Newspaper article The Canadian Press

How the First World War Upended Canada's Political, Social and Economic Norms

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

How the First World War Upended Canada's Political, Social and Economic Norms

Article excerpt

How the First World War defined modern Canada


OTTAWA - The legacy of the First World War will be omnipresent when Canadians stop on Sunday -- the 100th anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars -- to pay tribute to those who sacrificed for the country and its way of life.

There will be the red poppies pinned to lapels, and the haunting words of In Flanders Field, penned by Lt.-Col. John McCrae after the Second Battle of Ypres.

There will be the National War Memorial, originally built to commemorate the 60,000 Canadians who died during the war, and Remembrance Day itself, which has been recognized every Nov. 11 -- the day the Great War ended -- since 1931.

Yet the enduring impact is felt in countless other ways as well, many of them subtle -- and not all of them positive, despite the popular refrain that Canada came into its own as a country during the First World War.

That's because while the war ushered in many changes as the country pulled together during those four bloody years in a way it never had before, it also created deep divides and challenges -- some of which remain today.

"The war enhances divisions between French and English, between east and west, between rural and urban. It tends to exacerbate and divide based on income and inequality," says historian Mark Humphries of Wilfrid Laurier University.

"So these are kind of the lasting legacies for Canadians."

No event was more divisive -- or politically transformative -- than the introduction of conscription. It was the issue upon which the December 1917 federal election was fought and broke the country along both linguistic and geographic lines.

French-Canadians were deeply angry at being forced to fight a war they didn't believe in, while many rural Canadians and union workers felt betrayed after the government broke its promise during the election to exempt them and their sons.

Mixed into the equation was a great deal of disillusionment as companies made huge profits off the war, even as average workers struggled with low pay and returning veterans faced difficulty finding work or accessing services and benefits.

The result was a rise in Quebec nationalism -- the first independence motion was introduced in Quebec's national assembly in 1919 -- and the death of the two-party system as new federal and provincial parties espousing progressive agendas were born.

"You had class parties, regional parties, left-wing and right-wing parties, separatist parties," says military author and historian Jack Granatstein, who recently co-curated a new exhibit on the last 100 days of the war at the Canadian War Museum.

"They all took form as a result of the events that took place in the First World War, and we live with them still. There are five or six parties in the House of Commons and we will never again, I suspect, have a two-party system."

The emergence of new political parties was only one change in Ottawa as the federal government also took on a more prominent role in Canadians' lives than ever before -- and in ways that continue today. …

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