Canada in the Second World War



On August 23, 1939, Germany astonishes the world by announcing that it has signed, in spite of its deeply anticommunist ideology, a pact with the USSR. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (from the signatories’ names) includes a non-aggression clause, a trade agreement and a secret provision dividing the Polish territory between the two powers. This time, France and Great Britain, even though the clauses on the partition of Poland remain unknown, can no longer harbour any doubts over the fate awaiting that country. But contrary to Hitler’s expectations, Great Britain takes a firm stand and on August 24 signs a mutual assistance agreement with Poland. The British Parliament meets and proclaims the state of emergency.

In Canada, Prime Minister King sets up an Emergency Council on August 30, which on the following day calls back the Parliament for an extraordinary session. The War Measures Act is proclaimed and the armed forces mobilized.

The same day, after failed negotiations, German tanks and bombers invade the Polish territory. On September 3, at 9:00 am, the British government demands the withdrawal of German forces within two hours. At 11:00 am, the French government does likewise.

I am speaking to you [from] the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning, the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by eleven o’clock, that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now, that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.
– Neville Chamberlain, September 3, 1939

World War II has started.

On September 3, 1939, Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King (right of microphone) and Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe (left) speak to the nation on the CBC radio network, King in English and Lapointe in French.

On September 3, 1939, Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King (right of microphone) and Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe (left) speak to the nation on the CBC radio network, King in English and Lapointe in French.
National Film Board / National Archives of Canada, C-016770.

With the exception of Newfoundland, which is not yet part of the Canadian Confederation, Canada is not at war. But for most Canadians the Parliament’s decision is obvious: Canada will go to war on Great Britain’s side. But what form will that assistance take? Will conscription be considered? The country is feverish, veterans from WWI and young men are already queuing outside recruitment offices. Tension is at its highest as a whole country waits…

Parliament meets for an extraordinary session on September 7. In his following day address, Mackenzie King sums up the situation and proposes that war be declared. He foresees that Canada will take all measures necessary to protect its territory, will cooperate closely with Great Britain and will supply military material as well as food. For the time being, however, King does not wish to present a detailed plan of action, mentioning only a training program for pilots and the expansion of air force and naval facilities. Not a word about either sending troops overseas or conscription. The moment is dramatic, the House of Commons sets asides all differences of position and, almost unanimously, votes for declaring war. On September 10, the state of war is proclaimed.

German warplanes continued devastating and widespread bombing of Poland today while the Polish Army worked to establish itself along a new defense line skirting the Vistula River. It was estimated that 1,000,000 men were being massed on the east bank of the Vistula, while others were being prepared for a defensive stand along the Bug River.
 The Globe and Mail, Toronto, September 11, 1939.

‘If we do not win this war on the banks of the Rhine, we are going to have to fight it on the banks of the St. Lawrence.’ Terse, logical, uncompromising, Right Hon. Arthur Meighen [Leader of the Opposition], from the floor of the Senate Chamber yesterday drove home to Canadians the meaning of the Anglo-French struggle against Germany. The only remaining wartime minister in the present Parliament, Mr. Meighen declared that a defeat on the Rhine meant the end of the world, ‘as we have known it.’
– The Globe and Mail, Toronto, September 11, 1939.

Until now, the people of Canada has been informed that our country has officially declared war to Germany and that there will be no conscription, two facts that were expected and caused no surprise. Today, we learn the most important part; the part that the people of Canada will be called to pay from the start; the way government will tax income, the interest rate paid on national bonds. It was officially announced this morning that the government will ask the Parliament to authorize a budget of $100,000,000. 
 La Presse, Montréal, September 11, 1939.