** World War II -- Canada

World War II Country Trends: Canada

Figure 1.--The Dominions playeda very important part in the Allied war effort. Canada unlike Australia and New Zealand produced a lot of weapons for Britain. Like America and Britain, women played an important part in industrial production. While mothers were at work in factories, young children were looked after by Governement Daycare, the first to be created in Canada. Here we are looking at children being cared for by a woman working for "Women's Voluntary Service". The children are involved in occupational hobbies. They are cutting images from newspaper for pasting them on a large cardboard poster. The photograph shows a boy dressed like in the summer even if I believe it is in fall or winter. I suspect he will wear a snowsuit when going outdoors. Because these day care centers were often overheated, children commonly rolled down their long stockings. The little girl is wearing a kind of kilt with large suspenders. She also wears long stockings. Image coutesy of the Archives publiques DA 112751.

Canada loyally followed Britain into World War II. The controversy over conscription became a major political issue which impeded the Canadian war effort. French Canadians in particular were unenthusiastic about fighting in what they saw as a British war. Canadian ports and the Canadian Navy played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Royal Canadian Navy almost did not exist before the War and was rapidly expanded to a major naval force. The Canadians also hosted a major effort to train the air crews for the Strategic Bombing Campaign. Canadian industrial and agricultural production and raw materials were important to the British war effort. Some British children were sent to Canada for saftey early in the War, but this was discontinued when children were lost to U-boat attacks and the threat of NAZI invasion receeded. Canadian units were badly mauled at the poorly conceived Dieppe landings (August 1942). The Canadians played a major role in the D-Day, landing at Juno Beach. They went on to form an important part of Montgomery's First Army in the liberation of France and the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) and the final push into NAZI Germany.

World War I

Canada like America had no treaties with European countries. Canada was, however, not an independent country. Thus Britain's declaration of war on Germany meant that Canada was also at war. Germany's plan was a quick victory against France following the Schliffen Plan (August 1914). France's victory at the Marne meant that there would be no quick German victory. This gave the Allies time to marshal their resources and for Britain this included the resources of the Dominions. Britain declared war, but the Canadian Government controlled the level of participation. Canadians like Europeans were enthusiastic about the war. Few had a realistic idea of modern war. There were differences of opinions about the War. The most enthusiastic were those with the closest ties with Britain. This was especially true of recent immigrants with family in Britain. The least enthusiastic were French Canadians. Although France was the country most threatened, few French Canadians had family ties to France. Most saw it as a British war. Many English speaking Canadians volunteered. Few French-Canadiand did so. The Canadian recruits were trained at Valcartier, Qu�bec. Canada sent its first troops to Britain (October 3, 1914). The first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) totaled 32,000 men. Newfoundland which at the time was a separate British colony contributed 500 men. The CEF was deployed with the British on the Western Front in France and the small area of Belgium the Allies still held. The War by this time was settling into the terrible trench warfare for which it is known. The Canadian 1st Division fought its first major engagement suring the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium (April 15, 1915). It was here the Germans introduced poison gas. After months of grueling warfare, the Canadians fought on the Somme with the British (1916). The Canadians gradually expanded their force and totaled 4 divisions (October 1916). They were organized as the Canadian Corps and included four infantry divisions supported by artillery, cavalry, engineer, and auxiliary units. The Canadian Corps consuisted of about 80,000 men. The single most important Canadian operation of the War was the capture of Vimy Ridge (April 1917). The Canadians Corps was involved in a larger British offensive near Arras (April 1917). The Canadian were ordered to take 7-km long Vimy Ridge. It was part of the heavily fortied German trench system. It was the first operation conducted entirely by the Canandian Corps. The Canadians crossed no-man's land and stormed the German positions. Thgey took all most all of the German positions (April 9). The last two positions fell (April 12). The human cost in World war I battles was dreadful. The Canadians at Vemy Ridge lost 3,598 killed and over 7,000 wounded. Battlefield losses resulted in the need for more men on the Western front. Britain for the first time in its long history instituted conscription. The Canadian Government followed suit (1917). Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden belierced that the CEF could be based on volunteer recruitment. After receiving large numbers of voluntters (1914), but volunteers had declined substantially by the end of 1915. Primeminister Borden announced a plan to deploy 500,000 men overseas (January 1916). A force of this size could not be fielded on a volunteer basis. Canada at the time had a populatiion of only 8 million. The Government passed the Military Service Act (August 1917). French Canadians stronly opposed conscription for a war in which they did not believe. Other groups opposed conscription including farm and labor groups. The issue of conscription sharply divided Canadians.

The Great Depression (1930s)

The American stock market crash set off the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s. Canada was one of tge countries very severely affected. As in other countries, it was a major social and economic shock. Millions of Canadians were left unemployed, hungry and in to many cases homeless. Canada was one of the countries most sevely affected. This was primarily because Canada with its small population meaning small markt was dependent on export markets. This was the case for both its important agricultural sector and mining industries. The agricultural sector was also harmed by an extended drought. This was a norther extension of the American Dust Bowl. Industry was also harmed as people lost their jobs and could no longer buy consumer goods. As in the United States there were political and social conequences. The widespread need for assistance resulted in the adoption of government social welfare pograms, the appearance of populist political movements, and the adoption of a more active government role in the economy.

Prime-minister Mackenzie King

The Liberals won the General Election returinung Mackenzie King to power (1935). King unlike President Roosevelt did not appreciate the danger posed by Hitler and the NAZIs. This became apparent in the aftermath of Munich (September 1938). King oversaw Canada's entry into World War II. King who had built his political career in part on reservations about World War I and opposition to conscription found himself as Canad's war time leader. He developed a solid working relkationship with President Roosevelt and negotiated defense arrangements. Despite his opinions before the War, he proved to be an able war leader and eventually waged a campaign to introduce conscription. His major accomplishment was effectively mobilizing Canadian resources to support the Allied war effort. King's war leadership shares the same flaws on the Holocaust and Japanese internment. King lacked, however, an Elenor to question his jugements.

Declaration of War

Americans tend to see Pearl Harbor as the beginning of World War II. In fact the War came to North America in 1939. After the NAZIs invaded Poland, Britain declared war on Germany (September 3). Canada loyally if reluctantly followed Britain into World War II. This time it was not automatic. A declaration of war had to be approved by Parliament. The Government submitted the declaration and Parliament approved it (September 10). Canada almost immediately transported a division of the new Canadian Active Service Force to Britain. It remained in Britain and was not transported to the BEF in France.


Canada entered World War II reluctantly to support Britain (1939). Prime Minister Mackenzie King insisted that Canada control its war effort, in contrast to its World war I experience. King at first believed that the French would prove a bulwark to the Germans and that hoped that Canada might only have to train aircrews and manufacture arms for the Allies. King and his important ally in Qu�bec, Ernest Lapointe, promised that there would be no conscription for overseas service as had been introduced in World War I. The collapse of France and NAZI victories elsewhere in Europe meant that a huge Allied army would have to be raised. As a result the issue of conscription rose again. King did not dare introduce conscription without overwealming public support. King called for a national plebiscite on conscription (April 24, 1942). The Canadians by a ratio of 3 to 1 voted for conscription (April 27). The English-speaking majority voted ovewealming for conscription. The French-Canadians in Qu�bec rejected it. This was an interesting vote as the primary use of the Canadian Army was to be in Europe to liberate France. We suspect the vote was more of French-Canadian attitudes toward the British than attitudes toward the French. Evven after the plebecite, however, King did not immediatedly introduce national conscription. In fact he dismissed his pro-conscription defense minister, Colonel J. L. Ralston. As a result, the Canadian Army which stormed ashore at Juno Beach on D-Day (June 6, 1944) was a voluntary force. King did not introduce conscription until late in the War (late 1944). King remained popular even in Qu� in part because he was clearly reluctant on the concscription issue. Few Canadian conscripts served overseas.

The Air War

The Luftwaffe was at the beginning of the War the most poweful air force in the world. The Allies expected the NAZIs to immediately launch air attacks on cities. Canada was also concerned about air defnese, and some minor efforts were made to prepare. The Atlantic proved, however, to be an unsurmountable obstacle for the Luftwaffe. G�ring was to order the construction of the America's bomber, but battlefield reverses and the Allied strategic bombing campaign meant that the War ended before the bomber could be built. With the fall of France (1940), however, the skies over Britain became an active combat zone. Britain laid the groundwork for a vastly expanded air force. The fact that the air was being fought over Britain as well as the fact that the British isles were heavily populated created problems in training air crews. As part of a much larger plan, Britain and Canada set up the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan which was to be located in Canada. The vast streaches of Canada and the distance from the fighting often perfect conditions for a training facility. Nore than 131,000 aircrews (pilots, navigators, gunners, bombardiers, and flight engineers) were trained for the the air war. There were 72,800 Canadians trained. Most were involved with the Royal Air Force Bomber Command in the Strategic Bombing Campaign over northern Europe.

American Arms

While America did not join the War formally until Pearl Harbor (December 1941), American arms, munitions, and raw materials were important to the British and French from the very beginning. At American arms amd material began flowing to the Allies even before war broke out. At the onset of the War, however, the Neutrality Acts came into force, prohibiting the shipment of arms to combatant nations from U.S. ports and in American-flag vessels. Until Congress modified the laws, they were evaded by moving unassembled planes and other equipment across the porous Canadian border and shipping them from Canadian ports. Eventually the Roosevelt Adminustration managed to repeal the Neutrality Acts. The first change was the use of American ports. After the fall of France (June 1940), America moved for more supportive aid to the Britain, eventually leading to Lend Lease (March 1941). The Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor eventually propelled America into the shooting War (December 1941).

Canadian Industry

Canada unlike the other Dominions had a substantual industrial base. The Canadian contribution began early and made a crucial difference to the winning of the war. For a nation of 11 million people it was an incredible accomplishment, one oput of all proportion to its population. The plans to launch another War were laid in Hitler's mind without any careful study. In his ameturish he failed to appreciate the importance of the Domimions. Canadiam industry would make a substantial contribution to the Allied war-effort. The Canadian government after declaring war on Germany (September 1939) took full control of the economy. It rapidly turned it into a vital part of the Allied war effort. And Canadian war plants were safe from Axid bombing. Canada became like America an arsenal of democracy. The country proved to be Britain�s chief overseas supplier of war materiel. The Federal government set up the Department of Munitions and Supply--DOMAS (April 1940). DOMAS to coordinated the production of munitions for the Canadian armed forces and those of its allies. The Government appointed Clarence Decatur Howe (1886-1960) to head DOMAS. Through DOMAS, Canadian industry not only equipped Canada�s own armed forces but other Allied forces, primarily Britain. DOMAS allocated the available raw materials to war plants and helped created new industries to manufacture needed arms. Canada did not accept American Lend Lease aid, the only Allied nation not to do so. Canada created its own Lend Lease program for its Allies which it called Nutual Aid. The single most important area of production was escort craft for the Royal Canadian Navy. Thanks to aprodigious industrial effort, Canada went from a country without a navy to one of the world's major navies in numbers of ships. The Royal Canadian Navy thus played a key role in one of the most important battles of the War--the Battle of the Atlantic. The Canadian contribution, however, did not stop here. Many other arms and munitions were manufactured in Canada. Canada was a small, but highly industrialized country. It in particular had a substantial automobile industry which like the American automobile industry could be converted for war production. This had not been the case in World War I, but there was considerable industrial development in the inter-War era. The Canadians supplied its allies C$4 billion dollars worth of war materiel, a much larger figure if calculated in today's dollars. About 70 percebnt of Canaduian production went tom its allies. A further credit of C$1 billion dollars was given to Britain. Canadian industries manufactured war materials with a total value of almost $10 billion - approximately $100 billion in today�s dollars. Canada�s war production was fourth among the Allied nations, only exceeded by that of the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The Canadians did not develop weapons, but Canadian factories produced weapons developed in Britain and to a lesser extent the United States.

Home Front

Canadian mobilization for World War would play an important role in the Allied war effort, just as its miitary contribution out of all proportion to the country's reatively small population. The Home Front mobilizatiion and impact on the future in many ways was similar to America, but there were important differences. The most obvious was that there was no extended period of neutrality. The Canadian people, exceot fot the Quenecois, ssupported the vwar effort from the point that Britain declared war on Germany after the Germans nvaded Poland. Unlike World War I, the Governmet dekllayed the frmal declaration of war a few days (September 10, 1939). This seems to have been to demonstate the declaration was one of an independent country. It also provided a few days to rush American military equipment over the border before the American Neutrality Law restructions kicked in. It would take President Roosevelt nearly 3 months to begin changing the Neutality Laws. The Department of Munitions and Supply oversaw the mobilization of the economy and the transition from consumer goods to war production. This was limited at first becase of Canada's relatively limited industrial sector. This changed after Pearl Harbor when American investments led to a substanatial expansion --new factories, transportation, and comminication. The existing motor vehicle industry was significantly expaned for tank and truck construction. One of the most importat industrial effort was expanding shipyards and repair yards and openig new ones. One of the mostimportant efforts was to build escorts for the Atlantic convoys, a very important asect of the Battle of the Atlantic. Over 1,000 warships and cargo vessels were built, along with thousands of auxiliary craft, small boats and others. [Pritchard] Canada began the War almost without a navy and ended the War with one of the world's largest. Canada also acquired an air force and an aviation industry. As in America, unemployment lingering from the depression disappeared. Canada played a key role in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. It was much easier to train pilots in Canada than Britain, not only was the Luftwaffe absent, but aviation fuel did not have to shippe to Briain. Conscription as in World War I was a controversial issue. Most of the Canadians who fouht in Europe were English speakng volunteers. As in America, men who joined the forces were repalced in factories by women. This and other issues were overseen by the the National Resources Mobilization Act. Canada also shown in food production. Canada with it vasts western plain had a an enormous potential. Even so, they shipped such large quantities to Britain that food rationing had to be introduced. >! production, but shipped so much to Britain that food rationing had to be imposed. In 1942 it shipped to Britain 25 per cent of total meat production (including 75% of the bacon), 65% of the cheese and 13% of the eggs.[68]Keesing's Contemporary Archives Volume IV-V, November, 1943 p. 6099 > Except for the Quebecois, the non-British population supported the war effort. And after War, Canada benefitted fron European immigration. As in America, the Japanese were interned and treated even worse. Canada may not have emerged from the War more united as was the case in America, but it did not come out bitterly divided as might have been the result of conscription. And the country in the ost-War era had a much greater sense of independence and self confidence., reflected in a new flag.

Royal Canadian Navy

Canadian ports and the initially small Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) played an important role in the crucial Battle of the Atlantic. This was for the Western Allies the key battle of World War II. Had the Allies not won the Battle of the Atantic, none of the other campaigns in Europe would have been possible and Britain would have been lost. Canada at the onset of the war virtually did not have a navy. The Royal Canadian Navy had only about 10 small vessels (six serviceable destroyers and four minesweepers). The Royal Canadian Navy was eventually expanded to nearly 400 warships--mostly escort vessels. The Royal Canadian Navt became one of the world's largest naval forces. It expanded to 365 ships and 100,000 men and women. Many of the new ships were corvettes, small escort vessels built in Canadian shipyards. The RCN primary task was to escort the convoys to Britain, but a fews vessels were deployed in the Mediterranean. The Atlantic convoys before America entered the War were formed up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At first periously few escorts were available. This was the job that the RCN would eventually take on. The RCN was also involved in escorting the Arctic Convoys to deliver war material to the Soviet Union after the NAZI invasion (June 1941). Keeping the Atlantic sea lanes open to Britain meant that Canadian industrial and agricultural production and raw materials could sustain the British and eventually Allied war effort. The RCN was also involved in the D-Day landings (June 1944) and against Japan in the Pacific. Over the course of the War, the RCN suffered the loss of 24 ships, primarily in the North Atlantic.


Some British children were sent to Canada and America for saftey early in the War. Because of the American Neutrality Acts, the children had to be sent through Canadian ports. A good example is Alan and Graham, The overseas evacuations were discontinued when children were lost to U-boat attacks and the threat of NAZI invasion receeded.

Internment of the Japanese

After Pearl Harbor and the launch of the Pacific War (December 1941), Canadians raised the same security concerns that Americans did. As in America, the concerns proved largely unfounded. As in the United States, the Canadian Government oversaw the internment ethic Japanese, bith subjects (citizens) and Japanese nationals living along the Pacific coast. Some 22,000 residents of British Columbia were interned in relocation camps away from the coast. The public was intense concerned about both possible espionage or sabotage. [Barman, p. 266.] Prim-Minister King and his Cabinet simply ignored an assesments from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian military that most of the Japanese were not a threat. Major General Ken Stuart told the Goverment, "I cannot see that the Japanese Canadians constitute the slightest menace to national security." [Sunahara, p. 23] It is unclear what King's security assessment was, but he clearly understood the political situation. And there was political clammor for internment. One scholar believes that the Prime Minister's racist views were clearly visible in his 1909 doctoral thesis at Harvard. [Sunahara, p. 23] That would not have been unusial at the time either in Canada and Japan, or for that matter Japan.


Anti-Semitism was wide-spread in Canada during the inter-War era. Not the virulent anti-Semtism of Europe, but more of a 'gentelemann's' form. It was most pronounced in Quebec. Anti-Semitism nay have been a factor in King's assessment of Hitler. He told a group of Jews that "Kristallnacht might turn out to be a blessing." His Government made no effort to open immigration laws to offer a haven to European Jews. As in the United States, anti-Semitism was deeply seated within the civil service. This was epitomized by Frederick Blair who was Canada's Director of Immigration (1937-43). Blair developed and rigorously applied strict immigration policies based on race and used them to sucessfully to deny Jews trying to flee NAZI Germany refuge in Canada, not only before the War, but during and after the War. The policies were supported by Prime-Minister King. Canada as a result of Blair's restrictive policies allowed less than 5,000 Jews into Canada (1933-39). By comparison the United States admitted 200,000 Jews and Mexico 20,000. After the War this hard to understand policy continued. The Canadians accepted only 8,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors (1945-48). Two historians write, "That record is arguably the worst of all possible refugee-receiving states." [Abella and Troper] This meant death for many European Jews. Canada along with the United States refused to allow the ocean liner St. Louis carrying 907 Jews to dock. It was one of tragic examples of the unwillingness to assist Jews fleeing the NAZIs before the war. Some 44 prominant Canadians (including professors, editors, and businessmen) urged Prime-Mininister King to offer them sanctuary, but King adamently refused. Holocaust

World War II Land Campaigns

World War involved some 30 countries. Many did no commit combat troops but helpd supply the Allies, mostly the Latin American countries. More countries were actully invoved if you include the European colonies. Several countries declared war only so that they could participate in the San Francisco Conference establishing the United Nations. While some countries did not make major contributions, other countries puvhed above their weight. One of those countries was Canada, a vast country, but with a population of only 11 million. Canada loyally came to Britain's defense immeditely after the Germans invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany. In both world wars, the Germans tended to leave out th Dominions in their power calculations. Canada could have stood back and supportd the war effort from afar with food and raw material shipmnts. They would havevbeen defended by the United States. Canada did not. Canada did not have a substantial armed force. They immediatly sent what they cold o Britain and set about building a subrantial Ae=rmy air force and navy. Canada made major contibutions in both the Air War and more importantly the Battle of the Atlantic and the ground struggle as well. At the time of Dunkirk, the only fully equipped division in Britain capable of resisting the Germans was the 1st Cannadian division. The Canadians fought along side the Brits in most of the major engagemnt except the Western Desert. More importantly they paricipated in D-Day and liberation of France and the Low countries. For a time the Canadian Army was divied between Italy and France. The Canadians made this herculean effort even though most French Canadians refused to support the war effort, even the liberation of France. Canadians were mistified after the war and General DeGualle supported Quebec separtists with his "Vive le Qu�bec libre!" speech in Montreal (1967).


Abella, Irving and Harold Troper. "'The line must be drawn somewhere': Canada and Jewish Refugees, 1933-1939." in Iacovetta, Ventresca, and Draper (eds). A Nation of Immigrants (1998).

Barman, Jean (2007). The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia 3rd ed, (2007).

Pritchard, James. A Bridge of Ships: Canadian Shipbuilding during the Second World War (2011).

Sunahara, Ann Gomer (1981). "The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During the Second World War" (PDF). (Ottawa: James Lorimer).


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Created: 11:13 AM 11/4/2005
Last updated: 2:14 AM 4/30/2019