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Documenting the First World War

The First World War forever changed Canada. Some 630,000 Canadians enlisted from a nation of not yet eight million. More than 66,000 were killed. As the casualties mounted on the Western Front, an expatriate Canadian, Sir Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), organized a program to document Canada’s war effort through art, photography and film. This collection of war art, made both in an official capacity and by soldiers themselves, was another method of forging a legacy of Canada’s war effort.

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Canada and the Second Battle of Ypres

The Second Battle of Ypres was fought during the First World War from 22 April to 25 May 1915. It was the first major battle fought by Canadian troops in the Great War. The battle took place on the Ypres salient on the Western Front, in Belgium, outside the city of Ypres (now known by its Flemish name, Ieper). The untested Canadians distinguished themselves as a determined fighting force, resisting the horror of the first large-scale poison gas attack in modern history. Canadian troops held a strategically critical section of the frontline until reinforcements could be brought in. More than 6,500 Canadians were killed, wounded or captured in the Second Battle of Ypres.

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Canada and the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted from 16 to 28 October 1962. The Soviet Union stationed nuclear missiles in Cuba, which posed a threat to the United States and Canada. It brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. Canadian armed forces were placed on heightened alert. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s hesitant response to the crisis soured already tense relations between Canada and the US and led to the downfall of his government in 1963.   

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General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was an international trade agreement. It was signed by 23 nations, including Canada, in 1947 and came into effect on 1 January 1948. It was refined over eight rounds of negotiations, which led to the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It replaced the GATT on 1 January 1995. The GATT was focused on trade in goods. It aimed to liberalize trade by reducing tariffs and removing quotas among member countries. Each member of the GATT was expected to open its markets equally to other member nations, removing trade discrimination. The agreements negotiated through GATT reduced average tariffs on industrial goods from 40 per cent (1947) to less than five per cent (1993). It was an early step towards economic globalization.

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The Wars

Timothy Findley’s 1977 novel about the mental and physical destruction of a young Canadian soldier in the First World War won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Fiction. It is widely regarded as one of the country’s definitive historical war novels. It has been called “one of the most remarkable novels of war ever published” and “the finest historical novel ever written by a Canadian.” The Globe and Mail referred to The Wars as “the great Canadian novel about the First World War.”

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Military Service Act

The Military Service Act became law on 29 August 1917. It was a politically explosive and controversial law that bitterly divided the country along French-English lines. It made all male citizens aged 20 to 45 subject to conscription for military service, through the end of the First World War. The Act’s military value was questionable, but its political consequences were clear. It led to the creation of Prime Minister Borden’s Union Government and drove most of his French-Canadian supporters into opposition.

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Exercise Tocsin B

Exercise Tocsin B was a nationwide nuclear preparedness drill that lasted 24 hours between 13 and 14 November 1961. It was the last of three national survival exercises named Tocsin in 1960–61. It was also the largest and most widely publicized civil defence drill ever held in Canada. This Cold War exercise run by the Canadian Army simulated the impact of thermonuclear warfare in Canada. Its goals were to show how the state would warn Canadians of such an attack and how government would continue during the crisis. By raising popular awareness of the potential for a devastating nuclear attack, Tocsin B showed Canadians what was at stake in the Cold War.

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Canada West

In 1841, Britain united the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada. This was in response to the violent rebellions of 1837–38. The Durham Report (1839) laid out the guidelines to create the new colony with the Act of Union in 1840. The Province of Canada was made up of Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada). The two regions were governed jointly until Confederation in 1867. Canada West then became Ontario and Canada East became Quebec.

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Seven Years’ War (Plain-Language Summary)

The Seven Years’ War (1756–63) was the first global war. In North America, Britain and France fought each other with the help of Indigenous allies. At the end of the war, France gave Canada (Quebec) and Ile Royale (Cape Breton) to Britain, among other territories. This is the reason that Canada has a British monarch but three founding peoples — French, British and Indigenous.

(This article is a plain-language summary of the Seven Years’ War. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry Seven Years’ War.)

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Conscription in Canada

Conscription is the compulsory enlistment or “call up” of citizens for military service. It is sometimes known as “the draft.” The federal government enacted conscription in both the First World War and the Second World War. Both instances created sharp divisions between English Canadians, who tended to support the practice, and French Canadians, who generally did not. Canada does not currently have mandatory military service. The Canadian Armed Forces are voluntary services.

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Durham Report

In 1838, the British politician Lord Durham was sent to British North America to investigate the causes of the rebellions of 1837–38 in the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada. Durham's famous Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839) led to a series of reforms and changes. These included uniting the two Canadas into a single colony, the Province of Canada, in 1841. (See also: Act of Union.) The report also paved the way for responsible government. This was a critical step in the development of Canadian democracy. The report played an important role in the evolution of Canada’s political independence from Britain.