Far and away the largest contribution made by Canadian women to the war effort came through their unpaid labour in the home and in “volunteer” work. Almost immediately after Canada’s entry into the war, women across Canada took the initiative, founding organizations to coordinate women’s volunteer war work. Only in September 1942 did Ottawa step in and take over the direction of this work, appropriating a name already in use in Ontario—Women’s Voluntary Services. The federal WVS introduced a Block Plan in the larger urban centres to organize house-to-house canvassing and collection. Local WVS centres participated in a wide range of national programs, distributing ration cards, recruiting and training volunteer staff in wartime day nurseries, promoting the sale of war bonds and encouraging the sewing, knitting, quilting and packing of “ditty bags” for the servicemen and women overseas.
As homemakers, women were called upon to abide by and enforce rationing, prevent waste and save and collect materials that could be recycled for use in war production. As one poster put it, women were to “Dig In and Dig Out the Scrap”—metals, rags, bones, rubber and glass. In the countryside Women’s Institutes helped farmers’ wives and daughters who took over work on the land in the absence of husbands and fathers. These women drove tractors, made hay, picked fruit, raised gardens and increased the country’s poultry and egg production.
In September 1939, Canada, still recovering from the Depression, had approximately 900,000 registered unemployed. For the first two years of war, these workers met war production’s increased demand for labour, but by 1942 that reserve was exhausted. When Prime Minster Mackenzie King established the National Selective Service in March 1942, he declared recruitment of women for employment to be “the most important single factor of the program.” In May of that year, the Women’s Division of NSS was created and Mrs. Rex (Fraudena) Eaton of Vancouver was put in charge. For as long as possible, her office aimed their recruitment efforts exclusively at young unmarried women, but by June 1943 that labour pool, too, had evaporated. Gradually the target was widened to childless housewives for part-time work, next married women without children for full-time work, then married women with young children for part-time work, and finally mothers of young children for full-time work.
In anticipation of this development, the federal Minister of Labour was empowered by Order-in-Council to enter into agreements with provinces for the establishment of day-care facilities for children of mothers employed in war industries. Only the most industrialized provinces took advantage of the Dominion-Provincial Wartime Day Nurseries Agreement—Ontario and Quebec. This first foray by the Canadian state into government-supported childcare remained short-lived and small in scale, accommodating at its height only around 2,500 children in Ontario and 115 to 120 in Quebec. Moreover, the program, introduced to aid mothers working in war industries, strictly limited the places for the children of women working in other sectors to 25% of capacity. Practically the moment the war was over, Quebec’s Wartime Day Nurseries closed their doors; Ontario’s stayed open only to the spring of 1946.