For many Canadians, the history of their country’s involvement in the Second World War has been retouched by time. That process begins with an assumption that Canada went to war in 1939 in a valiant effort to save democracy from the scourge of nazism. Some Canadians, to be sure, were anxious to join the fight against Adolf Hitler’s Germany. But others, not least Prime Minister Mackenzie King himself, had mixed emotions about the prospect of taking up arms in Europe for the second time in a generation. “This is not our war,” the Prime Minister bluntly told a British delegation that visited Ottawa in October, 1939, to discuss Canada’s participation. His remark outraged the British, but King was too cautious a politician to risk his government’s popularity by unnecessarily endangering Canadian lives.
Men: In public, King delivered stirring declarations about securing Canada’s “full participation” in the conflict.
But his actions fell far short of his rhetoric. Indeed, in the early months of the war, King’s efforts were directed mainly at minimizing the country’s commitment of men and money. From Canada’s perspective, he said, the war was a “limited liability” conflict. As early as March, 1939, Ottawa had promised not to conscript men for overseas service. King’s aim was not only to mollify Quebec—there were many French-speaking residents who viewed the war as a British affair— but also to reassure English-speaking Canadians who were not of British descent.
At first, even the British seemed satisfied with a modest Canadian contribution. On Sept. 6, three days after Britain declared war and four days before Canada did so, King asked London what role it wished Canada to play. He was relieved to learn that Britain wanted only “a small Canadian unit, which would take its place alongside the United Kingdom troops.” Soon afterward, Canada agreed to establish the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, operating a network of 74 flying schools and depots to train pilots and air crews. That massive program later prompted U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to describe Canada as “the aerodrome of democracy.” For King, however, the plan’s primary appeal lay in the
fact that it would employ large numbers of Canadian airmen as instructors, far away from the carnage in Europe. In their book, A Nation Forged in Fire, historians J. L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton note that a quarter of a million Canadians served during the war in the Royal Canadian Air Force or Britain’s Royal Air Force. But only 94,000 went overseas, of whom 17,101 were killed. “Countless other men and women trained for war but spent their time in the multitude of essential, unglamorous jobs that make every modem military machine operate,” the authors point out. Action: Certainly, there was no lack of enthusiasm among the individuals who volunteered for the war. John Bryant was a 19-yearold from Swan River, Man., when he joined the
air force on Sept. 16, 1939. “The war was where the action was,” Bryant, now living in Burlington, Ont., recalled last week. As it turned out, he spent the next five years at a number of Canadian air bases, gradually working his way up to bombing instructor. After he was dropped from pilot training because of poor eyesight, he was posted to northern England to train for crew on a Lancaster bomber. He was a few training flights away from being sent on his first bombing mission when Germany surrendered. “I remember being unhappy about not going overseas, but there was nothing you could do,” said Bryant. “Let me put it this way—the ultimate in the RCAF was to be a pilot. They were the ones who got all the glamor and ended up as commanding officers. Most of the rest of us were trying to get into air crew positions.” Army: The experience of many who served in the army was much the same. The vanguard of the Canadian 1st Division arrived in Britain on Dec. 23, 1939. The first Cao nadians to see major action ° were the 1,975 troops who o landed in Hong Kong two Q years later—a month before the British colony was overrun by the Japanese on
Christmas Day, 1941. Eight months later, 4,963 Canadians took part in a badly conceived assault on Aug. 19, 1942, against the French port of Dieppe, where 907 died, hundreds were wounded and 1,874 were taken prisoner. But apart from those disasters, Canadian soldiers spent most of the first four years of the war training in England, with no idea of where or when they would see action.
Meanwhile, Canadian air and naval forces played more active and dangerous roles. Indeed, for a year—from the fall of France in June, 1940, to Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941—Canada was Britain’s senior ally in terms of arms and manpower. Canadians helped win control of the skies in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, and later flew many of the heavy bombing raids against the enemy. The Royal Canadian Navy fought the silent and deadly Battle of the Atlantic on convoy duty against German Uboats and a cruel sea. But for Canadian soldiers in Britain, boredom was the main enemy. For most, the tedium was relieved only when they went to war in Sicily and Italy in the summer of 1943, or in the invasion of Normandy on June 6,1944. “Most of the time it was a pretty dull existence,” said Douglas Goldie, 67, of Toronto, who spent three years in England in the Queen’s York Rangers co-ordinating troop movements. In 1944, he was sent home to train as an infantry officer, but when he was ready, the war in Europe was almost over. Said Goldie: “There was a surplus of officers, so I never got into the action.” In all, 1,086,343 Canadian men and women served full time in the army, navy or air force. And 42,042 lost their lives.
Pact: In Canada, the war’s impact was farreaching. As in the First World War, relations between French and English were strained by Quebec’s opposition to conscription, which was finally introduced for overseas service in November, 1944. Canada’s relations with the United States became closer. On Aug. 18, 1940, in Ogdensburg, N.Y., 16 months before the Americans joined the war, King and Roosevelt established a permanent joint committee on defence, Canada’s first military pact with a country other than Britain. According to Cana-
dian historian Donald Creighton, that commitment “effectively bound Canada to a continental system dominated by the United States and largely determined Canadian foreign policy for the next 30 years.” Canada-U.S. economic ties also strengthened rapidly, in part because Britain and the rest of Europe could no longer afford to purchase many Canadian exports.
The war brought prosperity to millions of Canadians. After a decade of economic depression, unemployment virtually disappeared. Canada’s industrial capacity grew rapidly.
The massive investments of public money required for the war effort—according to Granatstein and Morton, the federal government created at least 28 Crown corporations to produce everything from rifles to synthetic rubber—also set the stage for postwar interventionist economic policies, including family allowance payments and subsidized housing. Hundreds of thousands of rural Canadians moved to the cities for high-paying factory jobs. They were joined after 1945 by an influx of refugees and immigrants from warravaged Europe, accelerating Canada’s transformation into an urban, multicultural society.
Prosperity, combined with pride in the country’s wartime achievements, gave postwar
Canada a stronger sense of national confidence and unprecedented status abroad. In 1947, then-Extemal Affairs Minister Louis St. Laurent proposed an alliance to resist Soviet expansion—a proposal that led to the establishment in 1949 of NATO.
Ties: A half-century after the outbreak of war in Europe, economic and political developments once again challenge established assumptions in Canada about the world. The
Soviet Union’s less threatening posture under Mikhail Gorbachev, if it persists, could one day call into question the need for NATO. And while the unity of the European Community in Western Europe grows stronger, Canada’s focus in trade and foreign relations is shifting inexorably away from Europe toward the United States and the Pacific Rim. Those developments point toward a further weakening of Canada’s political and commercial ties with the new Europe—now
finally emerging from years of war and Cold War. But, for many people on both sides of the Atlantic, there are enduring ties—both in the blood of kinship, and through the blood that Canadians spilled at war in Europe.
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