Contested Terrain: Resistance to Military Training in Canadian Schools

Uniformed youth. From cover of Canandian Publication Everywoman's World, July 1917

Uniformed youth. From cover of Canandian Publication Everywoman’s World, July 1917

By Jamie Swift

Back in the early thirties, memories of what was then still called the Great War’s unspeakable carnage were fresh in Canadian minds. The peace movement was successfully lobbying against military training for schoolboys. “Cadets” marched up and down, turning playgrounds into parade grounds.

The country’s leading anti-cadet activist was Agnes Macphail, the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons. The former rural schoolteacher’s opposition to what she called the “tinpot jingoism” of military training fit right in to her opposition to flogging of prisoners in jail and students in school. Macphail argued that such instruction promoted martial values of obedience to authority and training children for war.

Of course, cadet training had brigades of supporters. They argued that a stiff dose of military discipline would turn boys into men, instilling patriotic and military values.

The debates had started soon after one of Canada’s richest men, the ardent imperialist Sir Donald Gordon Smith (Bank of Montreal, Canadian Pacific Railway, Hudon’s Bay Company), decided in 1909 to spend half a million dollars to endow an organization to boost military training in schools. Smith named the Strathcona Trust after himself, using his aristocratic title Lord Strathcona

Opposition to school-based cadet training came from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, from historic “peace churches” like the Quakers and the Fellowship of Reconciliation and from trade unions.

During the 1920s cadet training was a firm fixture in high schools. One Liberal parliamentarian told Macphail, a native of Ontario’s Grey County, to “go back to Russia.” An Anglican cleric railed against “the pacifist tendencies of a few fussy women.” The Orange Lodge denounced wavering school trustees who might abandon the cadets. They were in danger of being “swerved from their plain path of duty by the propaganda of a few effeminate and pacifist organizations.” Cadet training was seen as a solution to the “boy problem” (juvenile delinquency and so on) and even as a way of improving posture by curing “slouchiness.”

This changed during the 1930s when the depression torpedoed all the drilling and march and shooting. Ottawa removed its subsidies. The Trades and Labour Congress annual brief to Cabinet promoted schooling that would “confine the training of our boys along lines that will inculcate ideas of peace not of war.” At a time when Canadians were literally going hungry, the labour movement made its priorities clear. “Many children are not receiving sufficient food to keep their bodies nourished…and all the military training in the world will not make up for lack of wholesome food.”

While the cadets made up some lost ground during WW II, the controversy resumed with the Cold War, with the CCF attacking Ontario’s cadet-boosting Drew government for “glamourizing war” and suggesting the “Drew cadets” as “the first step to fascism.” Cadet training, critics argued, encouraged “blind obedience to command.” Hardly the stuff of democratic citizenship.

Toady’s Saskatchewan controversy over subsidized military training in schools is another chapter in the ongoing story of Canada’s peace movement and its resistance to the militarization of education. To hear both sides of the vigorous public debate, listen to Florence Stratton of PeaceQuest Regina on a national radio broadcast, the CBC’s The 180. A retired military officer who equates the military with freedom offers a rebuttal.


The historical background on the cadet issue is taken from Cynthia Comacchio, “Challenging Strathcona: The Cadet Training Controversy in English Canada, 1920-1950,” in Campbell, Lara et al, eds., Worth Fighting For: Canada’s Tradition of War Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror, Toronto, Between The Lines, 2015. Dr. Comacchio is an historian of children, youth and families. Dr. Campbell will be speaking at a PeaceQuest Plenary in Kingston on June 4. Watch for details.