On the radio, the Andrews Sisters were singing A Soldier Dreams of You Tonight and I’ll Be Marching to a Love Song. It cost a quarter to see the biggest stars in the latest movies— Humphrey Bogart in Passage to Marseilles and Charles Boyer in Gaslight. Kids snapped up comic books featuring their newest square-jawed hero, Johnny Canuck (“Canada’s answer to Nazi oppression”). Food, liquor and gasoline were rationed, but the factories were begging for workers and just about anybody who wanted a job could get one. D-Day at home in Canada was a time of high anxiety and great hopes—of fears for the men hitting the beaches in northern France, and prayers that the end of the all-consuming conflict might finally be in sight.
War had barely touched the country directly: only one enemy shell, fired by a Japanese submarine off the coast of British Columbia in June, 1942, actually landed on Canadian soil. But life in Canada had
By D-Day, war had changed all aspects of life in Canada
been transformed. Demand for the products of its farms and factories soared as the size of the economy almost doubled between 1939 and 1945. The size of government increased even faster, and the state began to interfere in every area of life—controlling production, allocating resources, setting wages and freezing prices. Canada, like Britain and the United States, moved to the left to reflect the new popular mood: no return to the privations of the Dirty Thirties. Government had shown that it could mobilize the nation for war, went the thinking, so why not mobilize for postwar prosperity and security? The hot political issues in June, 1944, reflected that feeling: Prime Minister William Lyon
Mackenzie King’s plans to introduce a bill later in the summer to bring in the family allowance, and the victory nine days after D-Day of Tommy Douglas’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Saskatchewan—the first socialist government in North America.
Women were at the forefront of change. They poured into the labor force as never before: from nearly one out of four paid workers in 1939, they formed one out of three by the time of D-Day. Fifty thousand enlisted in the women’s branches of the Army, Navy and Air Force—and more than half a million more took civilian jobs to replace the men in uniform. Some—the ones who made bombs and tanks and warships—were Canada’s equivalent of the American archetype Rosie the Riveter. Others drove buses, filled the factories, harvested crops or made flares. They earned more money than ever before and shed their dresses for grease-stained overalls, but advertisers kept reminding them to “stay feminine.” A typical ad for Palmolive soap in The Globe and Mail at the time pictured a woman in work clothes with a kerchief over her hair, hard at work as a welder and declaring: “I’m doing a man’s job, but I’m still a woman on the surface!”
In fact, the worries about women at work went far beyond damage to their complexions. Military authorities were alarmed about what they called a “whispering campaign” that suggested that women in the armed forces and those left behind without their husbands might be corrupted—or corrupt men. Maclean’s, among others, ran long articles warning about a rise in “the No. 1 saboteur”—venereal disease (300,000 cases of syphilis were reported in 1944). The government propaganda mill got out the warning in other ways, as well. Under the headline “My wartime morals,” an article in a fan magazine written by movie star Bonita Granville warned: “I suspect it’s only normal for a girl to be tempted to forsake her chastity at one time or an-
other. Especially in these times when life is uncertain. More especially still if the boy is in uniform and likely to depart any day____Our salvation, however, lies solely
within us, in a hard-boiled code of military morals.” Women were expected to help the war effort—but there were plainly many doubts about the wisdom of letting them out of the kitchen.
Canadians on the home front did their part in many ways. They grew their own vegetables in “victory gardens,” salvaged scrap metal and rubber and made their own clothes from strictly rationed cloth.
Silk and nylon were in short supply, so women painted their legs, with a new product called Velva leg film designed to make it look as if they were wearing stockings. Government ads advised on ways to recycle some unlikely materials— including metal toothpaste tubes and cooking fat from which glycerine for high explosives could be extracted. Many of the good things in life were rationed, including liquor (one 26-ounce bottle per person per month, in most provinces), beer, sugar, coffee, tea, butter, gasoline and tires for cars. Most of the restrictions were overseen by the powerful Wartime Prices and Trade Board, one of the new agencies that extended the reach of the state into every area of life. But, as ever, people found ways around the rules.
Newspapers printed cooking tips for desserts that needed little sugar, and a
flourishing black market in booze sprang up.
The war promoted Canadian nationalism in small, as well as big, ways. In 1941, Ottawa had banned the importing of American comic books as “nonessential goods,” part of its campaign to direct as many resources as possible to the war effort. Canadian publishers jumped in to fill the gap, producing a flood of homegrown replacements that were nicknamed “Canadian whites” because they were printed without scarce colored inks. They included Dixon of the Mounted, Derek of Bras d’Or (featuring a giant from Cape Breton), Spy Smasher and the legendary Johnny Canuck, the quin-
tessential Canadian hero who battled Nazis around the world. On radio, too, there was a burst of new Canadian material, including such programs as Arsenal of Democracy, Carry on Canada and Borden’s Canadian Cavalcade. Canadians gathered round their radios for a nightly ritual: the 10 o’clock CBC news, with Lome Greene introducing war bulletins from star reporters like Matthew Halton and Marcel Ouimet.
There were divisions, too, beneath the facade of wartime unity. The families of the volunteers overseas resented conscript soldiers who served only in Canada, contemptuously nicknaming them “zombies.” And many English-Canadians were angered by Quebec’s marked lack of enthusiasm for the war. King carefully avoided exacerbating that
tension for most of the war, but D-Day produced another call for troop reinforcements in Europe. By November of 1944, the Prime Minister finally decided to send conscripts to fight abroad— prompting protests in Quebec.
Other tensions burst into the open just two days before D-Day. On Sunday, June 4, downtown Montreal was swept by riots involving hundreds of sailors and so-called zoot-suiters. The zoot-suiters dressed in bizarre baggy outfits with jackets that went down to the knee, huge bow ties and wide-brimmed hats. Their clothes were bright yellow, red and green—a slap in the face both to civilians fed up with dowdy wartime fashions and to servicemen who accused them of shirking war duty. Four hundred sailors chased the zoot-suiters through the dance halls and cafés of Ste-Catherine Street, beating them and stripping them of their gaudy costumes. Scores of zoot-suiters were left almost naked—representative, as the Globe reported the next day, “of all the city’s polyglot races.”
Less spectacular but more enduring was the social legacy that was being created at the time of D-Day. King had become acutely aware of the widespread demand for social justice and the fear of a return to the hard times of the 1930s. At first, he questioned the wisdom of increasing social benefits.
But political calculations soon took over: King was determined that his Liberals stay in tune with the popular mood and not lose support to the ascendant forces of the socialist CCF. In January, 1944, his government’s throne speech set out a series of what were then radical proposals: minimum guarantees of so-
cial security, better housing, health insurance and new government departments like national health and welfare to oversee it all. But the first item on his agenda was the family allowance. Conservatives attacked the idea on the grounds that it would favor large families in Quebec, where support for the war was weakest, but King correctly sensed the hunger for guaranteed social benefits—especially among women. Parliament approved the plan in August, to go into effect the following year with payments starting at $5 a month. It was a key part of the foundation of a new postwar Canada that the men in France were fighting for. □
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