The Canada that emerged from the Second World War in 1945 was far stronger, more mature and more self-confident than the nation that entered the conflict in 1939. That profound transformation is the subject of Victory 1945: Canadians from War to Peace, a new book by two of Canada’s best-known historians, Desmond Morton and J. L. Granatstein, from HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. The following essay is based on that book.




"Coming of age" means not that we had grown up but that we finally knew what we wanted to do with our lives. Whether we

were right or wrong in our choices, Canada came of age in 1945. It was the year the Second World War ended. In April, some Canadians went to San Francisco and came to be known as the “helpful fixers” who assisted in founding the United Nations. A year before, we had agreed that every child, rich or poor, was worth supporting, and in July, 1945, Ottawa mailed out its first baby bonus cheques. In Windsor, Ont., that December, a long, bitter strike ended with a unique Canadian compromise that left workers supporting their unions but not necessarily in love with them—or their bosses.

Nineteen forty-five was the year when Canadians began to learn that, for the first time, most of them could live comfortably. In Halifax’s VE-Day riots, while sailors smashed windows and got drunk, civilians ransacked the stores, certain they had to grab while the grabbing was good. But their fear was unfounded. Until 1945, every census had found that most Canadians were poor. By 1951, most were striving for the mid-

dle class and their share was increasing. Wilfrid Laurier University historian Terry Copp has one explanation: for a working-class family with four or five children, the baby bonus was an extra week’s wages each month. Unionized wages and job security made an even bigger difference. Millions of families escaped from the poverty trap.

The Second World War was the worst disaster in human memory—but not in Canada or the United States. With the conspicuous exception of the million men and women who served in the conflict, especially those who died or who returned maimed in mind or body, Canadians did well out of the war.

In 1945, on the whole, good triumphed over evil. No one could argue that the Soviet Union’s Stalin was a defender of freedom, democracy and the rights of small nations. But the struggle between democracy and fascism was, quite literally, a struggle between light and darkness. For centuries, nations had invaded their neighbors with cruelty and without provocation, but behind Hitler’s steel-helmeted legions rode an army of bureaucrats with plans and orders to exploit the conquered people for Germany’s Nazi elite. Close behind the soldiers came the Gestapo and the SS extermination squads, with orders to rid Europe of those the Nazis decreed to be subhuman— Jews, gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally disturbed. Initially, the squads merely shot their victims. When that proved inefficient, Nazi officials ordered more concentration camps, and gas chambers. Men, women and children were crammed in until the weak vanished underfoot, only to be asphyxiated. Giant gas ovens destroyed the corpses, Nazi engineers devised ingenious ways to collect gold fillings from calcified corpses and to stop grease from the bodies from dousing the burners. Was this a regime with which Canada could have lived in peace?


Was peace possible with an Imperial Japan? After its troops had destroyed their enemies and imprisoned survivors (including 1,500 Canadians) in bestial conditions, the killing went on. For its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” Japan slaughtered millions of Chinese, Filipinos and other Asians. This was no war of liberation, but an imperial conquest as cruel and arrogant as any in recorded history.

Half a century later, revisionists revel in making the winners look like losers. We don’t agree. If ever a war had to be won, it was the Second World War. No one, winner or loser, fights a war with clean hands, perfect foresight and a balanced sense of justice. Even a good war has terrible moments, such as the fire storms of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, and the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the unexpected collateral horror of radiation sickness. But had we lost the war, what other horrors would the world have known?

For soldiers, sailors and airmen from Canada, 1945 included some very tough times. Who, after all, wanted to be the last to die in a winning cause? Thousands of young Canadians did die in the final stages, most of them in the terrible winter battle to break into the German Rhineland. Some perished when their armored carriers sank like stones in the flooded Waal River, more in the desperate fight to clear the Reichswald and Hochwald forests. Other young Canadians died in the air, shot down in their Lancaster bombers by fierce anti-aircraft fire or Luftwaffe night fighters. Acoustic torpedoes sank two minesweepers, with most of their crews, in the Halifax approaches. The men and women of Canada’s navy, army and air force were tired in 1945, bitter that the war had dragged through another winter—and as valiant and sacrificial as they had ever been.

That winter, few recognized that Canada had, on the whole, experienced a good war. In 1945, Canada was richer, more powerful, more outwardlooking than anyone in 1939 could have imagined. Wartime taught most Canadians what they could accomplish as a people when they worked together, and memory of that lesson would last for at least a decade. Of course, it was not good for everyone. A wiser people would have found better ways to spend $13 billion than on tanks, bombers and artillery shells and on putting a million people into uniform. In all, 42,042 Canadians died and another 54,414 suffered wounds in action, and more than 9,000 spent time as prisoners of war. Many lost limbs, suffered hideous disfigurement or came home hopelessly damaged in mind or body. The war was a tragedy for more than 21,000 Japanese-Canadians, though their dispersion across Canada enriched the country and conveyed the most effective lesson Canadians ever received on their old and evil habit of racism.

When war had arrived on Sept. 10, 1939, Canada was still trapped in the Great Depression. Close to a quarter of Canadian families had humiliated themselves according to the requirements of the time to qualify for pogey. Even meagre relief payments bankrupted municipalities and provinces and doubled the national debt.

Canada tried to protect jobs by raising tariff walls—and watched whole industries collapse for the lack of export markets.

Drought and grasshoppers devastated Prairie farming. In a re-

gion that called itself “the world’s breadbasket,” people starved. Later, economists claimed that, after 1933, profits and dividends gradually climbed back to 1929 levels. In 1939, however, one person in she was still out of work, and the first good crop since 1930 simply encouraged bankers to foreclose.

The war transformed Canada. The gross national product, the measure of all the goods and services Canadians produced, surpassed $11 billion in 1945, double the prewar level. Canadian factories rolled out tanks, naval guns, radar sets and huge four-engined Lancaster bombers. Shipyard workers on both coasts and the Great Lakes built merchant ships, corvettes, even sophisticated

Canada’s wartime wealth became a catalyst for equally dramatic changes in our social structure. The gospel of laissez-faire had survived the 1930s intact. Indeed, an emerging class of business leaders urged a new ruthlessness. If they had prospered, they reasoned, all the more justification for blaming society’s losers for their own fate. Such notions did not die, but they paled in the ultimate struggle of war. To survive, Canada needed its citizens to make sacrifices, even of life itself. To mobilize its strength, Canada had to offer Canadians a finer vision than a return to 1939.

In 1940, when Canada finally adopted unemployment insurance, nobody needed it: everyone had a job. The UI fund could build up reserves for the expected postwar crisis. As union membership grew in numbers and militancy, labor leaders shrewdly sought long-term legal protection over short-term wage gains. In February, 1944, the federal cabinet passed an order-in-council, PC 1003, which guaranteed employees the right to organize, bargain collectively, present grievances and strike—rights that would last beyond the war.

Tribal-class destroyers. There was work—and unlimited overtime— for all who wanted it. Farmers and fishermen could sell anything they brought to market. The Allied war effort needed everything Canada could produce and some things, like synthetic rubber, that only wartime ingenuity could create. For decades, Canadians had known that children made many families poor, but when could Canada ever afford a solution? The answer: 1945. Although bigots raged that family allowances favored Roman Catholics and Quebecers, Parliament voted to put a monthly payment for each child in each mother’s purse, at a cost of $250 million a year—almost half of Canada’s spending in 1939.

Unlike returned soldiers in 1919 who were told to land on their own two feet, veterans in 1945 came home to the richest re-establishment package in the world. The Veterans’ Charter promised free university and technical training, a generous gratuity and credits to buy anything from a refrigerator to a home or a small business. The money did more than help those who had served Canada; it saved the economy from a postwar slump.

In 1945, many Canadians feared a new depression

when the munitions plants closed and hundreds of thousands of service members landed in Civvy Street. Unlike in 1930, however, Ottawa now believed it was responsible for Canadians and their well-being. Campaigning for re-election on June 11,1945, William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberals promised a “New Social Order.” The Liberals won, the wartime boom passed into peacetime, and Canada continued the longest sustained period of prosperity it had ever known.

The Canada that had gone to war in 1939 was a fully sovereign nation, an autonomous member of the British Commonwealth. But in fact, Canadians were psychological colonials. Ties to Britain, not hatred of Hitler, took Canada into the struggle. The war changed everything. Canada’s astonishing economic effort laid the groundwork. Added to Allied military power, our immense industrial and agricultural contribution to the war effort forced the great powers to listen when Canada spoke. And at last Canada had something to say.

Represented by some of the ablest diplomats ever assembled to serve their country, the government used the nation’s influence carefully. We left grand strategy to the great powers; long-term economic issues were what mattered to us. When, for example, the British and Americans created a Combined Food Board to allocate supplies, Canada demanded a place. When the British balked, Ottawa threatened retaliation. We got our seat. When Canada filled the functions of a major power, said Mackenzie King, we wanted a share in the decision-making. When it came to food and raw materials, relief supplies for liberated nations, even the regulation of civil aviation, we insisted.


At the United Nations’ founding conference in San Francisco in the spring of 1945, Canadian diplomat Lester Pearson organized behind the scenes, giving smaller countries a stronger voice in the General Assembly and other UN bodies while manoeuvring to make sure that no major power got so angry that it walked out. A noisy Australian delegation got the praise; quieter Canadians got most of the results we wanted.

There was one wartime situation that made Canadians nervous. Generations of leaders had tried to keep us balanced between British and American power. As early as 1940, that age had ebbed. At Ogdensburg in upstate New York in August that year, wartime necessity had persuaded the government and the United States to strike the first defence alliance in either country’s history. In 1941, King and Franklin Roosevelt signed the Hyde Park Agreement, an arrangement that integrated the two wartime economies. Soon after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December that year, the Americans moved north to build bases and a highway from Edmonton to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Wartime experience told Ottawa that relations with Washington had to be handled with care. The task was made no easier by concerns about Canada’s other big neighbor, the Soviet Union. On Sept. 5, 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, defected with documents identifying Soviet spy networks in Canada. As Soviet armies tightened Moscow’s grip on Eastern Europe and Moscow tried to forge a security ring around the Soviet frontiers, Canada began to be aware of the first real military threat to North America in a century. There could be no return to the prewar days when a few million dollars paid for untrained reserves and a few thousand regulars. By 1948, the country that had feared commitments and condemned collective security was pressing the nations of the North Atlantic into a treaty that linked them in a common system of defence. The war had taught Canadians a lesson: unpreparedness and weak resolve benefit none but aggressor states and unprincipled dictators.

Until the war, most Canadians had felt poor, with much of the meanness that poverty usually induces. They often knew little beyond the communities that were generally small, homogeneous and exclusive. There was scant tolerance for Jews or blacks or those with “different” attitudes or beliefs. Minorities did not have to be visible to suffer the lash of discrimination: French-Canadians, Catholics, Ukrainians felt it whenever they ventured beyond the places where they were a majority. Even the wealthy in the midst of poverty were more socially conservative and afraid of change than their affluent descendants.

Affluence offered Canadians and immigrants alike a new social and physical mobility. An automotive industry that helped put most of the British army on wheels could supply almost every Canadian family with a car. Be it a new model or an old clunker, it carried families from inner-city slums to the new suburbs of Scarborough, the South Shore and Burnaby, where home ownership and a new middle class and consumer-driven conformity awaited. Canada loosened up, lightened up and became a kinder, gentler place.

Affluence took away some of the bitterness of life’s struggle. There was racism in 1945, as there had been in 1935 and there is still in 1995. But, for the first time, it seemed shameful in polite company. How could anyone who fought in Italy or Holland think of fellow Canadians as less than human? It would take years to change habits and laws but, even by the end of 1946, Ottawa had begun to see that sending the once-hated Japanese-Canadians back to Japan would exact a political price. In 1945, Saskatchewan and Ontario passed human-rights laws that banned racial discrimination in hiring and

hotel accommodation. The wartime sacrifices by Canadians of

every ethnic origin inspired a young Liberal, Paul

Martin, to establish a distinct Canadian

citizenship. The undermining of grosser forms of prejudice benefited the flood of postwar immigrants who reached Canada’s shores from Europe. Eventually, even the old barriers to nonwhite immigrants would fall.

The war left uncounted costs. A Van Doo platoon commander, killed by a Teller mine, might have found a cure for cancer. An air gunner, shot down over the Ruhr, might have written the great Canadian novel. A young seaman on a torpedoed corvette might have led us to a betlife. Children grew up without fathers;

how many more were never bom? Who can measure the psychological agony of those who served and those who waited at home for their return? Men and women, not frozen statistics, paid a terrible price for a better Canada. We who live off the winnings must remember those who paid in full for all we gained. It makes those gains even more worth defending. □