Charles F. Horne and Walter F. Austin, eds., The Great Events of the Great War, vol. 7 ([New York]: National Alumni, 1923). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc.

"The Peacemakers," Paris, France, n.d.

Canada had earned recognition as an independent nation following the First World War, but it was not among the power brokers. This photo shows the leaders of the major democracies at the entrance to the Place des Etats Unis. From left to right: the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George; the Italian Premier, Vittorio Orlando; the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau; and the U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson.

Canada's status on the world stage had changed dramatically as a result of the First World War. Before 1914, Great Britain had strongly influenced major Canadian foreign policy decisions. Then, Canada's participation in the First World War earned it recognition as an autonomous nation. Following the war, Canada participated in the formation of an organization to resolve international disputes, the League of Nations. Rather than being represented by Britain in the League, Canada sat as an independent nation. In 1922, Turkish violations of the 1919 treaty had prompted the British government to request troops from the dominion to support British troops at Chanak in the demilitarized zone. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King refused to send Canadian troops to Chanak, dramatically illustrating Canada's new independence of action within the British Empire and Commonwealth. Later, the 1931 Statute of Westminster ratified Canada's de facto autonomous status within the British Empire. Canada would, however, remain freely associated with the mother country as a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Despite its new status, Canada continued to play a small role on the world stage -- as it had before the First World War. Robert Borden, still the prime minister in the immediate post-war years, thought that the League of Nations was a step towards the acceptance of the rule of law among nations. He was doubtful, however, that it could impose order on international affairs. Borden's successor, Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King, was even more skeptical about the usefulness of the League. Under King's leadership, Canada generally treated the organization with indifference and neglect. Raoul Dandurand, an early Canadian emissary to the League of Nations, neatly summarized this isolationist attitude in his statement that Canadians live "in a fireproof house, far from the sources of conflagration."

National Archives of Canada (PA-138867, photo by Skitch Studio).

The Prime Minister, W.L.M. King, during Election Campaign, Cobourg, Ontario, 1926.

William Lyon Mackenzie King had learned from the conscription crisis of the First World War. During his long years as Prime Minister (1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948), he endeavoured to avoid international commitments that would force Canada to commit manpower. In the late 1930s, King attempted to help negotiate a diplomatic settlement between the Western democracies and Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, when war broke out, King's government committed its support to Britain and the empire. Unlike in the First World War, however, Canada's war effort was not to be to the last man or the last dollar. Instead, King implemented a policy of "limited liabilities" that emphasized the provision of economic and material support to the Allies.

In the post-war world, Canada's military policy was as timid as its foreign policy. Canada remained under the security umbrella provided by Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Nonetheless, the government attempted on occasion to assert Canadian autonomy. For instance, during the 1920s, Canada rejected offers to strengthen ties between the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy.

The main consideration in Canadian military planning, however, was financial. Throughout the 1920s, the government cut defence expenditures. The Great Depression saw Canada continue to cut defence spending through most of the 1930s. The government was more concerned with domestic problems than foreign affairs and remained isolated from ominous developments in Europe and Asia.

As war increasingly appeared on the horizon in the later 1930s, Canada's leaders could do little but moralize about what ought to be done. Like former allies Britain, the United States, and France, Canada offered only slight criticism when Italy provoked war with Ethiopia in Africa. Indeed, Canada was ultimately instrumental in scuttling efforts by the League of Nations to use sanctions to cut off Mussolini's supply of oil, coal, iron, and steel. Canada also did nothing to oppose the aggressive expansion of Japan when it successfully invaded the Chinese territory of Manchuria in 1931. Similarly, Canada followed the lead of other nations in appeasing Nazi Germany. Realistically, Canada lacked the military might to confront these aggressor nations, but its role in diplomacy by undermining the League's sanctions is more difficult to rationalize.

National Archives of Canada (C-029461).

Participants in March on Ottawa Boarding Train, Alberta, June 1935.

The men shown here were protesting against the unemployment policies of R.B. Bennett's federal government. During the worst periods of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate surpassed 20 per cent.

Yet the Canadian prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, like his European allies, slowly realized that war with Germany was inevitable. He further understood that Canada would be obligated to participate, especially if Great Britain was involved. Like Borden, King had to balance feelings in English Canada with those in French-speaking Quebec. The former emphasized loyalty to the mother country; the latter emphasized the avoidance of foreign commitments (a position in accord with King's personal views). Canada would go to war if Germany were the aggressor, but King assured Quebec that in the event of war he would not bring in conscription.

Yet, in spite of the danger of war, King was very slow to undertake military preparations. As tensions increased in Europe and the Far East in 1936, the Canadian Chief of General Staff, Major-General Andrew McNaughton implemented an expansion and reorganization of the militia to include additional infantry, machine gun, and tank battalions, and anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery units. However, the Liberal government was slow to implement these changes. In 1939, the defence budget totalled just $36.3 million. The next year, it reached $64.7 million, with almost half going to the air force. The permanent force army, with approximately 4,200 officers and partially trained men, had little or no modern military equipment. A first, and important, step to modernization was the contract let in 1938 for enough BREN light machine guns to equip two divisions, the planned overseas force. Unfortunately, Canadian troops were in England before any BRENs came off the production line. Also, in 1938, the Canadian Armoured Fighting Vehicles School was established at Camp Borden. The opening of this school allowed soldiers and units to start training in mechanized warfare. The Royal Canadian Navy had barely 2,000 men and the Royal Canadian Air Force, just over 3,000.

(1) Figures are for fiscal year ending nearest to 31 December of year named.
(2) Formerly Defence and Mutual Aid.

Canadian Defence Expenditures 1920-1938.

Adapted from Series H19-34.
Federal government budgetary expenditure, classified by function, 1867 to 1975:
Statistics Canada's Internet Site [30 March 2000].

City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A96-215, Box 15).

Why Should We Fight for England.


At least a detailed, well thought-out mobilization plan was in place. It provided for an overseas expeditionary force of two divisions. The plan was simple with authority delegated right down to militia regiment level and, once implemented, it worked superbly in August and September.


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