Reflections on A Country Shaped by War

Canada 1919; A Country Shaped by War

From Right: Pauline Lally, Margaret MacMIllan & friends at the Canadian War Museum.

Canada War Museum

Ottawa, ON – January 17-19, 2019

By Pauline Lally SP.

Recently I attended a conference at the Canadian War Museum entitled “Canada 1919: A Country Shaped by War.” Although PeaceQuest’s journey is in the process of wrapping up and distributing its assets to appropriate archives and peace networks, we really are not done with the Great War, nor is it done with us. 

About 200 historians, authors, professors, military buffs and common folk like me were in attendance. They were mostly from North America and Europe. It was a great opportunity to deepen my understanding of that conflict and its repercussions which continue to reverberate in Canada and around the world today. Much of the unrest in our world today can be attributed to the “Peace” that ended World War I or as noted historian Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian historian at the University of Oxford, entitles her book about that war – “The War That Ended Peace.”

The titles of the various sessions at the conference indicate the scope of the aftermath of the war.  First of all demobilization of the troops to come home was complex.  It was very difficult to move 350,000 people from a war zone in winter. Everyone wanted to get home immediately, but that was impossible.  So camps were set up for the troops-in-waiting. There, boredom, lack of information, rumours, growing frustration, riots –with five soldiers dead and twenty-three wounded – and unprotected sexual encounters seemed to be rampant. The latter caused a huge increase of venereal disease resulting in the return of infected soldiers with long term consequences.  It was like a “new battle zone.”  It took almost a year before all came home.  And, 66,000 Canadians didn’t come home at all.

The Great War profoundly changed Canada. 620,000 Canadian – volunteered or conscripted – were on the front for four years of struggle and sacrifice while millions supported them on the home front. But the impact of the war was felt long after the guns fell silent.

On the soldiers return Canada was faced with the monumental task of re-integrating 350,000 veterans.  (Canada at that time had a population of just over 8 million.) It had been estimated that at least 120,000 had returned with some form of war-related trauma.  In addition they brought home with them the flu that was epidemic and moved quickly through the population.  In attempting to halt the spread of the disease, many local governments shut down non-essential services. Provinces imposed quarantines and protective masks were required in public places. In the end it took the lives of about 50,000 Canadians. However, the epidemic did lead directly to the formation of the federal Department of Health in 1919 which lay the basis for the Canada Health Act.

The loss of so many Canadians had a profound social and economic impact on the country. The combined death toll significantly reduced the workforce. It left thousands of families without a primary wage earner and orphaned thousands of children.  War wounds are family wounds. Dr. Kristine Alexander of the University of Lethbridge read letters and compositions from children at that time.  In the study of this war these voices are seldom heard. Their valuable insights were sobering observations of private grief among public celebration.  Thus, she said, “Canada became a grown-up nation” as heartbroken families tried to keep a stiff upper lip.  I was able to share with her PeaceQuest’s attempt to address this issue with an illustrated children’s book on peace by award winning children’s author, Wally Edwards and our virtual museum and curriculum-based resource, “War and Children.”  This was of great interest to her.

With a nation wracked by sorrow, grief and anger, 1919 became a year of discord and radical change.  There had been widespread hope that that a new and better Canada would emerge from the ashes of war, but this soon turned to disillusionment.  The hard practicalities of a country mired in debt and doubt and fractured by the strains of war emerged instead. Jobs were scare.  Due to lack of transparency on the part of the government and military, veterans had to eventually mobilize and begin to campaign for veterans’’ bonuses and pensions. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Dr. Jefff Keshen from Wilfrid Laurier University spoke of the federal government in the First World War as in a tentative transformation. This presentation traced the ways in which the federal government expanded its powers and scope or activity during the war, and assessed the consequences of that process.  In some areas the suppression of basic liberties and the postwar reverberations, such as the continuing crusade to eradicate socialism, were profound. It was a recipe for trouble.  Labour was demanding legitimate collective bargaining nonviolently, but capital was taking a hard line. It set the stage for conflict.  Workers took huge risks as to which the Winnipeg strikes attest. When it came to economic intervention, the implementation of social policies, and the expansion of the government itself, wartime change, while significant, tended towards caution, with the long-term consequences being relatively muted.

War was a stern teacher. All at once the world had turned upside down. Democracy was threatened. Politicians were exhausted. Religious beliefs were shaken, many veterans felt short changed, labour suffered defeat, farmers movements fragmented, prohibition failed, opportunities for economic planning and social reform was lost, and minorities and First Nations were left out.

English Canada, in its laws and constitutional practices, was a miniature of its parent, Great Britain.  After the war, the country remained a half-way house between being a colony and a nation. We were a junior ally to a Common Cause. We were never Britain’s equal. There was too much Empire in Canada. The war changes Canada’s relationship with Britain, in some respects.  Canada asked for representation at the Paris peace talks at the end of the war; but became so only as a member of the British Empire delegation.  Nevertheless, Canada’s signature appeared on the final Treaty. However, the British Prime Minister ended up signing for the entire British Empire, thus diminishing the importance of Canadian Prime Minister Borden’s long-fought bid. Nonetheless, Canada’s fight and involvement in the Conference and Treaty reflected its emergence as an international personality in world affairs, an early major step towards Canadian autonomy. Dr. Norman Hillmer of Carleton University said, “Canadians are a middling people. Centrist in their politics, adept at compromise and at ease with ambiguity.”

Although 1919 was a year of discontent, much was accomplished and many reforms were made permanent – old age pensions were introduced, women were made citizens and gained the right to vote, and the Social Gospel, as a political movement, applied Christian ethics to social problems especially issues of social justice and poverty and labour unions.. Canada as an expansionist country was resilient and began to define a national identity retaining in the end its liberal democracy, pluralism, tolerance, social cohesion and optimism with a faith and hope for the future.

The situation facing Germany after the war was dire. Declared a republic in January, 1919, council governments began to spring up. Major cities were engaged in street battles between the militant right and left. The socialist party failed to protect the people; the working class was destroyed.  With the swing to the right, the depleted military was reluctant to put them down and there were many executions.  It seemed that peace brought more violence and turmoil.

Because most of the fighting had taken place in France, its farmland was rendered lethal. It was a country, with 600,000 widows and 760,000 children, in mourning.  The war had pushed the French people and the government to the limits. The victors were not much better off than the defeated.

There was a keynote address by Professor Catroina Pennell from the University of Exeter, UK who spoke of the Middle East situation. By the early 1920s the Ottoman Empire had collapsed as it was carved into nation-states by the victors, Britain and France, under the auspices of the League of Nations.  As masters of the Middle East, they determined the basic framework for Middle Eastern political life and laid the seeds of many of its still unsolved problems.

The Great War will not disappear.  It is part of Canada’s story.  It is part of many other countries’ story. Part of some of our immigrants’ and refugees’ stories. There is much to study, to be horrified by, to weep about and to admire.  Its impact is still felt. .At the end of the conference I thought politicians, historians, and the military brass need to gather together, listen and learn from one another.  World War I has still much to teach us. “Ignored problems were more serious than the war itself,” Michael Neiberg, Chair of War Studies at the United States War College told us at the closing baquet.

Peace is a necessary challenge that begins with lessons learned.

Pauline Lally, S.P.