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Canadian Population by Age and Birthplace, 1911. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Canada was a very young nation at the beginning of the war. Alberta and Saskatchewan had been provinces less than a decade. The most recent census, in 1911, showed a total population of 7.21 million. Some 1.59 million, or 28 per cent, had been born in other countries, including 834,229, or 11.5 per cent, in Britain. Physically, the country was united by a couple of railway lines. But little sense of shared nationalism existed, and many recent immigrants felt more loyalty to their mother countries, which included nations on both sides of the European conflict.

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Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 7 November 1914, p. 143.

"Dealing with Alien Enemies."

At the time of the First World War, Canada was a land of recent immigrants. Many of these new Canadians had come from countries that were now at war with Canada. The government and most Canadians worried about the loyalty of these "enemy aliens" and some 8,600 were interned. Although some of these individuals were loyal to their mother countries, most posed no threat to Canada.

Nevertheless, Canada was automatically at war when King George V of Great Britain made a declaration of war on behalf of all British subjects. Canada was part of the British Empire and Britain's declaration of war meant that all the empire was also at war. If no one consulted the Canadian people, most Canadians accepted that situation.

English Canada was generally enthusiastic about going to war. Most English Canadians saw the war as a just struggle against the aggressive tyranny of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Some believed that the war effort would unite all Canadians, regardless of divisions based on "race" (that is divisions separating ethnic groups, including French- and English-speakers) and religion. The Protestant churches actively promoted the war effort and the schools taught children about patriotism and loyalty. Volunteers lined up to enlist, worried that the war would be over by Christmas, before they could see any action.

"Watching."
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 22 August 1914. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

"Watching."

Canada, the young lion and first Dominion, is shown standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the mother country, ready to defend the empire.
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Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 5 December 1914, p. 256.

"The Call to Arms," by Fane Sewell.

English Canadians viewed the Great War as a clear call to duty and demanded that other groups respond in a similar manner. For example, Canada expected enemy aliens to renounce their mother countries.
Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, n.d.
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 3 March 1917. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, n.d.

 

French Canada, though less enthusiastic, was not strongly opposed to the war. Laurier, now Leader of the Opposition, declared that Canada was fighting a just war for England and France. He would "offer no criticism… so long as there is danger at the front."(1) Canada had a duty to assist the mother country. Even the brilliant journalist and French-Canadian nationalist Henri Bourassa offered qualified support for the war effort so long as Canada acted in its own self-interest, sending food and supplies to Europe, but not troops.

Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, n.d.
City of Edmonton Archives (EA-10-3184).

Edmonton Residents Seek War News, n.d.

The public hungered for news of the front during the First World War and newspapers were seen as a reliable source of information about the fate of relatives and friends. In fact, however, all news reports and letters from soldiers were censored to stop the enemy from gaining useful knowledge.

Robert Borden, the Prime Minister, also believed that Canada's interests were linked to those of Britain. He pledged "to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honour of our Empire." Canada's participation could be fulfilled through voluntary measures: the government would not conscript men into the army to fight. Nor would Ottawa have to control the country's war effort.

Nevertheless, the government did pass the War Measures Act, legislation modelled very closely on a British statute, in August 1914. It gave the government the authority to undertake any action seen as necessary "for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada." Its sweeping powers included total control over transportation, trade and commerce, and property; censorship of the means of communication, notably newspapers; and the right to arrest and deport perceived enemies. Already, support for the war effort and the Canadian military was changing the nature of Canada.

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City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection).

Letter from Lieutenant-Colonel W.A. Griesbach to Miss Edna Clarke, 9 April 1915.

Griesbach tells a little girl the reasons why her father must go to Europe to fight the war.
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The War Measures Act, 1914, Statutes of Canada 1914, c. 2.

War Measures Act

 
 

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