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If you win the wars at home, there’ll be no fighting anymore

Canadian Politics

Photo by Moyan Brenn

But the hardest thing I'll ask you, if you will only try
Is take your children by their hands and look into their eyes
And there you’ll see the answer you should have seen before

If you'll win the wars at home, there'll be no fighting anymore

- final verse of Phil Ochs’ “What Are You Fighting For?”

Remembrance Day is one of the few times each year when the public, the media and government agree upon the necessity of Canadians learning and cultivating a knowledge of history to help inform the decisions we make as individuals and as a society.

However, the political interests of certain sections of Canadian society have ensured that Remembrance Day events and TV specials have constructed some very dangerous myths about Canadian society.

One of the most pervasive and unquestioned myths is that the two world wars forged a united Canada as our soldiers defended freedom and democracy overseas.

This myth not only fails to acknowledge that World War One was, as many Canadians and veterans understood at the time, a horrendous bloodbath between European empires responsible for famines, genocides and unforgivable conquests around the world. Canadian elites and politicians took the country to war without a vote in parliament because the British Empire – responsible for millions of famine deaths in India and Ireland – went to war to defend “plucky little Belgium.” But even Belgium was an empire at the time, overseeing and profiting from their nightmarish and genocidal occupation of the Congo.

A unifying war for freedom and democracy clashes with the actual record of Canada during the wars. The real history of the wars proves quite conclusively that what rights and democracy we do have in Canada emerged from the struggles of workers, women, farmers, and immigrants against war profiteering, government collusion with big business, and widespread abuses of state power during the wars. The following is a brief survey of how the home front was the bloody battlefield in which our freedoms were defended and won through the struggles of ordinary people working together.

The War Between the Classes

During both wars the home front was marked by widespread hardship. Rationing of nearly all consumer goods was implemented. Real wages stagnated as rents and other costs of living climbed rapidly. Unemployment was wiped out through the war effort, but the welfare state did not exist. Even a simple program like workers compensation for injuries on the job had only been implemented in a few provinces by 1914, and Unemployment Insurance was only achieved in 1940. Struggles over wages became absolutely central to people’s daily lives.

Civilians were encouraged by relentless propaganda from the state and the right to police one another to prevent hoarding, black markets and even “aiding the enemy” through normal everyday gossip. Even before conscription existed in both wars, men who were perceived to be of military age were publicly shamed in the press, from the pulpit, and by politicians. There were even vigilante groups which tried to pin the white feather – a symbol of cowardice – on men who had not voluntarily enlisted. Nobody was immune from this culture of spying, fear and doubt fuelled by official war propaganda.

As millions lived through years of privation, war profiteering was rampant. Scandals erupted repeatedly exposing government collusion with big business. This was epitomized in the First World War by the infamous Ross Rifle debacle. Businessmen, federal ministers and top military officials conspired to profit by arming Canadian soldiers with the inferior Canadian-made Ross Rifle which jammed when it got wet or muddy. Lives were no doubt lost as a result and Canadian soldiers began to ditch their Ross Rifles and scrounge for the British Lee Enfield. Only after the scandal went public was the Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, dismissed from his post in late 1916.

With war profiteering rampant, the politically moderate Trades and Labour Congress (forerunner to the Canadian Labour Congress) threw its weight behind a campaign for the “Conscription of Wealth” which demanded the economic elite contribute to the war effort by sacrificing their enormous profits. Responding to popular pressure, the national coalition government of Robert Borden introduced a temporary income tax in 1917. That income tax turned out to be permanent. It was not the progressive form of taxation sought by Canada’s workers and labour movement.

The war brought economic hardship, political authoritarianism, enormous loss of life, the destruction of families, and the development of a pernicious pro-war culture of intimidation, fear and vigilantism. Conditions in Europe were much more grim than Canadians experienced but Canada, like other non-European warring nations, was caught up in an explosive international wave of anti-war and anti-government opposition. Beginning in 1916 and lasting into the early 1920s, Europe and much of the world was convulsed by mass mutinies, armed rebellions, general strikes, colonial rebellions and sweeping revolutions that toppled age-old empires.

Dissent in Canada initially took the form of a huge strike wave spanning 1917 to 1921. Most strikes centred on wages and union recognition as there existed no government social safety net and no laws requiring employers to recognize unions and bargain collectively. Workers also formed unions to gather dues which could be used to pay for doctors. Canadian healthcare in both wars was a privately-run system where profits and prestige came before people. Where workplace compensation legislation did not exist, money also had to be spent on suing employers for unsafe work conditions.

Workers also had to confront the armed wing of the state, which was routinely called upon to defend employers on the grounds that strike action hurt the war effort. This created the conditions in which labour disputes quickly escalated into major confrontations involving numerous workplaces and dividing entire cities.

Canada’s first general strike did not happen in Winnipeg, but in Vancouver in August 1918 when popular anti-war labour activist and socialist Ginger Goodwin was murdered by police. The Winnipeg General Strike erupted in May 1919. Few Canadians know that this was accompanied by general strikes in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, and the Nova Scotian manufacturing centre of Amherst. A short-lived general strike erupted in Toronto while Montreal’s powerful metal workers walked off the job. In all these strikes, veterans played a major role participating in the strikes, though some veterans also participated in strike-breaking forces.

The Winnipeg General Strike posed a real challenge to the economic and political order, and this is why repression was so high. Winnipeg’s strike committee was arrested, and its immigrant members deported to war-torn Europe. Pickets and protests were attacked by strikebreakers and police, resulting in injuries and death.

Workers struggles declined in the early 1920s, but they lasted in Cape Breton until 1925. Communist-led coal miners and steelworkers took on greedy, government-backed employers, such as the British Empire Steel and Coal Company which was the biggest corporation in Canada at the time. The Canadian army was called on more than one occasion to suppress the strikes. In the last all-out strike in 1925, a quarter of the entire Canadian army was stationed in Cape Breton to enforce Besco’s stranglehold and starve out the miners. During that strike on June 11 1925 miner William Davis was murdered by company police in a clash between strikers and the company.

The Second World War witnessed a very similar process in spite of no-strike pledges by the influential Communist Party on grounds that the war effort meant defending the Soviet Union (following Hitler’s invasion in June 1941). The workers’ movement was revived in late 1941 when gold miners in Kirkland Lake, Ontario struck for union recognition. The strike was defeated through cooperation between government and employer.

Galvanized by a pan-Canadian solidarity campaign for the gold miners, and building upon the lessons of the tumultuous 1930s, workers action escalated throughout the war. Wildcat strikes were widespread and with labour shortages and high production demands, workers began to make gains and build confidence. The rising strike wave compelled Mackenzie King to adopt Privy Council Order 1003 in 1944 which, for the first time, led the government to legally recognize unions and force employers to negotiate with unions.

Shortly after the war, a new system of Canadian industrial relations known as the “Rand Formula” was achieved through the militant 99-day Ford Windsor strike in late 1945 and backed up by the Hamilton Stelco strike in 1946. The right to form a union and bargain collectively was secured on the home front by workers action.

The War for Democracy

In both wars, opposition to state power and austerity on the home front led directly to major third-party breakthroughs across Canada. This explosion of democratic activism served to break the stifling two-party system in place since the early 1870s. Provincially-organized “United Farmer” and “Independent Labour” parties emerged from the grassroots late in the war and transformed elections across the country. Federally, the Progressive Party made up of the provincial United Farmer activists, became the official opposition. Provincial results were just as astounding.

In 1919, Ontario elected a coalition government led by the United Farmers of Ontario and supported by the Independent Labor Party. In 1920, Manitoba’s farmer and labour candidates won more seats than the Liberals who formed a minority government, and then went on to win the 1922 election. The United Farmers of Alberta took power in 1921. United Farmer and Independent Labour candidates formed the opposition in the 1920 Nova Scotia election, winning 11 of 48 seats and 30 percent of the vote. In Newfoundland, the Fisherman’s Protective Union led by William Coaker was the kingmaker, pulling the plug on the ruling People’s Party and running a joint campaign that brought the Liberal Reform Party to power in 1919.

Meanwhile, women’s organizations successfully fought for and won the vote in most of the provinces. Responding opportunistically to the grassroots feminist movement for democratic rights, the federal government introduced the vote to women serving overseas and wives of soldiers in order to win its pro-conscription election campaign of 1917. With women’s suffrage and the emergence of a multi-party system, it was popular pressure, that expanded the meaning, understanding and practice of democracy in Canada.

During the 1940s, Canadians were deeply committed to the necessity of defeating fascism but held deep reservations about the conduct of the war, especially with so much war profiteering and the government’s reversal on conscription. Opposition to the ruling federal Liberals mounted quickly after the 1940 federal election in which the Prime Minister promised not to introduce conscription.

First developed in the 1930s, polling was in its infancy during the war and extremely infrequent. In 1942, a federal Gallup poll rocked the country. It showed the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation leading both the Liberals and Conservatives, even amongst Canadian soldiers overseas. In subsequent elections, the CCF formed the opposition in BC in 1942, narrowly lost the Ontario election of 1943, and took power in Saskatchewan in 1944. The war even saw Communists elected provincially in Manitoba and Ontario, and federally in 1945.

As he had done in 1940 with the introduction of Unemployment Insurance, Prime Minister King tacked left on social and economic matters to counter the rise of a powerful labour movement now associated with a rising socialist party. The demands placed on King during the war by millions of Canadians was essential in securing the expansion of social, political and civil rights and the building blocks of the welfare state.

Challenging State Power

At the outset of both wars, people volunteered. There was no conscription. Prior to 1914, Canadians remained loyal to the idea of an all-volunteer military and many viewed conscription with suspicion. Conscription was a form of despotic power reserved for countries like Germany and Tsarist Russia. This attitude held up in 1914 as Canadians thought the war would be “over by Christmas”. Without even a vote in parliament, Canada loyally followed Britain into a war between European empires responsible for the brutal colonial conquests and famines in Africa, China, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The lack of a vote in parliament and the willingness of so many to side with the British Empire alienated many Quebeckers. Conscription would lead to a crisis in Canadian Confederation.

Casualties on the front escalated dramatically in 1915 and 1916. Volunteers had virtually dried up by 1916. This compelled the government to introduce conscription. Conscription would disproportionately target Quebec, which had very low volunteer rates.

To secure a mandate for conscription, Prime Minister Borden extended the franchise to soldiers and women serving overseas. He then ran an election in 1917 on the issue of conscription. Borden won the election handily but was almost entirely shut out of Quebec.

Opposition to conscription led to protests through early 1918, culminating in the Easter “riots” in which English Canadian soldiers opened fire on an unarmed crowd in Quebec City. Five were killed, including a child, and over a hundred were wounded.

In December 1918, conscripts mutinied in Victoria and refused to serve in the fourteen-nation effort to encircle and destroy the besieged revolution in Russia. The mutiny was put down but Canadian soldiers stationed in Russia saw little action. The soldiers occupying various Russian ports saw little interest in suppressing the Russian Revolution. Unlike the summer of 1914, people now understood that war was no longer about glory and adventure.

Conscription returned again in 1944 despite Prime Minister King claiming otherwise during the 1940 election campaign. A referendum was held in 1942, which again ignited major opposition in Quebec. The CCF and Communist Party supported conscription in the war against fascism. Protests happened again in Quebec.

In both wars, conscription proved largely pointless. Insignificant numbers of soldiers were drafted and even fewer served at the front. Conscription, however, served to divide the country and add new grievances to the old grievances held by Quebec’s majority, continually exposing the unequal union that is Confederation.

In addition to the civil liberties repealed through the use of the War Measures Act in both wars, the Canadian government targeted ethnic and racial groups labeled the enemy. Japanese-Canadians, the vast majority of whom were full Canadian citizens born in Canada, were taken from their homes mainly in British Columbia and sent to camps across Canada. Their homes, businesses, fishing fleets, and possessions were confiscated without compensation and never returned after the war. Fewer Canadians know this also happened immigrants from Germany, Italy, Hungary, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries during the First World War.

The claim that Canada was united by the war does not simply hold up. Divisions between Quebec and Canada became increasingly prominent in both wars. Class conflict escalated to unparalleled heights. Workers and farmers were central to the ushering in of a multi-party democracy in the First World War that, for the first time, saw women secure the vote.

A dramatic expansion of social and economic rights was achieved through workers struggles and the beginnings of the welfare state. Collusion between business and government in repealing fundamental freedoms, profiting from war production and suppressing popular movements through force was the crucible in which Canadians further democratized the political system and dramatically expanded our rights and freedoms.

Recovering this history means carrying on the struggle against the same foe: the Canadian economic and political elite that would sacrifice us for empire and profits.

Doug Nesbitt is a labour activist and is a co-editor of


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