Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Owing Allegiance: The British Community in Verdun, Quebec during the Second World War

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Owing Allegiance: The British Community in Verdun, Quebec during the Second World War

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT/RESUME

During the Second World War, Verdun, Quebec (population 67,000 in 1941) was home to an exceptionally high percentage of British-born residents who retained a strong emotional bond to their birthplace. The city also claimed to lead Canada in the proportion of its population on active service. Employing previously untapped local sources and municipal archives, this article examines the origin of the city's British community and provides a detailed statistical analysis of Verdun's enlistment record. It argues that, to a large extent, Verdunites' patriotic wartime response owed much to their continuing sense of being British. This article contributes to the historiography of British ethnicity, immigration, and culture in Canada. In illuminating little-explored aspects of community dynamics and grassroots organization, it also adds to the social-military history of wartime Canada.

Au cours de la Deuxieme Guerre mondiale, la population de Verdun (Quebec) [67 000 habitants en 1941] comptait un pourcentage exceptionnellement eleve de personnes nees en Grande-Bretagne qui conservaient de forts liens emotionnels avec leur pays d'origine. Verdun pretendait aussi etre la ville du Canada ayant la proportion la plus elevee de citoyens sous les drapeaux. Utilisant des sources locales non exploitees et des archives municipales, cet article se penche sur l'origine de la communaute britannique de la ville et offre une analyse statistique detaillee des donnees sur l'enrolement a Verdun. Il soutient que, dans une grande mesure, la reaction patriotique des Verdunois pendant la guerre est attribuable au fait qu'ils continuaient de se considerer comme britanniques. Cet article contribue a l'historiographie de l'ethnisme, de l'immigration et de la culture britanniques au Canada. Eclairant des aspects peu fouilles de la dynamique communautaire et de l'organisation locale, il contribue egalement a l'histoire sociomilitaire du Canada en temps de guerre.

INTRODUCTION

The municipality of Verdun, Quebec offered an extraordinarily patriotic effort during the Second World War. Not coincidentally, Verdun was home to the densest per-capita concentration of British-Isles-born residents in the Montreal area and constituted a virtual bastion of British "Old Country" values and allegiances. This British character helps explain the city's remarkable record of military enlistment during the war. More than ten percent of Verdun residents were on active service, a high percentage of available manpower. Most recruits were drawn from the English-speaking population, and many of the enlistees were British born.

This article describes Verdun's British nature in the generation preceding the Second World War and analyzes the city's enlistment record in the period 1939-45. It reveals that the city's enthusiastic response to the war effort was owed in large part to its British cultural inheritance. While the literature dealing with wartime Quebec normally focusses on language relations, with particular emphasis on French-Canadian responses to the conscription debate, the main purpose of the present work is to illuminate particular aspects of the British immigrant reaction, which is under-represented in the historiography. Although this article offers occasional glimpses of local French-speakers' enlistment record, a detailed comparison to Verdun's British-born population can be found elsewhere. (1)

Verdun was a densely-populated, working-class municipality adjacent to the city of Montreal to the southwest, along the shores of the St. Lawrence River. (2) Despite being about six square kilometres in area, in 1941 Verdun was Quebec's third-largest city, with a population of more than 67,000, the vast majority of whom lived in rented flats and three-storey tenements. Forty-two percent of the population was of French ethnic origin, while fifty-four percent was of British ancestry (defined here as English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh). …

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