Conflicts, Prosperity and Nationalism in the 1920s
The decade of the 1920s is usually associated with prosperity, but in
fact the return from the war was difficult: returning soldiers needed
jobs, which caused unemployment. Feeling that their sacrifice of war had
not been rewarded, veterans developed a feeling of bitterness and many
of them drifted towards the socialists, making the government worry
that they would actually support a revolution, like the Bolsheviks in
Russia. An irrational anti-Bolshevik feeling fed by propaganda caused a
panic in North America known as the Red Scare.
In Canada, the radicalization of workers had actually started during the
war. WW1 had meant a boom in Canadian manufacturing, but had also caused
inflation. As a result, there were many labour conflicts even during the
war. The main Canadian union, the Trades and Labour Congress (affiliated
with the American Federation of Labor), had not been included in the
planning of the war effort. Truly radical unions emerged in the west
under the influence of the Socialist Party of Canada, demanding a total
destruction of capitalism. The west was radical because of the presence
of many immigrants from the heavily unionized industrial regions of
Britain as well as European areas with strong socialist traditions.
These workers had to endure hard and dangerous working conditions in
coal mines and logging operations. They suffered a higher cost of living
due to transportation costs. Radical western unions met at the Western
Labour Conference in Calgary in March 1919. They broke from the moderate
TLC, proclaimed their support for Lenin’s Bolsheviks, and voted a
general strike for a national 30-hour workweek. As a result, the spring
and summer of 1919 were marked throughout the country by workers’
revolts supported by war veterans who could not find jobs. The climax
came with the Winnipeg general strike which lasted for 6 weeks, was
accompanied by frequent riots and ended with a violent crackdown by the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The workers’ movement fuelled the Red
Scare and was answered by an aggressive crackdown, so in the end the
workers suffered a crushing defeat. The anti-union campaign was reinforced
by a severe economic depression from 1920 to 1922, and for Canadian
workers the early 1920s was a period of poor wages, periodic unemployment and
poverty. Yet the organization of labour was boosted by the emergence of
a new party in 1919: the Independent Labour Party. By 1921 it had
representatives in 7 out of 9 provincial legislatures, and 4
representatives were elected to Parliament in 1921.
Farmers were also disappointed. After the war, the promise of a low tariff
was not kept; the wheat market collapsed; and serious droughts began.
They started organizing political alliances (United Farmers) allied with the
Independent Labour Party and won elections in Ontario in 1919 and in
Manitoba in 1920. In 1920, they formed the National Progressive Party.
The social unrest
from both workers ad farmers in 1919-1920 made it clear that new ideas were needed.
The Liberal Party adopted a progressive platform of state intervention
in economic affairs under the leadership of William Lyon Mackenzie King,
promising a national health care insurance, an unemployment insurance, a
pension legislation. Meanwhile the Conservative leader, Sir Robert
Borden, tired after 9 years as PM, retired in 1921, leaving Arthur
Meighen as party leader.
The Liberals won the general elections of
1921, with the Progressive Party winning 20 seats. The Liberals
therefore could form only a minority government that depended on an alliance with the Progressives.
1921 seemed to introduce a new political organization. With the two-party system
broken, some groups, like farmers and industrial workers, were represented for the first
time. But the Progressive party was divided between the supporters of
free trade and those of a more radical program, and had no support in
Quebec. The Progressive Party and the farmers and workers it represented
were therefore unable to win a strong foothold in federal politics. As a
result, even after prosperity returned, farmers never shared in it.
Their situation remained critical, they were often unable to repay loans
and taxes, which caused many of them to lose their farms.
By the mid 1920s, prosperity had arrived. Wheat exports started again,
the lumber production and the pulp and paper industry took off, there
was a boom in minerals (gold, copper, iron, nickel). The housing
industry grew thanks to the birth of the first suburbs, a wave of
consumer spending encouraged the new industries of the automobile and
electrical appliances. Consumption was financed thanks to credit and
promoted by advertising, and prosperity was fuelled by speculation on
real estate and the stock market. Prosperity in Canada really was a
spill over of wealth from the US, thanks to huge American investments in
Canada that made most of the economy activity, especially mining,
dependent on American funds. A shadier type of prosperity was the result
of Canada’s role as manufacturer and exporter of alcohol for the US
under Prohibition (as illustrated in the TV series Boardwalk Empire). Smuggling was a thriving and profitable activity.
In Canada, the roaring twenties were very much like their American
equivalent: automobiles, phones, radios, cinema, and flappers. In Canada
as in the US, farmers and workers were left out.
The 1920s were also marked by the emergence of nationalism, especially
in English Canada. Participation in the war had made Canadians more
conscious of their distinctiveness and of their new international status.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King, with the
help of under-secretary of state for External Affairs O.
D. Skelton, worked to obtain full diplomatic autonomy
for Canada. The Dominions' diplomatic autonomy was
agreed upon at the Imperial Conference of 1926 (Balfour
Declaration) and officialized by the Wesminster Statute
of 1931. Canada opened its first representation in a
foreign country with the embassy in Washington in 1926.
In the years that followed WW1, Canadian
artists worked at expressing the distinctive Canadian
culture. They wrote books and painted pictures that reflected the true Canadian spirit. In painting, the urge was translated
into reality by the Group of Seven who wanted to paint the true Canadian
northern landscape and colors, in accordance to a nationalistic agenda:
“an Art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a
real home for its people”. Between 1920 and 1940 over 750 novels were
published in Canada, including the famous war novel by Charles Yale
Harrison, Generals Die in Bed (1930). Summer schools were
organized to promote Canadian literature. In universities, programs in
Canadian history were opened. Several Canadian magazines started to
circulate Canadian ideas: The Canadian Forum, The
Canadian Historical Review. Popular culture was also affected by the
nationalist feeling of the period, with the creation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to compete with American radios and
spread the work of Canadian writers and composers.
Yet the 1920s was also a
time when the Americanization of Canadian culture was
accelerated because of the attractiveness of the
powerful American popular culture. Hollywood absorbed
Canadian talents like Louis Mayer, Jack Warner, Mary
Pickford; the sports industry was transnational,
although Canada remained ahead in hockey, with the
Canadian NHL as the top professional hockey league in