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Canada’s War, 1939-1945

Another aspect of that revolution was the creation of the foundations of a Canadian social welfare state. Canadians demanded guarantees that economic depression not return with the peace, and the government listened. Unemployment insurance came into law in 1940 and the first “baby bonus” cheques reached mothers in the summer of 1945. This was a start, the beginnings of a more humane nation. Hospital insurance and medicare still lay in the future, but the ideas had begun to germinate.

At the same time, emboldened by its war effort, a newly nationalist Canada toughly bargained its way into Allied councils. Canada claimed the right to be treated as a great power in some areas. Not on the planning of the Allies’ grand strategy—large as it was, Canada’s contribution paled compared to those of the Great Powers. But for food and mineral production, for relief aid to ravaged Europe, for air transport—in such areas Canada was a great power. Ottawa’s diplomats pushed the case with great vigour and made gains. By 1945, Canada had achieved general recognition as the first among the “middle powers.”

None of these extraordinary changes for Canadians were achieved without suffering, and we must not forget that, without victory, everything would have been lost, including freedom. The war cost Canada 45,000 young men killed and more than 53,000 wounded. Almost 8300 were taken prisoner. Many of the survivors had the rest of their lives blighted by pain and stress, though many achieved great things.

The dead, however, were lost forever. Who knows what they might have achieved? One might have found the cure for cancer. Another might have become prime minister. One could have written the great Canadian novel.

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.