Canada in the Second World War


W.L. Mackenzie King, The Organization of Canada’s War Effort

Broadcast, 31 October 1939
Reproduced from Canada at Britain’s Side, 1941, p. 43-56

Upon the foundations prepared by the government, and so speedily laid by parliament, we are now developing Canada’s war effort. Our actions have been controlled by the belief that, if we are to avoid errors of hasty and confused action, such as led to needless sacrifice of blood and treasure in the last war, the foundations must be well and truly laid. In what promises to be a long and exhausting struggle, our contribution will be all the more effective for careful planning. Modern war is a grim business. It demands cool judgment, and a balanced strategy.

I stated in parliament last March that, in the event of Canada taking part in a war, “participation could not be passive or formal, nor would it be unplanned or irresponsible”. I added that it was clear that the conditions determining the nature of participation in such a conflict had undergone a great change since the last war. I should like now to say something about those changed conditions; about the nature of the present conflict, and the policies essential to a successful prosecution of the struggle.

Those of you who have read the War Memoirs of Mr. Lloyd George, will have been impressed by the frequency of his references, throughout the four volumes, to the most fatal of all the errors of the last war. This was the tendency to imitate, or, worse still, to follow mechanically, what had been done in previous wars. Mr. Lloyd George mentions again and again the failure to realize that times change, and, with them, the weapons and technique of war itself. His memoirs are largely the story of his struggle against the tendency to do things in the same old way, and to repeat the old errors and the old mistakes.

The war of 1914-1918 is still vividly remembered by all who lived through those years. That memory inevitably provokes comparisons. Such comparisons, for several reasons, are apt to be misleading. Many new weapons have been developed as a result of discoveries and inventions made in the last war. Some of these developments were unforeseen even at its conclusion. When we recall that, at the beginning of the last war, neither submarines nor aircraft played any appreciable part, we are better able to realize that we are faced with a new kind of war. In 1914, governments were still mainly concerned about the number of men they could place in the field. What happened in 1914 should not be blindly repeated in 1939. New weapons demand a new technique of warfare.

Many of us still recall the feeling, widespread in 1914, that the war would be over within eight or nine weeks. We were incredulous when Kitchener prophesied that it would last at least four years. Today, we have no such easy optimism. The most competent military authorities believe this is not likely to be a short war. They advise that we prepare for a war of at least three years’ duration. Of course, no one can really foretell whether it will last that long, or whether it may go on even longer. All we know certainly is that we must prepare for a long and terrible struggle in which staying power, the power to hold out to the end may well be the decisive factor.


For Canada, the present war presents problems which did not exist in 1914. We have today, far greater responsibilities for the defence of our own territory and, especially, our coasts. In the war of 1914-1918, the defence of Canada was a secondary matter compared with our contribution to the allies overseas. Apart from guarding the approaches to the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic coast little was required in the way of Canadian defence. The two great powers on the far side of the Pacific, Russia and Japan, were allies of Great Britain. Japan assumed the task of naval patrol in the Pacific-the task, in fact, of defending our British Columbian coast. Today, at all times, we must be prepared, in so far as we can, to defend our western coast for ourselves. Furthermore, in the present war, submarine warfare has been faced from the outset. The problem of naval defence of the Atlantic coast and the St. Lawrence has assumed more serious proportions. Newfoundland and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon stand at our very door. Their protection is not less imperative to Canada’s security than to their own. We must, also, be prepared to do our share in convoying shipping. Our naval service is being called upon to play a part scarcely dreamed of in the last war, in defence of the territory and immediate interests of Canada.

In the actual defence of Canada, the air force is no less important than the naval service. No one can tell to what extent, before the war is over, the air force, as well as the naval service, may be required to protect our coastal areas, our ports and shipping terminals, our territorial waters, and the focal areas of our trade routes adjacent to our harbour mouths. The importance of the air force for the territorial defence of Canada, though less spectacular, may become as great as its importance to the allied effort overseas.

Canadian effort at the beginning of the war of 1914-1918 was centred on an expeditionary force. Throughout the war public attention was focused on Canada’s army in the field. We shall naturally follow with the keenest interest the achievements of the military forces we send overseas. However, in this war, our effort will be concerned, at least in equal measure, with the fighting forces on the sea and in the air.

The most effective contribution Canada can make in support of the allies is certain to differ greatly from our contribution in the last war. Our contribution to economic warfare may easily prove to be the most important of all. This is widely recognized in Great Britain. A leading economic journal has suggested that in addition to our traditional part as the granary of the Commonwealth, Canada may also become its arsenal. Our relative security from the hazards of air bombing, together with our relative nearness to Europe, both point in this direction.


I come now to the outline of what, in addition to planning, has thus far been accomplished. I have indicated some of the many directions in which the present war will make demands upon our resources, both human and material. Each of these demands will be costly. The necessary money can only come from taxation and borrowing, and there are limits to both. This, next to our determination to prevent unnecessary wastage of human lives, affords the strongest of reasons why we should seek to avoid spasmodic action and unrelated activities. So far as it is possible, Canada’s effort in this war must be a planned and concerted national effort.

On the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, we began consultations with the British Government in order to work out the most helpful lines of co-operation. As a result of these consultations, we were able, as soon as Canada entered the war, to proceed at once to organize our share of the joint effort.


Our contribution to the war has two outstanding aspects, the military and the economic. I shall review first our progress on the military side.


When the international situation became critical, late in August, we called up the militia for voluntary service. On September 1st, a part of the militia was placed on active service in Canada. Essential measures were taken for internal security and the preservation of public order. Coastal defence armament has been manned, batteries have been added to the defences of the main seaports and terminals on both coasts, and aircraft provided for the defence of air ports and harbours. Ten thousand armed Canadians provide garrisons for our seaports. A reserve force consisting of two divisions and a number of additional units has been organized with a strength of over forty-two thousand men. The units designed for overseas service have been selected so that all parts of Canada will be represented. The force includes four French-speaking infantry battalions. It is not without interest that the Maisonneuve Regiment of Montreal, true to the best traditions of old Canada, was amongst the first to reach its complement.


The Royal Canadian Navy, immediately at the outbreak of war, took comprehensive measures for the defence of Canadian ports and coasts. The Royal Canadian Naval Reserve and certain naval voluntary reserves have been called up. By the middle of September, nearly six thousand officers and men of the Canadian navy and reserve, or four thousand more than the peace-time strength, were either afloat, or at their bases. Our destroyers made record voyages to move to their predetermined stations. Our reserve merchant vessels, and fishing boats, and other small craft, were requisitioned, and are now efficiently performing their allotted duties. Our ships on the Atlantic coast are taking part in the convoy system, and to date not a single ship leaving Canada has been lost. Our dockyards are, and our shipyards will soon be, working to capacity. Our mine-sweepers are performing their important duties. Our regular and auxiliary fighting ships are fully armed with torpedoes, depth charges and ammunition. Our naval forces are, in addition, co-operating with the British Navy in the protection of Newfoundland and the West Indies.


The eyes of our people have turned, with particular interest and pride, to the Royal Canadian Air Force. The air record of Canada in the last war, and the gallantry, the self-reliance, and the mechanical skill of our Canadian youth, have kindled the imagination and fired the enthusiasm of the allied nations, as well as our own. At the outbreak of war, all available squadrons were moved to their war stations, with special concentrations upon the east coast. The Air Force is at present assisting in the patrol of the shipping lanes of the Atlantic seaboard, the convoying of merchant vessels, and the varied business of national defence.


By far the most important development in the air is the agreement between the governments of Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia, to establish in Canada advanced training facilities for pilots from all four countries. On the fifteenth of this month, a British Air Training Mission, headed by Lord Riverdale, arrived in Ottawa. They are being joined by similar Missions, now on their way from Australia and New Zealand, to work out the details of the scheme with the officials of the Canadian government. All the countries involved, including ourselves, will be individually responsible for elementary training. Advanced training on a very large scale, involving in the first year, many millions of dollars and many thousands of men, will be concentrated in Canada. This may well mean that the final victory will be shaped on Canadian soil-for who can exaggerate the importance of this great co-operative effort in the training of men and the forging of an overwhelming air strength.

Apart from the measures for the immediate territorial defence of Canada, which had been prepared for long in advance, the problem of working out our full military effort has inevitably involved much detailed consideration. It is essential that Canada keep in step with the allied powers. To do so, we have been in constant touch with the British Government, which, in turn, has been in the closest association with the French. In order that our own and the other governments may have more complete information, one of our senior Ministers, Mr. Crerar, has recently gone to London for direct conversations with the British Government and representatives of the other governments of the Commonwealth. In our military effort, we are determined to avoid wasteful sacrifice. We are not concerned to make it spectacular; but we are vitally concerned to make it effective.


I turn now from the military to the economic aspect of our war effort. In embarking upon a war, the public naturally think first of the fighting forces, and, only secondarily, of war materials and supplies. I have already shown that in modern warfare the emphasis has shifted from crude manpower to material resources and technical skill. The equipment of war: rifles, machine guns, field guns, tanks, submarines, destroyers, mine-sweepers, cruisers, battleships, and, above all, aircraft, are not only increasingly costly to produce, but they are required in ever greater quantities. War has an ever-growing appetite for munitions of all kinds: cartridges, high explosive shells, bombs and torpedoes. Troops require shelter, clothing and foodstuffs.

In order to have the tremendous quantities of supplies available at the right time, and in the right place, it is imperative that the economic life of Canada be reorganized, but not disorganized. The economic forces of the country require to be mobilized, just as the armed forces are mobilized. This task can be performed, in the main, only by the national government. Its adequate performance, however, demands the co-operation of provincial and municipal authorities, as well as of business, labour, the farmers and other primary producers, and of voluntary organizations of all kinds.


The government had not waited for the outbreak of war to tackle the problem of war purchases and supply. It was known that the organization and mobilization of the resources and industries available to Canada, in the contingency of war, would necessitate, at the outset, a survey of Canadian industry and industrial capacity. This survey was completed some time ago. At the session of parliament prior to the war, provision was made for the establishment of a Defence Purchasing Board. The Board was set up in July and had begun to function actively before the outbreak of war. War conditions demanded speedier procedure and wider powers than we felt were justified in peace time. These were given under provisions of the War Measures Act. The government, at the same time, proceeded to establish a War Supply Board, with enlarged powers and increased personnel. The organization of the War Supply Board has been completed. It will, tomorrow morning, take over the duties of the Defence Purchasing Board. The War Supply Board will continue the task of organizing and mobilizing the nation’s resources and industries, and dealing with the problems involved in the handling of supplies, the construction and extension of defence projects, and the approval of contracts for equipment and supplies required by all three branches of our armed forces. Since September 8th the British Government has had a War Purchasing Mission in Canada. Arrangements have been made between that Mission and the government for the War Supply Board to act as purchasing agent in Canada for supplies for the United Kingdom. The War Supply Board will thus be responsible for the mobilization in Canada of all available resources of industrial production to meet the needs of our allies and ourselves.

The government is determined that the difficulties experienced in the last war, in securing munitions and supplies rapidly, and in adequate volume, shall not arise from any failure to provide an adequate organization, in Canada, to meet the demands of the present war. We, therefore, as I have already indicated, obtained authority from parliament to set up a separate department of Munitions and Supply, whenever it may be felt by the government that the progress of the war demands a more elaborate organization.


Within a few hours of the outbreak of war, the government established the War-Time Prices and Trade Board to prevent hoarding, profiteering, and undue rise in prices of necessities. The duties and powers of the Board are extensive. It confers with manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, with a view to enlisting their co-operation in ensuring reasonable prices, adequate supplies, and equitable distribution of all necessaries of life. If deemed necessary for the prevention of excessive demand or excessive price the Board may license manufacturers or dealers or fix maximum prices. Wherever, after investigation, hoarding or profiteering has been found to exist, the Board has not hesitated, and will not hesitate, to take criminal proceedings. Special administrators have been appointed, under the War-Time Prices and Trade Board, for wool, sugar, hides and leather, and coal. It may be necessary for the Board, from time to time, to appoint other administrators to supervise trading in other commodities where such supervision is required to maintain a proper balance in the national economy and to protect the interests of consumers.

Among other agencies organized to assist the government in the mobilization of our economic resources, are an Agricultural Supplies Committee, to direct and co-ordinate the production of essential foods and fibres; and a Licensing Board, which has the function of licensing shipping. An Economic Advisory Committee has also been appointed to study economic problems as they arise during the war, and to advise the government, from time to time, in connection with the co-ordination of the work of governmental boards and agencies operating in the economic field.


Our whole war effort, both military and economic, at home as well as overseas, depends, as I have already said, upon finance. Without a wisely planned apportioning of our financial resources, neither our military forces nor our industrial and agricultural resources could be put to work for the defence of our cause. Internally and externally, we are, today, in a much better position, than was the case in 1914, to control our finances, and to ensure that the economic burdens of the war are shared equitably by all citizens. By means of our broadly-based tax system, we shall seek to meet, as the war proceeds, as much as we can of the financial costs of the war. The War Budget, although necessarily burdensome, was founded upon the very just principle of taxation-ability to pay. Upon those making profits from the war, we have placed a heavy excess profits tax.

The success of the recent short-term loan, bearing interest at 2 per cent, is a tribute to the wisdom of our financial policy. A large part of the proceeds of this war loan is being used to buy back, from Great Britain, a block of Canadian securities, bearing interest at 3% per cent, which the British Government wishes to sell in order to buy Canadian wheat, bacon, cheese and other primary products, as well as munitions and warlike equipment. In this way the war loan will not only be helping Great Britain, but also Canada.

Among other important financial measures, adopted daring the first month, of war, has been the setting up of a complete system of exchange control, to conserve our financial resources, and particularly our supplies of foreign exchange. This measure has been generally acclaimed as the best and fairest way of preventing the dissipation of our capital into speculative or other unessential uses abroad.


The government has also taken measures to ensure the internal security of Canada. Provision has been made for the registration of aliens, for protection against sabotage and espionage, and for effective censorship under a Censorship Co-ordination Committee. In every aspect of Canada’s war effort, my colleagues and I have taken and will continue to take all possible precautions to see that partisanship, personal influence, or political patronage provide no avenue to promotion, personal advancement, or private or corporate profit. We have, in our war effort, been greatly encouraged and materially assisted by the all but overwhelming offers of voluntary service for war work of all kinds. These unsolicited offers are a tribute to the spirit of the Canadian people. A Voluntary Service Registration Bureau has been established to co-ordinate these offers of service. Especially gratifying has been the co-operative attitude of the organizations of Canadian labour, and of the veterans of the last war.

I regret that the time at my disposal prevents me from making mention of the organization of many other phases of Canada’s war effort, or of giving a fuller account of what has been accomplished. The mere outline I have given will be sufficient, I hope, to afford some idea of what is involved in changing a nation’s economy from a peace-time to a war-time basis.


I have said nothing whatever of our inter-imperial and international relations. I ought, perhaps, to say that no matters have been more important nor required more careful consideration than many of the constitutional, diplomatic and political problems which the war has served to raise. It is not alone in relation to other parts of the Commonwealth and to foreign countries that questions of the kind have arisen. In its determination to sustain and further Canada’s war effort, the government has found it necessary to be active on the political, as well as on the military and economic fronts. It is doubtful if Canada could have made, within the first two months of war, a more helpful contribution to the cause of the allies than that signified by the decisive pronouncement of a week ago (results of elections in Quebec). Certainly nothing which has happened in our country, since Confederation, has contributed more to Canadian unity. Upon the maintenance of national unity, more than upon all else, will depend the measure of the success of Canada’s effort in the present war.