Left Behind

20030334-001How families of soldiers survived World War I 

When World War I began, the Canadian government decided to offer a separation allowance to families whose breadwinners were headed for the trenches. Although they saw the need for a program, they did not want to have to pay its full cost. Charity was their answer. The Canadian Patriotic Fund – or “the Patriotic” – was promoted to assist the families of soldiers and supplement the meager government program.

The Fund was led by wealthy volunteers, who had no national standards to follow. Instead decisions were arbitrary and , as it turned out, only a third of the soldiers’ wives who received the government allowance also got support from the Patriotic. Some working class women scorned charity. Some took in laundry, ran boarding houses, or did home sewing work.  Many were simply disqualified by the Patriotic Fund’s managers.

In Montreal, Fund volunteers carried out home visits in search of women who might be cheating the system. No one wanted to end up on their “Black and Doubtful List.”

A 1916 labour meeting at Edmonton’s Bijou Theatre heard that stenographers earning $15 a week were being pressured by their employers – boosters of the Patriotic Fund – to donate 5 per cent of their income to it.

A correspondent for the Edmonton newspaper, the Nutcracker, wrote  “(The Patriotic Fund) is a relic of barbarism. It reminds me of the old scheme, in the backwoods days, when a wagon went around among the neighbours picking up odds and ends for a family that had had the misfortune to get burned out. Here is a nation fighting for its life, and the support of the widows and orphans of the men who gave their lives – their all – is left to the cold and careless hand of charity.”

Neither charity not the federal government provided adequate support for families whose breadwinners were fighting in Europe. Throughout the war, poor families found themselves in desperate conditions and were sometimes simply abandoned. Here’s the story of Mrs. Jane Hill.

Mrs. Hill raised her family in Montreal’s St. Henri district, a working class neighbourhood. Her four sons had enlisted. Two had died. One was still overseas. The fourth was in hospital.

“As soon as our boys were dead,” she wrote painstakingly, “there pay was stopd. And we have been struglin on ever since with paying rent and buying wood to burn it is impossible to get enough to eat much less clothes to wear.”

A patriotic song about the war was called Keep the Home Fires Burning. It assumed that people at home could afford the fuel.