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The Pursuit of Well-Being: 1929-1968, World War II

bomber offensive, Canadian pilots, Lancaster bombers, submarine attack, Allied powers

Although the economy stopped its decline about 1933, it did not recover completely until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. When World War II broke out between the Allied powers and the Axis powers, led by Germany, Canada entered the war grudgingly but with a widespread sense that it could not be avoided. King’s government insisted that Canada control its own war effort, and King at first hoped that the training of aircrews and the production of arms might be Canada’s main contributions. Both King and his powerful Quebec lieutenant, Ernest Lapointe, promised that there would be no conscription for overseas service.

However, a Canadian all-volunteer army went to Britain, and with the tide of Axis victories in 1940, the Canadian commitment grew. The Canadian navy joined in the battle to defend Atlantic convoys against submarine attack. Canadian pilots and aircrews defended Britain and joined in a bomber offensive against the parts of Europe occupied by the Axis. Meanwhile, in 1940 and 1941, Canadian-American agreements on the defense of North America and the financing of the war effort marked the end of Canada’s policy of relying on the British alliance to avoid American influence.

The issue of conscription soon came up again. With recruits urgently needed, King’s government held a plebiscite in 1942, asking to be released from its no-conscription pledge. The English-speaking majority consented; Quebec did not. Although King was under pressure from the Conservatives to begin conscription immediately, he delayed and fired his pro-conscription defense minister, Colonel J. L. Ralston. When conscription was eventually introduced in late 1944, it remained unpopular in Quebec, but King’s obvious reluctance to impose it had eased the crisis. As in World War I (1914-1918), few conscripts served overseas.

At home, industry and capital were mobilized to support the war effort, many products were rationed, and women returned to a booming labor force. After Japan entered the war in 1941, thousands of Japanese Canadians were interned and moved inland from Canada’s Pacific coast. The government seized their assets and sold them.

As the war spread across the world, the Canadian army fought unsuccessfully to defend Hong Kong against Japanese attack in 1941 and to seize the German-held French seaport of Dieppe in 1942. Canadians fought in Italy in 1943 and 1944, and participated in the D-Day landings and the liberation of northern France and the Low Countries in 1944 and 1945. Naval and air forces continued grim struggles at sea and over Europe. Between 1939 and 1945, 42,000 Canadians died in the war.

The war strengthened Canada’s economy. Factories were dedicated to building tanks, guns, ships, and aircraft, notably fighter planes and Lancaster bombers. Canada’s war production program was guided by C. D. Howe, the federal minister of munitions and supply, who imposed a system of central planning, with wage and price controls. At war’s end Howe headed the Department of Reconstruction, converting the economy back to a free-enterprise system. Canada entered the postwar era with a much more diverse manufacturing capacity than it had had in 1939.

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