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Canada’s War, 1939-1945

The Canada that went to war in September 1939 was tired and dispirited. Ten years of grinding economic depression had ravaged Canadians, and the Gross Domestic Product stood at $5.6 billion, well below its level in 1929. Unemployment was still high, people needed work, and wages were low. Moreover, there was little enthusiasm for war. Canadians increasingly saw Hitler as a menace, but memories of the terrible casualties of the Great War remained strong. Prime Minister Mackenzie King took Canada into war one week after Britain and France, but he did so on the promise that this would be a war of “limited liability” and a guarantee, primarily directed at Quebec, that there was to be no conscription for overseas service.

When the war ended six years later, Canada was flush. Its war effort had been huge, its armies stood on German soil, its navy ruled the North Atlantic’s waves, and its air force was the world’s third largest. The nation’s GDP extraordinarily had more than doubled, and Canadians had jobs, money in the bank and plans for the future. Social security legislation was on the books to protect workers against unemployment and to give family allowances directly to mothers of young children. The Veterans Charter, an impressive package of rehabilitation and training measures, guaranteed that those who had fought the war would receive everything they deserved.

Recounting the story this way makes it sound almost inevitable, but it wasn’t. First, a hair’s breadth separated victory and disaster. The Nazi blitzkrieg had rolled over Western Europe, crushed France and driven Britain off the Continent in 1940. For a year, until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, Canada was Britain’s ranking ally in a desperate struggle. The USSR and the United States, brought into war by the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, finally tipped the scales against Germany, Italy and Japan, but it took almost four more years to achieve victory. The limited liability war Mackenzie King had promised Canadians turned into a massive mobilization—1.1 million Canadians or ten per cent of the population wore uniform—and limited conscription became the law.

The nation’s industrial effort also went full blast after a very slow start. By late 1942, Canada’s factories, many government-owned, produced billions of dollars worth of military vehicles (816,000 in all), aircraft, guns and ships, while billions more in foods and minerals (e.g., 95 per cent of the Allies’ nickel) came from the farms and mines. When the Allies couldn’t pay, Canadians gave them the goods. The economy boomed, and hundreds of thousands of women joined the labour force in a social and industrial revolution that changed Canada forever.

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World War II brought much personal tragedy to Canadians, but it also made its people well-off.
Born in 1939, Granatstein served in the army and then taught history at York University where he is Distinguished Research Professor of History Emeritus. Granatstein was director of the Canadian War Museum and is now a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. He writes on history, defence, foreign policy and politics.