In the war against the Nazis and the other Axis Powers, some 1,080,000 Canadian men and women served in uniform from 1939 to 1945. With only a small pre-war professional military, the vast majority of those who served were civilians. Close to 44,000 were killed and 55,000 were wounded. Canada’s forces paid a terrible price on the oceans, in the air and in multiple land campaigns from Hong Kong to Italy to Northwest Europe. When the war ended in Europe in May and the Pacific in August 1945, more than a million veterans were set to return to their homes. A driving question for Canadians was: What was owed to the veterans?
Planning for the Return
In 1945, Canada limped from the war battered and bloodied but with a new sense of pride and destiny. Six years earlier, the country had been gripped by the lingering effects of the Great Depression and was unsure of its place on the world stage. It emerged more confident in its ability to contribute to the postwar community of nations. Much of Europe was in ruins, while Canada was tied to the economic prosperity of the United States. Ottawa could afford to treat its veterans with compassion.
The Liberal government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, which had been in power since 1935, was much derided by veterans. While King had been a steady leader during the war, he was far from inspiring. Slow and safe, King crept forward on policy decisions and never seemed much of a leader, especially in comparison to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill or US President Franklin Roosevelt. While King had almost no influence over the deployment of Canada’s overseas forces, he led a very competent Cabinet filled with experienced ministers who oversaw the nation’s domestic war effort. In 1944, the King government had begun to plan seriously for the return of veterans, creating programs to assist them with reintegration into postwar society and providing some sort of peace dividend for the long and costly years of conflict.
The citizen-warriors who had served overseas were slowly brought back to Canada throughout 1945 and into early 1946. Before being shipped home, tens of thousands had spent months in the Netherlands among the Dutch civilians whom they had liberated. The Canadians, fit, healthy and wealthy, had made friends throughout the country. The concept of a good and necessary war was confirmed by the grateful Dutch, who welcomed them with open arms.
The Canadians returned home as heroes and were greeted with large-scale celebrations in big cities and small towns across the country. Some 48,000 Canadians had married overseas during the six years of war, and 41,251 wives – known as war brides – returned to Canada during and after the fighting. About 94 per cent of war brides were British, but there were also French, Belgian, and Dutch women. They brought with them almost 20,000 children. These new families joined the hundreds of thousands of other Canadians who soon started families in what became the postwar baby boom.
The King government sought to reward Canadians for their service, and to kick-start the economy. The Family Allowance Act, widely known as the baby bonus, started in 1945 by distributing about six dollars per child to all Canadian families.This social program, when combined with the discharge payments made to veterans for their wartime service (on average a total of about $488), provided a firm foundation upon which to purchase new household goods, cars, and even homes. These government payments were crucial in assisting the Canadian economy to shift from making war supplies to manufacturing domestic goods. Canadians returned King’s Liberals to power again, in the federal election of June 1945.
The King government enacted legislation to benefit returned service personnel under what was known as the Veterans Charter. The grateful nation was trying to repay its debt to veterans, and the Veterans Charter, a compendium of Acts, was among the most important and forward-thinking series of legislation ever passed in Canadian history. Much like the American GI Bill, the Veterans Charter offered veterans vocational training, land grants for farming, and loans to start-up businesses. The federal civil service was instructed to hire veterans first, and thousands were employed.
The Veterans Charter also paid the way for returned men and women to go to university. Before the war, the expense of university put it out of reach for most Canadians; by February 1947, almost 35,000 veterans were enrolled in universities. Many of the veterans were anxious about going to school with younger students who had not served, but most were driven and dedicated. Men and women emerged from their programs and set about building up Canada.
Settling In and Coping with Wounds
Veterans arrived back in Canada seeking to reconnect with loved ones and get on with their lives. Some returned to their old jobs, many of which were held open for them. They fit back in, more experienced and wiser, and many soon found prosperity. Others had a more difficult period of adjustment. Years had passed, and it was tough for a battle-hardened former warrior to return to stocking shelves or working in a clothing store. Many veterans struggled to find their place in society.
The integration was all the more difficult for the thousands of veterans who came home wounded in body and in mind. Of the 54,000 injured Canadians, more than 29,000 suffered long-term, debilitating wounds that required ongoing medical care. The Department of Veterans Affairs, formed in 1944, established hospitals and care facilities across the country. Some of the most grievously maimed, those with amputations, received new prosthetic limbs. Others, usually those men who had flown airplanes or served in tanks, had suffered ghastly burns. They often underwent years of skin grafts to restore their bodies. Despite horrific wounds, thousands of veterans returned to the workplace, finding ways to work and succeed even while missing limbs and suffering chronic pain.
There were many success stories, but a small minority of veterans could never recover from the war. With physical wounds too terrible, they were confined to hospitals for the rest of their lives. There were also psychiatric casualties. Men worn out from combat, poor food, lack of sleep, unending trauma and prolonged stress, had broken in battle under the strain. Wounds to the mind had been acknowledged and treated during the Great War and labelled as shell shock. During the Second World War, the wounds were called battle stress (today known as post-traumatic stress disorder). Most sufferers overcame their injuries with rest and recuperation, but many faced long years of recovery. Survivor’s guilt ate away at some men and women who had lost friends and comrades in the war. Tens of thousands of additional veterans were never treated, some turning to their comrades to find relief in talking, others seeking the bottle. There are no statistics for the number of men who abused alcohol, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that this reaction was not uncommon. A small minority never found ways to cope, eventually taking their own lives.
Not all Equal
Not all veterans were treated fairly. The 4,300 First Nations Canadians who served during the war had been seen as equals by their comrades-in-arms overseas. But when these veterans came back to the nation they had defended with their lives, they returned to being wards of the state without even the right to vote. Racism plagued them at every step and most of them, especially those on isolated reserves, were not told about the potential benefits that they qualified for under the Veterans Charter. There were also examples of Indian agents – who worked for the federal government and administered its programs on the reserves – actively dissuading First Nations veterans from taking up the opportunities available to them.
The merchant marine had a long fight to gain postwar benefits. They were the civilians who sailed the tankers and freighters, preyed upon by German U-boats, that supplied Britain with military resources and food. The media and government had lauded the merchant marine as the “fourth arm” of the fighting services during the war. (Of the roughly 12,000 who served, 1,600 merchant sailors died at sea.) Yet after the war, the government, with the urging of veterans organizations like the Royal Canadian Legion, denied merchant mariners benefits available to military personnel. It took until the 1980s for mariners to band together in a number of groups and petition the government for recompense. With the support of the Senate and eventually the Legion, merchant mariners were recognized with some benefits in the early 1990s, and received full veterans status in 2000.
The million Second World War veterans had political clout in the postwar years, but they were never a single voting bloc. In the late 1960s, the Legion had about 300,000 members, including First and Second World War and Korean War veterans. Some Second World War veterans served as Members of Parliament and Cabinet ministers in Liberal and Conservative governments, they rose to head companies and worked in all manner of occupations and practices, but none ever became prime minister. Nonetheless, the veterans had a profound effect on postwar Canada.
As veterans eased into retirement throughout the 1980s, they became more interested in reframing the memory of the war. By this time, the Second World War had largely been forgotten by Canadians or was being depicted in terms of failure or controversy, with a heavy emphasis given to the battles at Dieppe and Hong Kong, or the internment of Japanese Canadians and the conscription debates. In 1992, The Valour and the Horror, a tri-part National Film Board documentary that questioned the Canadian war effort, depicted a number of battlefield defeats and argued that strategic bombing of Germany had been immoral. It enraged veterans. Many banded together and fought back, demanding more influence over how the war would be depicted by filmmakers, curators and historians.
In 1994 and 1995, during commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the war, thousands of veterans returned overseas to the countries that they had liberated. They were greeted as heroes. Canadians watched this on their televisions and were startled to find that the veterans whom they had largely ignored for decades were now feted around the world. From that point onwards, there was more respect for veterans, a renewed interest among Canadians in attending Remembrance Day ceremonies and a host of new documentaries, history books and cultural products relating to the war. Even as Second World War veterans began passing away in large numbers in the 1990s and into the 21st century, they have increasingly been honoured by the government and all Canadians for their wartime sacrifice and their crucial role in forging the new postwar Canada.