If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.


Monday, 1 September 2014

The Tempering

Today, the series of how the First World War influenced Canadian identity concludes.  I encourage the reader to examine the previous parts in order to best understand the ideas expressed in this last piece on the subject.  I shall return next week with another examination on subjects relating to the war.  If you have a suggestion, I'd like to hear it, feel free to comment with it or any other questions or observations.  I am also continuing to correspond for Centenary News and new articles from all contributors appear daily on that site.  This project can be followed through Twitter and Facebook.

The difficulty in attempting to make proof of positive outcomes of the First World War is that many minds are prejudicially convinced of it being a largely wasteful and detrimental period of humanity’s progress.  That there are linkages to it and the Second World War compounds common sentiment of the negative outcome of the First.

It cannot be denied that the deaths of several million people is indeed a tragic event elevated to the level of catastrophe if no positive growth can be perceived.  This is the argument, with some holding firm with the idea that the war is an accident of history and others insisting that it was instrumental in human development which has cast a shadow over the advent of the centenary.  Truth, as is usually found in polarizing debates such as this, lies somewhere in the middle.

Canada, by 1918 had, by volunteer or conscription, put some 620 000 into uniform.  This relates to about 30% of the male population of military age.  Canadians overseas represented a larger number than those living in Montreal or Toronto.  In today’s terms, it would be akin to raising an army of just over 10 million.[1]  Most of these men believed that they had fought for something, and would return to Canada with that idealism largely intact.  Within these were the “promises of the Great War for real democracy, fair wages, social justice and change in favour of the majority of people.”[2]  While some would enter politics or become influential in business, many veterans would settle as best they could to civil life after the war.  All remained a large demographic whose service and sacrifice and therefore desires could not be easily ignored.
The demobilised men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had returned home with a brilliant new commodity: that Canada was home.  Experiences overseas, of forming bonds among comrades and fame on the battlefield had shaped this Corps from displaced Brits and sons of immigrants on the most part to men who, with pride, called themselves Canadians.

It was important that they were returning to a land that the nature of total war had prepared to accept that burgeoning sense of identity.  Western Europe in the course of events of 1914-18 would decline in its ability to meet demands for industrial and agricultural output for loss of land, resources and manpower in the war.  Canada’s fortunate geography, well separate from the ravages of war and rich in natural resources allowed it to fill gaps in the needs of allies, becoming a leading granary and arms producer.  Therein began a recognition of Canada beyond its notoriety in battle, less a backwater Dominion on the edge of Empire and more a modern, industrialised nation able to supply demand.

Increase in demand for exports had the usual economic results, a growth in GNP and a consistent trade surplus[3], but the side effects would mean more to identity than international awareness.  During the war years, rail mileage doubled, and the country was more connected, in a physical sense than ever before.  Shifting in peace from a war footing put a check on economic growth, with a slight recession and without a great boom that ne next post war generation would see.  Canada’s economy, more importantly, had become a national entity; growth and recession in one part of the country would benefit or deter the whole. 

 Entering (or re-entering) the workforce, though, were hundreds of thousands of men who understood on a very intimate level the notion that the importance of the whole supersedes the individual.  Throughout the 1920’s, the idea of better and equitable treatment of the workforce, supported by industrial growth saw an increase in disposable income.[4] This would be used to further establish infrastructure through private utilities (primarily hydro-electric power and telephone networks) and increasing automobile ownership demanding large scale road building.  Wage surplus was also available for investment, furthering Canada’s economic growth, and the purchase of luxury goods.  Many of these were made available through technological advances inspired by the war, not the least of which was home radio through which the country was united in an unprecedented ability to communicate ideas.

In international affairs, Canada’s participation and good conduct in the war was reflected in a very important aspect, that the country was permitted to send a delegation to the peace conference at Versailles.  While it is true that most of the developments were dictated through the United Kingdom, France, United States Italy and Japan, Canada’s presence cannot be viewed as a mere sinecure.  Britain, allowing representation of components of Empire was a tremendous shift in Imperial policy; a slow reckoning of the Dominions’ ability to self-determine which would coalesce within the Statute of Westminster.  Enacted by Britain’s Parliament on December 11, 1931, the Statute established legislative equality between self governing Dominions and the UK. [5]  It formalised the “Balfour Declaration” of 1926 which stated that the UK and Dominions were “autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”[6]  This declaration had in turn been inspired by incidences of enacting foreign policy legislation, in Canada and Australia without consent of London.

Sir Robert Borden put this trend into perspective when he said “The development of constitutional relations through which Canada and other Dominions have entered the portal of full nationhood...was due to the valour, the endurance and the achievement of the Canadian Army in France and Belgium which inspired our people with the impelling sense of  nationhood never before experienced.”[7]

This was a great step toward autonomy even if the Statute was unclear on exactly where the lines of this autonomy lay.  Having the ability to create legislation did permit Canada to resolve external issues in its own way.  The First World War, in effect, allowed the country to choose its own destiny.

The legacy of the war did leave divisions within the country.  Rallying behind the issue of conscription had empowered the separatist movement in Quebec and women who’d contributed to the war effort were beginning a shift toward equal recognition.  Both these issues and more besides would remain a part of Canada’s legacy for decades and could not be enacted upon efficiently until the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, finalising legislative independence from Britain.

Historians Desmond Morton and JL Granatstein insist that history and its advances in politics and technology would have occurred without the war.[8]  It remains impossible to say whether this is true, but the war certainly accelerated these developments.  Without it, and Canada’s performance, the notion of a national identity would not have developed as it did.

That the war was a great loss of life is certain, but what seems to be not readily understood is that it was not entirely futile and the results of the conflict were in some regards to the benefit of advancing society.  In the same light, some effects were indeed detrimental and left a legacy of continued destruction and conflict.  However, if the cultural and historical significance of an event is not fully understood, it makes little sense to place an effort on commemorating it.  We are obliged to take the lessons of these consequences as a clear understanding of cause and effect and apply them as objects in investigating where humanity stands today.


[1] Basavarajapa, KG & Bali Ram ”Statistics Canada, Section A Population and Migration” A78-93, digital document
[3] http://www.canadahistory.ca Section: “Economy”
[5] http://www.wikipedia.org “Statute of Westminster”
[6] http://www.wikipedia.org “Balfour Declaration”
[7] Cook, Tim “Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918” Penguin Books, 2008 pg 628
[8] Morton, D & JL Granatstein, “Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919 Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989 pg 260

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