to war in 1939, it did so as an independent, sovereign country.

Wars release passions, both good and bad. The incredible patriotism of Canadians who enlisted for the war effort contributed to the development of a Canadian nationality which was eventually expressed internationally, but it also led to great stress at home. Suspicion of non-Anglo-Saxons was strong and 80,000 “enemy aliens,” a majority of them Ukrainians, were forced to register. Those who failed to register were interned in camps, and more than 8,000 Canadians suffered this injustice.

Even more bitter was the dispute over conscription. Canadians volunteered in droves but the 500,000 force objective was a tremendous undertaking, and the infantry need to be replenished after the losses in France. In 1917, Prime Minister Borden decided to conscript or draft 100,000 Canadians who had been exempt from military service or chose not to volunteer. Canadians were bitterly divided everywhere over the draft, but in Quebec especially, there were demonstrations and riots. In January 1918, Joseph-Napoleon Francoeur, a Liberal member, tabled the first separatist motion in the history of the Quebec Assembly. Borden persevered: 100,000 men were eventually called up, 50,000 crossed the Atlantic, and 25,000 saw service in France. But for 25,000 men, Canada endured a deep divide.

If war unleashed the evil spirits of ethnic and racial division, it also unshackled social and economic conventions. With hundreds of thousands of men at the front, women entered the workforce: 30,000 women, for example, worked in munitions factories. With women making such a large contribution to the war effort, it was hard to deny them the vote. Activist Nellie McClung persuaded the Manitoba Legislature in 1916 to be the first province to grant women the vote, and the Federal government followed suit in 1918. The war also contributed to industrialization with the Imperial Munitions Board becoming Canada’s biggest business. By 1918, for example, Canada was exporting $18 million worth of cars and trucks to add to its traditional wheat and lumber shipments, and Sam McLaughlin of Oshawa became a founder of General Motors. Along with industrialization, cities grew, with 50% of Canada’s population urban based by the 1920’s. The Canada of Maria Chapdelaine was no more.

Growing cities and an industrial economy called, in turn, for a more active government, and during the war years Canada left laissez-faire behind. The Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk railways were nationalized to eventually become the CNR. If the Borden government was conscripting war, there was a persistent demand that it also conscript wealth. In 1917, Sir Thomas White introduced the Income War Tax Act, and we have had personal income taxes ever since. Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook have summarized the economic impact of the war years thusly, “By 1918 the free-wheeling economic activity and business practices of pre-war years had been replaced by government regulations and in a vital sector of the economy, a heavy dose of government ownership.”6

George Woodcock may be right that it was the 19th century that made us: most assuredly, it was the Great War of 1914-1918 that transformed us.

1John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Random House, 1994), p. 386.
2George Woodcock, The Century that Made Us: Canada 1814-1914 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989).
3This point is well-made by Ramsay Cook’s chapter, “The Triumph and Trials of Materialism (1900-1945)” in The Illustrated History of Canada edited by Craig Brown, (Toronto: Lester and Orpen Denys, 1987), p. 375.
4Quoted in Don Gillmor, Achille Michaud and Pierre Turgeon, Canada: A People’s History, Volume Two (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2001), p.91.
5Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999), p.136.
6Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook, Canada 1896-1921: A Nation Transformed (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974) p.247.

Thomas S. Axworthy
Executive Director of The Historica Foundation of Canada

Thomas S. AxworthyThomas S. Axworthy is Executive Director of The Historica Foundation of Canada, a Toronto-based charitable organization with the mission to foster the enhancement of Canadianism. From 1991 to 2003, he was an Adjunct Lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and he continues to teach as part of their overseas executive program. Dr. Axworthy is an Adjunct Lecturer at the School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, where he has recently become Chairman of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. Since 2001, he has served as Chairman of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. In recognition of his outstanding achievement and service in the field of history and heritage, Dr. Axworthy was recently made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

From 1981 to 1984, Dr. Axworthy was Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Queen’s University in 1970 and 1979 respectively and was a visiting student at Nuffield College, Oxford University, in 1972-73.

Dr. Axworthy is also the author and editor of several books and numerous articles, including Our American Cousins: The United States Through Canadian Eyes (Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 1987), Marching to a Different Drummer: An Essay on the Liberals and Conservatives in Convention (Toronto: Stoddart, 1988), Towards a Just Society: The Trudeau Years (Markham: Penguin Books, 1990) and Searching for the New Liberalism: Perspectives, Policies, Prospects (Oakville: Mosaic Press, 2003).