Sunday, 29 January 2017

Sunday January 29th, 2017 Wold War One

The strain on Thunder Bay, Ontario and Canada began to show as the Great War entered its fourth year in 1917. National Service Week began on New Year’s Day. Each male between the ages of 16 and 65 was asked, as his patriotic duty, to complete a questionnaire indicating whether he would be willing to change his present work for other necessary work at the same pay during the war. The survey made no reference to military service but Canadians were suspicious and National Service Week was a failure. Meanwhile the cries for some form of compulsory service became more numerous and vociferous.

Prime Minister Borden attended sessions of the Imperial War Cabinet in London in the spring of 1917 and it was here that he learned how critical the manpower shortage in the Canadian Expeditionary Force was. He had no alternative. On 18 May, shortly after his return from London, he announced that conscription was now necessary. His announcement was greeted favourably by the many Ontarians who attended specially organised meetings and rallies. But hundreds of men and women gathered in the Toronto Labour Temple on 29 May to protest: ‘believing as we do that militarism is absolutely opposed to any form of democratic government’.

Protest meetings organised by socialists in the larger Ontario municipalities usually ended in confusion and disorder after soldiers and veterans in the audience heckled the platform speakers. Parliament passed the Military Service Act on 24 July and it came into force on 29 August. Local tribunals were appointed to hear claims for exemption which were based on grounds specified in the Act. Groups automatically exempted from conscription included returned men, Doukhobors, those Mennonites whose ancestors had immigrated to the west in 1873, and clergy of recognised religious denominations. Many appeals came from farmers who were furious that their sons and farm labourers could be conscripted at a time when, they were told, it was crucial that food production in Canada be increased.

Thousands of veterans had returned to Canada by the beginning of 1917. They had a strong desire to band together for companionship and to lobby for rehabilitation and jobs. Many felt alienated from the rest of society. There were several veterans’ clubs in existence by January 1917 but they soon realised that they could exert little pressure as autonomous local clubs scattered across the country. They must unite. Representatives of several clubs met in Toronto in March 1917 to make plans for a nationwide association, which came into being at a convention in Winnipeg in April. By the end of 1917 the Great War Veterans Association of Canada had 80 branches and 30,000 members.

The Ontario government announced in January 1917 that a soldier settlement would be established in Northern Ontario, near the Kapuskasing River. Only a small proportion of the veterans were interested in this project, as they wanted job opportunities in their home towns. Trouble erupted in April when groups of returned men demonstrated at Toronto munitions factories against the employment of aliens, whom they wished replaced by British subjects. Although veterans with no particular trade were in difficulty, there was no shortage of high paying jobs for machinists, toolmakers and other skilled workers in Ontario. The economy was booming as plants across the province were deluged with orders from the Imperial Munitions Board.

Munitions work was dangerous, and the pay was good, but in 1917 money was no guarantee of comfort. The effects of the long and costly war were reflected in commodity shortages as well as in an ever-increasing cost of living. There was a severe coal shortage in February and a severe hydro shortage in October. But the great fear at the beginning of 1917 was that Ontario could not produce enough food to satisfy the needs of the province, let alone contribute to the feeding of the rest of Canada and the world.  

Explore the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project here.

John Pateman

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