Canada in WW2


Difficult Beginnings
Golden Age
Canada in WW1
Canada in WW2

6 - Canada in WW2


In the interwar period, the imperial ties had been loosened as a consequence of Canada’s new status in the newly organized British Commonwealth (1931). Canadian participation as full member of the League of Nations symbolized this new status. But Canadians felt some ambivalence about this: on the one hand, Canada wanted to be acknowledged as an independent nation, yet it was not ready to take on the international responsibilities that its new status might entail.


After 1935, it was obvious that trouble is brewing in Europe, but Mackenzie King wanted nothing to do with it. He considered foreign policy as divisive, with English Canada all set to rush and support Britain, and Quebec strongly isolationist. As a result, Canada supported Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy to the very end. Yet when Britain declared war, Canada followed after a week’s reflection: regardless of any other consideration, the strength of the sentimental tie with Britain made it inconceivable not to enter a British war.



Canadians were far less excited about WW2 than they had been about WW1 25 years before. Hence Mackenzie King’s cautious policy was welcome. He pledged not to impose conscription. King’s priorities were to keep the country united and to use the war to rebuild the Canadian economy. This attitude won him the election of March 1940 and the Liberals remained in power for the whole of the war. The war effort was planned by a war committee. Canada became the training ground for RAF pilots, the Canadian Navy convoyed American merchant ships to Britain, and a division of infantry was sent to Europe.









The Nazi victory in Europe in 1940 and the beginning of the battle of Britain forced Canada to involve itself more: the war production increased, as did recruitment, and conscription was adopted for the home defence. The danger to Britain pushed Canada into a closer cooperation with the US: the Ogdensburg agreement of 1940 established a permanent Joint Board for the defence of the continent. It was a very important turnpoint which marked Canada’s shift from British to American military control.



Pearl Harbor in December 1941 provoked a panic in British Columbia and 23,000 Japanese Canadians were interned in the spring of 1942; only in 1988 did the federal government apologize and grant financial compensation of this episode.






The Canadian economy recovered miraculously during the war and was financed in great part by the US under the lend-lease agreement. The country turned out an abundant and well-paid production of wheat, lumber, and minerals. Unemployment disappeared. Since labour peace was essential for the war effort, trade unions were recognized and collective bargaining guaranteed. There was heavy state intervention to allocate resources, control production, and determine wages. Prices and wages were frozen in November 1941 to avoid inflation. Rationing on food and gas was imposed. The living standards improved greatly, with the GNP rising from 5.6 billion in 1939 to 11.8 billion in 1945



As the pressure of the war increased, conscription began to loom on the horizon. On April 27, 1942, a referendum was organized to relieve Mackenzie King of his promise not to impose conscription. Once again Canada was spilt: 73% of Quebeckers voted no, while in Ontario the yes camp won by 83%. Canadian soldiers were soon involved in the invasion of Sicily and France, resulting in a shortage of infantry. In September 1944, Mackenzie King decided to send the men who had been conscripted for the home defence abroad. Nonetheless, to Quebeckers, this adoption of conscription against their wishes, for the 2nd time in Canadian history, seemed as a betrayal.




In the face of Quebec’s bitterness, the Liberals had to find a way of surviving the war. They found it by converting to Keynesian economics, and were re-elected in 1945 with a platform that promised to introduce a welfare state in Canada. This was made possible by the Provinces' agreement to transfer some of their constitutional powers in the economic and social spheres to the federal government. The transfer began with the Dominion-Provincial Conference of January 1941, for the purpose of regulating the war effort, and was continued after the war to allow the construction of a national welfare state.


By 1945, Canada was recognized as an important middle power, a useful ally for Britain and the US. WW2 completed the process of separation from the British Empire but placed Canada firmly into the now dominant American empire.