World War I: Canada's Role

Essay by pakmanHigh School, 10th gradeA-, April 2004

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Many people believe that World War I was a historical achievement for Canada. That it helped Canada become a mature and grow into a nation. Canadians can't seem to realize the fact that Canada's involvement in the war was for nothing. The "coming of age" of Canada did not only have high economical costs, but it also created a large, lasting gap between French and English Canada. The lives that were lost during the war, however, were the highest price Canada had to pay. "The war was the unmaking of Canada as much as it was the making."

It seems quite strange that a nation would get its sense of nationalism from fighting someone else's war, across the ocean. After the war with over 60000 soldiers dead and 172000 wounded, the country could not admit that the war had been worthless. Propaganda at the time was entirely focused on convincing the citizens that the war had been beneficial for Canada.

In some ways it had been beneficial. Before the war, the unemployment rate was soaring. The war provided a lot of unemployed people with jobs, therefore, substantially boosting the economy. Women finally got the right to vote in 1917 because of the war. Also with the national feeling the war created, many artists such as the Group of Seven emerged. Nevertheless, The war did more harm than good for Canada. To this day most historians have not accepted the fact that Canada's involvement in the war was a mistake. Canadian historians always seem to write about the benefits of the war for Canada and never about the detriments of it. Donald Creighton, one of the most famous Canadian historians of his time wrote in his book, Canada's First Century: "The War of 1914-18 was the greatest experience that the Canadian people had ever known, or would ever know." There are some like the British historian, Niall Ferguson, who in his book The Pity of War, suggests that Britain's decision to fight in 1914 was "nothing less than the greatest error of modern history." If the British can admit it why is it so difficult for Canadians to admit they were wrong? Many argue that Canada, being a British colony at the time, was automatically dragged into the war the moment Britain declared war on Germany. This is true, however it does not change the fact that the war was a pointless effort for both Canada and England, or even for the entire world. While British politicians would have found it an almost impossible job to avoid being mixed up in the war, the outcome would probably have turned out for the better if they had. The Germans in the World War I were certainly seeking power but their intentions were not exactly evil. Them winning the First World War would have assured Hitler not coming to power; the Second World War could have been avoided. If Europe were to avoid war altogether it certainly would have been much better for Canada.

The Conscription Crises was probably the most harmful event that occurred on the homefront during the war. It divided Canada into two as the French and English had different opinions about it. The government wanted the people to believe the opposite, "Soldiers went out to their death with no provincial prejudices and no racial suspicion in their hearts. For them, there was no Ontario or Quebec, just one great country." The French were against conscription; they did not want anyone to be forced into the army. This is because most of them were against the war in the first place. The English favoured it. The French were right to oppose conscription. Canadian History books neglect to mention this. Canada has a long way to go until it has gotten all it's facts straightened out. Another tragedy on the home front was the Halifax explosion. When two ships collided in the Halifax harbour, one of them carrying 2500 tons of explosives, an explosion was created that was larger than any man-made explosion before it. About 3000 people died, 10000 were injured. Canadians finally felt the horrors of war on Canadian soil and did not like it very much. With more losses to account for, Canadians kept pretending that everything was all right and that Canada coming out of the war was a better Canada.

"It is difficult to believe that the First World War, which was started in arrogant stupidity and conducted with a dogged persistence that slowly turned into blind fanaticism, 'transformed Canada into a nation' and made Canadians feel distinct from Britain for the first time." The war definitely helped push Canada towards independence but it was bound to happen anyways, and even it had not happened it would not have made much difference for Canada. If this war had not taken place or at least if Canada had not joined it, Canada, and generally the whole world would have been a better place.


*1-Robert Fulford, "The First World War," The National Post, February 8, 2000

*2-General Arthur Currie, Commander of the Canadian Core

*3-Jonathan F. Vance, Turning point of a Nation