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The Great War: A crime against humanity

Canadian Politics

“Victory Bonds Shorten The War—Help To Catch Huns” from Library and Archives Canada

As we are reminded nearly every day, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The orgy of propaganda glorifying that war coincides with Harper’s strategy of making our country more militaristic and authoritarian. World War I was one of the first great crimes against humanity of the bloody 20th century. One estimate is that, before the war ended in 1918, 67 million people had taken up arms in all the belligerent nations (O’Shea, 1996). More than 11 million of them were killed and nearly half the others wounded. This does not even take into account the millions of civilians who were collateral casualties of military actions or died of disease exacerbated by malnutrition in several of the belligerent nations. nor does it account for the related events like the Armenian expulsion and other ethnic cleansing operations, and the influenza epidemic which killed tens of millions at the end of the war.

Hundreds of books have been written about the diverse reasons for World War I. It was fundamentally a war about preserving and/or expanding empires. The propagandists of both sides had myriad reasons for rationalizing the conflict to their populations. The defense of national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national honour, liberty and democracy were among them. The propagandists of the side to which Canada was allied took to calling the war “the war to end all wars.” After President Woodrow Wilson led the Americans into the war on the Allied side in 1917, they took to calling it a war “for the self-determination of nations” or “the war to save the world for democracy.”

As a part of the British Empire, Canada was automatically at war once Britain entered the conflict. However, as a self-governing dominion the extent of participation would be up to the Canadian government. That government was all too eager to participate given that the Conservatives, the more pro-British of the two major parties, were in power. Much of the Canadian bourgeoisie was allied with British business interests and the English Canadian elite in general tended to be pro-British loyalists as did much of the Anglo population, many of whom were first or second generation British immigrants.

The country was enthusiastically mobilized for what most thought would be a short and victorious war. Of course the war would last for four bitter years and before it was over Canada, a country of fewer than eight million at the time, had mobilized over 600,000 people in the armed forces. Over 60,000 were killed and more than 170,000 were wounded. Many of the wounded and uncounted thousands of others no doubt suffered for the rest of their lives from what we today call PTSD.

Contemporary government apologists and like-minded individuals in the media and academia argue that Canada “came of age” as a sovereign nation because of our participation in the Great War. The great sacrifice and horrendous losses by Canadians in the war supposedly led the British to grant us independence in foreign policy and turn at least part of the old Empire into the Commonwealth of independent nations. In fact these events merely hastened the process by a few years at most. What changed a part of the old Empire into the Commonwealth was the fact that while Britain was on the winning side in the war, the country came out of the turmoil in a much weakened position economically. American capital exceeded British capital invested in Canada by the mid 1920s. The Canadian bourgeoisie was gradually shifting from being pro-British loyalists to pro-American continentalists.

The cruder apologists completely ignore history by claiming that the Great War was about “liberty” and “democracy” and against “tyranny.” in doing so they are merely following the arguments used by establishment opinion ever since 1918. To do otherwise would be to admit that they had sent thousands of young Canadians to their deaths to defend a declining empire.

That the war was not about “liberty” within Canada was clear from the beginning. The War Measures Act abrogated many normal constitutional guarantees and strict censorship became the order of the day. The northwest Mounted Police and the Dominion Police began hounding war critics. All of this was accompanied by a horrendous propaganda campaign depicting the enemy as subhuman savages and whipping the population into a patriotic frenzy. An example would be the city of Berlin, Ontario, changing its name to Kitchener after a British general. About 8,000 so-called “enemy aliens” (immigrants from the German Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire) were interned. The majority were Ukrainians, many of whom had fled ethnic prejudice in their old countries only to encounter the same prejudices in Canada.

Library and Archives Canada

A superficial reading of the English Canadian newspapers in 1914 and early 1915 might have convinced an observer that Canada was united behind the war effort. A more perceptive analysis would have revealed that there were important cracks in that unity, and those cracks would widen into a virtual chasm within the next three years. The majority of Québec Francophones were not enthusiastic about the war from the beginning. The majority of the Francophone political elite and the Catholic Church hierarchy were ambivalent, but went along with the war on the understanding that there would be no military conscription. The federal Liberal Party, which formed the Official Opposition and was led by Wilfred Laurier, who had been prime minister from 1896 to 1911, supported the war on the understanding that there would be no military conscription. Many Québec Liberal MPs were ambivalent about the war itself but went along with it for the sake of party unity.

In English Canada there was an ambivalence towards the war and opposition to conscription among a significant minority. The mainstream labour movement and the organized farmers went along with the war but opposed conscription. A minority among organized labour and farmers and the various small but growing socialist parties were against the war itself. There were also significant numbers of conscientious objectors and religious pacifists who opposed all war on principle. There were also, especially in the Prairie provinces, numerous immigrants from the German Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire who were not enthusiastic about the war for obvious reasons.

The way the war was fought in Europe and prosecuted at home guaranteed that political and social unrest would increase rapidly. In Europe the waste of lives was appalling and the casualties among Canadian soldiers so high that by late 1916 the ranks could not be replenished by volunteers. At home the Borden Conservative government was beset by controversy and scandals around deteriorating social conditions, price increases, war profiteering, defective military equipment, repression of dissenters and persecution of ethnic minorities.

By 1916 much of Québec and a significant minority in English Canada were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the war. There should have been an election in 1916 since the Borden government had been elected in 1911. Borden obtained the agreement of Laurier’s Liberals to extend the life of Parliament for one year with the understanding that there would be no military conscription. It was hoped that the war would be over in a year and the country faced a polarization over the issue.

A glimpse of events in 1919: Alberta newspaper, May 26, 1919, announces Edmonton general strike in solidarity with general strike in Winnipeg. The front page also expresses the bourgeoisie’s fear of the Russian Revolution.

The situation reached crisis proportions in 1917 with the war far from over and Borden under increasing pressure from the British and the war party at home to implement military conscription. Laurier’s Liberals could not possibly agree to another extension of a Parliament which would bring in conscription. Since an election on the issue would be a risky proposition for the Borden government, they devised a cynical scheme to grossly manipulate the electoral system and steal an election.

Borden’s scheme was spearheaded by the passage of the Wartime Elections Act and the Military Voters Act. The former disenfranchised conscientious objectors and “enemy aliens” who had been naturalized since 1902, and enfranchised the immediate female relatives of soldiers. The latter provided that armed services personnel overseas could vote in any constituency they chose, so military officers could channel their votes to defeat opposition candidates. Most of the disenfranchised were immigrants who had traditionally voted Liberal and the newly enfranchised could be expected to vote for conscription to supposedly end the war faster and bring the troops home. With these legislative tools in hand, Borden formed the so-called Union Government — a union of the Conservatives and prominent Liberals from English Canada dedicated to bringing in conscription and fighting an election on the issue.

In addition to co-opting much of English Canada’s Liberal leadership, the Borden government split the agrarian and labour movements which had both been opposed to military conscription. Borden appointed T.A. Crerar, Canadian Council of Agriculture President and the most important farm leader in the country, Minister of Agriculture in the Union Government. Crerar convinced the agrarian leadership to go along with this plan on the promise that farmers’ sons would not be conscripted on the grounds that they were needed to produce food for the war effort. The farm leaders sold this cynical deal to their organizations on the grounds that otherwise they would lose credibility with the patriotic public and their loyalty in a time of national crisis would reap economic dividends to the agricultural sector after the war.

Labour resists conscription

The Borden government took similar steps to attempt to co-opt the mainstream unions by appointing prominent trade union official Gideon Robertson to the Senate and making him Minister of Labour. Several trade union officials were also appointed to government boards. They were helped by the fact that all unions in the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC) were international affiliates of unions in the American Federation of Labour (AFL). The United States had entered the war in March 1917 and the AFL, led by the great class collaborationist Samuel Gompers, had declared full support for the war effort and military conscription. Gompers himself came to Canada to campaign for conscription and the conscription bill was introduced in the Canadian House of Commons on June 1, the same day conscription became law in the United States.

The TLC would prove to be much more difficult to “turn around” than their counterparts in the agrarian leadership. The TLC had been strongly opposed to conscription from the beginning and the main struggle was not whether to support conscription but how to oppose it. The “centre left” TLC leaders favoured conventional pressure group tactics like attempting to influence governments, politicians and voters at election time. The more radical advocated industrial action, the general strike and civil disobedience.

The debate around the issue would come to a head at the annual TLC convention of 1917. By the time the convention met in September, conscription was the law of the land and the Military Service Act, which empowered the government to implement it, also granted the authorities sweeping power to crack down on anyone hindering implementation of the Act. These coupled with the powers already contained in the War Measures Act made anti-conscription activity a risky proposition.

Despite the cards stacked against the radicals in the TLC, they put up a strong battle to oppose conscription by means of a general strike. The leadership won the battle by saying that general strikes and civil disobedience would threaten the legal existence of the trade union movement and that many of the unions could not strike anyway without the permission of international headquarters. Even so, the convention passed a resolution by a large majority, reaffirming TLC opposition to conscription in principle. The centre-left leadership retained control, but events over the next two years would polarize the TLC as they would much of the country.

Russian and German soldiers celebrate Brest-Litovsk Treaty. Signed on March 3, 1918, the Treaty pulled Soviet Russia out of the war. Photo posted on all-that-isinteresting. com.

Military conscription was implemented, accompanied by fierce opposition and considerable disorder in Québec and sections of English Canada. The federal election of December 1917, which was dubbed the “khaki election,” was held in an atmosphere of hysteria accompanied by growing manipulation and vigilante violence which the state did little to discourage. it was the most racist federal campaign in our history. The main protagonists pitted the union Government against the Laurier Liberals. Given the political atmosphere and the rigging of the electoral system, it was not surprising that the unionists won 153 seats to 82 for the Liberals. However, the extent of the opposition to conscription, even by those not disenfranchised, was evident by the fact that the Liberals won about 40% of the popular vote.

The polarization which had begun to grip the country became more pronounced from mid-1917 and did not abate for about three years. Thousands of people went into hiding to escape military conscription. In the year following the passage of the Military Services Act, about 4,000 people were arrested for anti-conscription activity. in the spring of 1918 there were anti-conscription riots in Québec City, some of them provoked by the excesses of the Dominion Police and soldiers running amok. Soldiers fired on crowds killing at least four people, one of whom was only 14 years old. Approximately 35 were wounded. it was after this that the Governor in Council was given the power to call out troops without a request from the civil authorities and declare martial law (Dyer, 2014).

In July 1918, Albert (Ginger) Goodwin, a past president of the BC Federation of Labour, was killed by the Dominion Police while hiding in the wilderness from the military draft. This provoked a one-day general strike throughout much of the province during which soldiers organized by city businessmen ransacked the Vancouver Labour Temple and badly beat two local labour leaders (Lipton, 1978; Palmer, 1983). Vigilante actions of this nature became all too common. They were seldom prosecuted and sometimes encouraged by state authorities and on occasion involved soldiers.

Resistance on the agrarian front and general military mutiny

On the agrarian front, the union Government double-crossed the farm leaders and began conscripting farmers’ sons during the spring seeding of 1918. This led to a “March on Ottawa” by the united Farmers of Ontario (UFO) and the united Farmers of Alberta (UFA), which led to a riot and conflict with police and soldiers on Parliament Hill.

The unrest and instability which began escalating in Canada in 1917 was an international phenomenon resulting from the declining credibility of the governing authorities. And the unrest in Canada was a pale reflection of the upheavals which beset many of the belligerent countries on both sides between 1917 and 1920. Much of the French army mutinied in the spring of 1917 and their criminally incompetent commanders had to mostly bide their time while they waited for the Americans to arrive at the Western Front in force. The Russian Czar was overthrown in early 1917 followed by the Bolshevik October Revolution, which withdrew Russia from the war and frightened the ruling classes of the entire capitalist world. The Western powers intervened on behalf of the old order which included an expeditionary force from Canada to fight in the Russian civil war. In Germany the Kaiser was overthrown and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were in the process of disintegration. For a time Communist revolutions appeared possible in Hungary and parts of Germany. Several European economies were on the verge of collapse. The prevalence of instability in much of Europe made the possibility of revolution on an international scale more likely than at any time since 1848.

The Bolshevik Revolution and related events appear to have made Canadian authorities more paranoid about the stability of the Canadian political economy. While a revolutionary upheaval appeared unlikely, they were worried about major industrial disruption and localized outbreaks of civil disobedience and especially among working-class European immigrants. They were also worried about the growth of a more powerful and militant labour movement regardless of whether it was revolutionary. Many officials blamed the unrest on agitation by organized revolutionary groups. Consequently the union Government appointed C.H. Cahan, a prominent corporation lawyer, to investigate conditions throughout the country and recommend a course of action.

Deteriorating social and economic conditions lead to “securitization”

Cahan talked to security and police officials, businessmen and provincial and municipal officials throughout the country. He concluded that, while there were considerable numbers of radical agitators, they were the symptoms rather than the causes of the unrest. The police could find no evidence of widespread revolutionary conspiracy. Cahan concluded that the unrest was due mainly to disillusionment with the war, the unpopularity of the federal government, deteriorating economic and social conditions, and “the growing belief that the union Government is failing to deal effectively with the financial, industrial and economic problems growing out of the war which are, perhaps, incapable of any early satisfactory solution” (Robin, 1968).

Since Cahan expected that the objective conditions and the resulting unrest would probably get worse before they got better, he recommended that the government crack down on left-wing radicals and especially among the immigrant community. The government responded by creating the Department of Public Safety and appointing Cahan the director (Robin, 1968). They then passed a new array of Orders in Council under the authority of the War Measures Act to provide for the following:

  • Additional restrictions on the right to strike
  • Prohibition of publication in 14 languages
  • Broadening the category of “enemy alien” to include immigrants from Russia and requiring that such people register with the authorities
  • Declaring 14 different organizations and parties to be illegal
  • Prohibiting the use of specified “foreign” languages at public meetings
  • Authorizing officials to declare any organization illegal.

All of this was accompanied by the expansion of the police presence and police spying on dissident organizations. Immigrants were targeted more than ever and the anti-foreign and anti-Bolshevik propaganda reached a new peak.

Historians of the period have difficulty determining whether the increased repression inhibited the development of a revolutionary consciousness or contributed to more working-class radicalization. Bryan Palmer thinks that the increased repression had both effects on immigrant working people. “Alien registration, prohibitions on movements and the freedom to possess firearms and to publish newspapers in foreign languages, forced labour, deportations, the banning of certain organizations, and private vigilante actions unpunished by the state confirmed the radical beliefs of many ethnic workers, at the same time that it drove less resilient immigrants into passivity” (Palmer, 1983).

The events of the last half of 1918 and throughout 1919 would prove that Cahan was certainly correct when he predicted that unrest would become more severe and widespread. More people had gone on strike than ever before in 1917, and the number would increase by more than 50 per cent in 1918 and triple by 1919. The number who walked out in 1919 was not only the largest up to that time but would not be exceeded until 1943.

The strikes in 1918 were not only larger and more frequent but some of them took on some of the characteristics of general strikes. A strike by civic workers in Winnipeg became a general strike of most civic workers before it was settled with the help of federal conciliation. The union won most of their demands. This encouraged militancy in Winnipeg and a strike among metal workers almost turned into a general strike before being settled by a compromise. A similar situation developed among civic and other workers in Edmonton which was settled by a compromise. A national railway strike was averted when the railway crafts worked out a compromise with the Borden government, which was imposed on the railways and the unions by order-in-council. The unrest was national in scope with local conflicts in almost every province.

What makes the situation more explosive is that economic and social grievances overlapped with the political issues emanating from the prosecution of the war. The TLC was caught in the middle of these conflicts and torn asunder from the intense controversies surrounding them. The AFL leadership collaborated totally with the American and Canadian authorities to support the war at all costs. In 1918 Samuel Gompers made additional forays into Canada for the purpose of keeping the TLC in line on questions relating to the war. On April 26, 1918, he was granted the honour of being the first labour leader invited to address the House of Commons. The purpose was to rally the TLC unions to support the war, which he described as “the most wonderful crusade ever entered into by men in the whole history of the world” (Lipton, 1978).

The AFL pressure, allied with the conservative interests already entrenched in many TLC unions, led to a rout of the radical left. In contrast to 1917, the votes at the 1918 convention followed a consistently conservative pattern. Motions calling for industrial unionism and militant opposition to government repression were all defeated. The centrist leadership also lost hegemony and was replaced by more thoroughly “business unionist” elements. Tom Moore, who personified this tendency, was now TLC president.

The TLC hierarchy may have become more conservative but the struggle continued without them. The year 1919 witnessed a showdown between capital and labour which had been building up since before World War I. Kealey and Palmer argue that increased working-class combativeness was a natural development arising out of the changing nature of capitalism and demographic and cultural developments within the Canadian working class (Kealey, 1986; Palmer, 1983). Events in the last two years of the war, the post-war depression, and the new international political culture after the war sharpened the class struggle. In Canada this led to an increased demand for industrial unions.

The radical dissidents who had been defeated at the 1918 TLC convention formed a caucus and organized what they called the Western Labour Conference to lay plans for the ideological struggle at the next convention. By the time the conference met in Calgary in March 1919, the whole labour and political situation in Canada had lurched to the left as it had in much of the world. Over 200 delegates attended and most were veterans of the labour movement, with many having held important positions in the unions and labour federations. The Conference had been endorsed by the trade union federations of BC and the three Prairie provinces. Among other resolutions the delegates called for a referendum on the advisability of a general strike if some of their demands were not met.

The most momentous decision of the conference was to abandon the TLC altogether and launch the One Big union (OBU). Plans were laid to hold referenda in as many unions as possible to leave the TLC and join the OBU. The One Big union was, as the name implied, envisaged as a vast industrial union that would organize anyone regardless of skill or trade. Industrial unionism was considered the only practical way to organize the new production industries, which were already important and were fast becoming the overwhelming means of production in Canada as elsewhere. The OBU was considered a potential threat to capital, the political status quo and the institutional structures of the TLC.

The organizational drive for the OBU had just nicely begun when the Winnipeg General Strike broke out on May 15 and would last until June 26. The General Strike was not initiated by the OBU, though they endorsed it when it occurred. It is not my intention to rehash the events of the Winnipeg General Strike. They have probably been studied more than any other episode in Canadian labour history, and the main outcome and significance of the strike will be familiar to most readers.

Suffice it to say that it was considered of great national importance by capital, labour and the state, as the great showdown which had been building up for several years. It was sparked by a demand for meaningful collective bargaining but became much more than that in the minds of the participants on both sides. In a sense it was a spontaneous working-class uprising, as about half of those who went out on strike were not even in unions. There were sporadic sympathy strikes in numerous localities (Kealey, 1986). The federal state authorities portrayed the strike as part of a revolutionary grab for power and insisted it be smashed as an object lesson on the futility of general strikes. The strike was smashed by the arrest and imprisonment of the leaders, the use of armed force by police “specials” organized by the employers, militia especially recruited for the occasion because the authorities did not trust the regular armed forces, and the ever-loyal north West Mounted Police. The anti-strike operation was directed mainly by the federal government.

The propaganda line adopted by the federal government and their supporters to justify the smashing of the strike was that it was a revolutionary conspiracy by the OBU and allied organizations and connected to “un-British” foreigners. This became a consistent “party line” espoused by government leaders in Parliament and in public speeches and repeated by most newspaper and corporate opinion makers. Military and police and judicial figures who did not normally engage in public political controversy joined in the fray, with Commissioner Perry of the RCMP being the most active in this regard. After the strike the authorities conducted a “show trial” of several of the arrested leaders. It was a further attempt to brand the OBU as revolutionary conspirator responsible for the strike. it was also an excuse to conduct cross-country raids on the offices of the OBU, the Socialist Party of Canada and others including the BC Federation of Labour.

The raids, supposedly to search for evidence of seditious conspiracy, had the added advantage of seizing files on a wholesale basis so as to intimidate activists and generally disrupt OBU and socialist organizational efforts. It has been estimated that about 200 such activists were arrested and many deported (Palmer, 1983).

Despite horrendous state harassment the OBU achieved considerable success for a couple of years. They are estimated to have peaked at about 50,000 in 1920. This would be short-lived and they were in serious decline by 1921, and reduced to a few isolated locals by 1922. Throughout this process AFL– TLC officialdom worked intensely with employers and the state to destroy the OBU (Jamieson, 1968). The OBU also suffered from internal disunity and tactical mistakes. Despite the smashing of the General Strike and the decline of the OBu, those few years of intensified class conflict left an important legacy. Industrial unionism was definitely the wave of the future, though it would take years to come to fruition. And a significant minority of working-class people would move left permanently.

WWI and permanent changes in Canada’s political economy

While World War I left an important legacy in the labour movement, the war and its aftermath also affected the broader political economy immediately and permanently. The two-party system was destroyed forever, and class and regional issues would play more important roles in our politics. The union Government unraveled. Thomas Crerar resigned from the government and took over the leadership of the national Progressive Party, an agrarian party in revolt against the old national Policy. Laurier died and the Liberal Party was reconstructed under the leadership of Mackenzie King. It was no accident that King was an acknowledged expert on labour-capital relations. Borden resigned as Conservative leader and was replaced by Arthur Meighen who had been the chief architect of government repression during and immediately after the war and especially during the Winnipeg General Strike. On the left several labour and socialist parties grew in strength and put down permanent roots. On the far left the Communist Party was formed in 1922 and, while they would not be electorally significant, would play a role in organizing trade unions and the unemployed, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The altered political situation was evident in pro-vincial politics with the election of the Farmer-Labour government in Ontario in 1919 and the united Farmers of Alberta in that province in 1921. Socialist and labour parties increased their representation in several provincial legislatures. In the Manitoba election of 1920 four of the main General Strike leaders were elected to the Legislature, including three who were still in prison.

The federal election of 1921 proved to be a major watershed in Canadian politics. Four parties were represented in the House of Commons with the Liberals winning the most seats and the Conservatives reduced temporarily to a third party. The agrarian national Progressive Party would temporarily be the second party though they would disintegrate in a few years. J.S. Woodsworth, of Winnipeg Strike fame, led a two-member caucus of the independent Labour Party (ILP) which would ally with left-wing agrarians and eventually become part of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Since 1921 there have always been at least three and sometimes as many as five parties represented in the House of Commons. There has also been at least one province and often several at a time governed by parties other than the Liberals or Conservatives.

Changes in labour–capital relations and the party system would have occurred eventually anyway, but were greatly hastened by the most terrible war the world had ever witnessed. Another change hastened by World War I was the achievement of women’s suffrage. Women entered the work force in much greater numbers than ever before during the war and thus added to the strength of the female suffrage movement, which achieved suffrage in several provinces and federally during and shortly after World War I. The first female MP was Agnes MacPhail who was elected by the UFO in the federal election of 1921. All of these changes in the political economy were more significant by far than Canada supposedly “coming into our own” as an independent country because of World War I. Canadian foreign policy, such as it was, had few features distinctive from the British and, after 1945, the American until at least the 1960s.

This article appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Canadian Dimension (The New Face of Canadian Militarism).


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