Did the War Have a Positive or Negative Effect on Canada?
The First World War brought profound changes to Canada. It changed the way we saw ourselves as a country and a nation. Canadian troops fought well as a united force and their victories, particularly at Vimy and Passchendaele, distinguished them as disciplined and courageous fighters. The need for war supplies had stimulated the economy, resulting in major growth in Canadian industry. Women achieved the right to vote for the first time. Canada gained international status with its participation at the Paris Peace Conference, and Canadians began to see themselves less as colonials in the British Empire and more as citizens of an independent country. The First World War marked Canada’s coming of age as it moved from a collection of disparate communities to a nation united by a sense of pride and identity.
According to Canadian historian George Woodcock:
… the emergence of Canada … as a nation among nations within the broader world context, caused people to think less of what divided them than of what united them. They shared a single, if immense, geographical terrain, a common historical tradition in which their various pasts intermingled of necessity, and an identity in which the sense of being colonial—and therefore being linked irrevocably to a land far away—metamorphosed into a sense of being Canadian.
A Country Divided
But the war also had a very negative effect on Canada. As well as the tragedy of the more than 60 000 dead and thousands more wounded, government measures taken during the war left scars on the nation. The issue of conscription and the bitterness of the debate between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians have never been completely forgotten. Those who spoke out against conscription were accused of being unpatriotic and labelled cowards and “Hun sympathizers.” Such accusations isolated many French-Canadians from the federal government that had broken its promise not to impose conscription. The War Measures Act also caused problems in many communities where immigrants from Eastern European countries suffered racial discrimination even after the war. Aboriginal leaders, who hoped the contributions of their peoples to the war would lead to a better deal, were disappointed. If anything, Canadian society was more discriminatory than ever.
The Cost of War
The losses both at home and throughout the world were staggering. Approximately thirteen million people were killed during the war, and millions more were psychologically or physically wounded. The economic costs of the First World War, in destruction and lost productivity, were also enormous: Canada sent about a billion dollars worth of war materials overseas between 1914 and 1918, a debt that took decades to pay off.
Some historians challenge the belief that the First World War marked Canada’s coming of age. Historian Jonathan Vance asks, “How could a war that saw the deaths of 60 000 Canadians and the wounding of 170 000 others become a constructive force in the nation’s history?” Vance believes that Canadians suffered so much in the war that they needed to attach some greater importance to this event. In his view, Canada’s “coming of age” was a myth that developed during the 1920s and 1930s to transform the horrors of the war into a more positive experience. The maturity myth was meant to help heal the country, Vance says, because believing in it meant wartime losses had served a real purpose for Canada.
ANALYZING THE ISSUE
Define “coming of age,” and explain how the First World War helped bring about Canada’s “coming of age”.
2. Make a study tool on the theme of Canadian Unity and the effects of the First World War. Which events enhanced Canadian unity and which diminished it?
You have been chosen to be on a radio panel to discuss the impact of the First World War on Canada’s development. You will either defend the position of historian George Woodcock, or that of Jonathan Vance.
GROUP WORK After reading the above article, and taking into consideration all the information we have covered in this unit, complete the following chart outlining all the positives and negatives that Canada experienced during WW I. As a group be prepared to report whether or not you feel WW I was a positive or negative for Canada. Do not forget to use key terms. WAS WW I A POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE EXPERIENCE FOR CANADA?