Every November, we pause to remember the many who answered the call of duty and those who paid the ultimate price for the freedom of others.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II. Indeed, on September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Within days, on September 3, when Germany did not comply with the ultimatums set by France and England, both countries declared war on Germany. On that same day, Germany torpedoed and sank the passenger liner SS Athenia headed to Montreal, killing 117 civilian passengers and crew members, making the war’s first Canadian victim: Hanna Baird.
As much of the world stood by watching, on September 10, 1939, for the first (and thankfully only) time in our history, Canada declared war on another country. This decision and the sacrifice which followed marked the coming of age of our nation.
Indeed, our participation in the First World War was different. Canada, at the time still a Dominion, was automatically dragged into war with the rest of the British Empire. In 1939, having become a self-governing and sovereign state with the passing of the 1931 Statute of Westminster, our Parliament was called upon to decide on its own whether it would sacrifice the peace and safety of those at home to defend freedom and democracy aboard.
Raging debate in the House of commons
And so, on September 7, less than a week after Germany invaded Poland, and a mere 4 days after Britain and France declared war on Germany, Parliament was urgently summoned for a “Special War Session”. The debate (which you can read here in its entirety) raged on for 3 days, late into the night and even into the weekend. The economy was not doing well and Canada vividly remembered the conscription and the 61,000 Canadian deaths of the first world conflict.
Maxime Raymond (the Beauharnois-Laprairie MP) broke liberal ranks, speaking the minds of many, urging for friendly neutrality and a focus on our own borders:
And now a new war breaks out in Europe, far, far away from us, at a time where I am still crushed under the burden of taxation to pay for the first war; and, as in 1914, I am told that I must participate in it because one must defend democracy and liberty, while I notice that my neighbors, the United States, an American and democratic country like mine, and all the other countries of America, as well as Ireland, a member of the British commonwealth, and all the democratic countries of Europe like Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium and others, remain neutral.
… None can predict how long the war will last, but it is possible to foresee that it will be a long drawn-out struggle, a bloody and exhausting conflict… Should we enter the maelstrom, only God knows when we shall emerge, and how badly hurt we shall be! And for the second time, we shall be ruined after giving up our lives for others.
MacKenzie King, who was not known to be a passionate or charismatic speaker, understood the gravity of the moment and spoke words, which he acknowledged would be remembered and judged by history:
When it comes to a fight between good and evil, when the evil forces of the world are let loose upon mankind, are those of us […] who have reflected with reverence upon the supreme sacrifice that was made for the well-being of mankind going to allow evil forces to triumph without, if necessary, opposing them by our very lives? […] The forces of good and the forces of evil […] are locked in mortal combat, and if we do not destroy what is evil, it is going to destroy all that there is of good.
Nearly every Canadian province telegraphed Ottawa, to convey their unwavering support to the war efforts. As early as September 2 [even before England and France declared war on Germany], Saskatchewan was the first to offer its “sincere and wholehearted cooperation… and undivided support … in any action that may be authorized by the parliament of Canada”. On September 5, Ontario offered “every cooperation” and the use of “provincial buildings, lands and any other asset that you might require, including our entire provincial air service”.
When the time to vote came, the National Resource Mobilization Act was adopted nearly unanimously, with a single dissenting vote, from J.S. Woodsworth, a Methodist Minister from Winnipeg Centre, and leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the ancestor of the NDP.
Canada is unprepared for war
The reality is that Canada was unprepared for war. The regular army of 4,500 men, augmented by a partly-trained reserve force, possessed virtually no modern equipment. The air force had fewer than 20 modern combat aircrafts, while the navy’s combat potential consisted of only six destroyers (the smallest class of ocean-worthy warship). For this reason, Canada’s commitment to the war efforts would consist primarily of supplying raw materials, foodstuffs, munition and training.
…At least, that was the plan…
Things changed drastically as early as the spring of 1940. Great Britain was pushed out of continental Europe and, one after the other, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France fell under Nazi occupation. Canada now stood at the forefront of war. It was, after Great Britain, the second strongest contingent opposing Germany. Indeed, the US would only enter the war two years after Canada, in December 1941.
“Conscription if necessary, not necessarily conscription”
Much of the Canadian and political debate at the time, centered around conscription. This same debate had divided the country 25 year earlier, when conscription became required during the First World War. MacKenzie King wanted to avoid the same divide. For this reason, he spoke of a limited liability war effort, offering resources, supplies and training rather than troops. Both MacKenzie King and the Conservative opposition pledged that there would be no conscription.
As the war dragged on and as countries fell under Nazi occupation, the emphasis on supply gave way to a focus on combat forces, but only involving those who voluntarily signed up for combat.
MacKenzie King’s “no conscription” policy was eventually modified in 1940, when the government introduced conscription for home defense. Still MacKenzie King maintained that no conscripts would be sent overseas. This too would need to be revisited in 1942 when MacKenzie King called a national plebiscite, asking Canadians to release him from his earlier pledge not to impose conscription. Once more, Canadian courageously answered the call of duty: nearly two thirds of them agreed with MacKenzie King and supported compulsory services.
Canada’s contribution to war
All in all, over 1.1 Million Canadians and Newfoundlanders, nearly 10% of the population at the time, served in the military. They were key allies and suffered immeasurable casualties in the battles of Hong Kong, Dieppe, Atlantic, Normandy, Sicily, Ortona and many more. Canadians played a vital role in the liberation of Belgium and, naturally, are credited with the liberation of the Netherlands through the battles of the Scheldt and Arnhem.
In total, 42,000 Canadians were killed and another 55,000 were wounded. Of those who lost their lives in battle, only 69 were conscripts, meaning that every single other Canadian who died in this conflict was a volunteer.
Lasting effects on Canada
After the war, Canada returned home a changed country. It was a nation of its own, respected around the world, capable of standing its ground and of extraordinary resilience in the face of evil but also known for its empathy and peace making abilities.
At home, Canada implemented social welfare, universal health care, old age pensions and veteran pensions. In 1947, Canada adopted its first nationality law recognizing our people, not as British Citizens but, as Canadians. In 1957, Canada is also credited for having saved the world (no less) when Lester B. Pearson solved the Suez crisis by proposing the idea of setting up a peacekeeping force (the UN’s blue berets). Canada has been involved in every peacekeeping mission since, with more than 125,000 Canadians having been deployed on such missions.
On this Remembrance month, let us acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of those who served their country. Let us also acknowledge our responsibility to work for peace.
Lest we forget.
If you have not done so already, consider supporting the Royal Canadian Legion by creating your own virtual poppy and dedicating it to someone you know or to those who served. You can create your own poppy by visiting www.mypoppy.ca or by clicking on the virtual poppy on this page (to the side or at the bottom of this post). Show your support by sharing your poppy on your social media.
Other Remembrance posts:
- Remembering the battle of Ortona (2016)
- Let us remember those who gave their today for our tomorrow (2017)
- 100 years later, the poppies still bloom (2018)