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Wartime Politics « Douglas Fisher



Reflections: Wartime Politics
Transcripts of interviews with Douglas

Prime Minster King was the leader of our effort during WWII, when Canadians made such a great effort for the Allied side, putting over a million people in uniform and creating an incredibly diverse economy. Now, it was not all in the hands of the prime minister. Down in the U.S., president was much more in charge  than the prime minister in Canada. This was due to the broad delegation of responsibilities. This was primarily due to the work of C.D. Howe – the person who was, in effect, in charge of the wartime economy. For example, creating and equipping all of the air bases in Canada that turned out pilots and air crew from Britain.

When you go from an army of 4,000 to an army of 600,000; when you go from a navy of  1,000 to a navy of almost 100,000; when you go from an air force of about 1,500 to an air force of 350,000, huge responsibilities are placed on both the bureaucracy and the cabinet.

King’s wartime Cabinet was not big, by today’s standards. He had 18 cabinet ministers, or so, and of them the powerful ones were the minister of defence Ralston, minister of trade, commerce and industry, Howe, and then the minister of finance was Oakley? But there was also a minister for the navy. Power was the minister for the air force and Angus L. Macdonald from Nova Scotia for the navy.

It was a controlled economy during the war, in which the government had very strong manpower policies so that they could direct people to appropriate places. They needed that control so that they could keep enough young men on the farms to turn out grain crops.

From 1935 until the end of the war, it is amazing what Canada achieved. This was a country of about 11 million people at the time. But it started readying for war in 1937, when the pace for conflict was triggered by reactions of the Americans and the Brits to the Japanese and Hitler. What you might call the arms race began and it involved spending and borrowing money. King was very ginger about this and so were his financial people. But, they began to take more of a lead and make this a national issue by the fact that there had been so much trouble with the provinces – with most of them being broke. Alberta was one of them, but it began to profit from the oil industry in the 1930s.

In that concentration of organization during the war, we had a bureaucracy and we had so-called “dollar-a-year” men come in. Donald Gordon, who was later the head of the CNR, was brought in as the number two guy in banking. They took control of so many things. There were ration cards and there was registering for national service and there was conscription. They used the people as if they were a pool of resources.

One of the things about the conscription, or the drafting young men for military training was to get them to sign on. There had been lots of volunteers in the first two years of the war and then it began to wane. The cream of all the kids available went into the air force. That was because they, of course, had the highest education. The military wanted senior matriculations – particularly for the key air crew. Now, later on in the war they would take guys barely out of high school as the air gunners and things like that. It was the quality part of the air force’s recruiting that stood out.

All of these things meant an enormous change in Canada. In the depression, we as a nation were just marking time. There was an awful lot of suffering and hardship around. All of a sudden things began to move and people began to move. By 1940, the disaster of Europe was making Hitler look triumphant. By 1941, when the Japanese attacked, things looked hopeless for Britain and the Commonwealth. Young people wanted to take part in the historical events. As a result, I wounded up on the west coast with the XII Manitoba Dragoons to defend it from the yellow peril within two weeks of Pearl Harbour. By Christmas of 1941, my regiment was out there on the lonely beaches on the straights of Juan de Fuca; facing the United States and fearing that in the middle of the night there might be a Japanese landing. There were so many disasters occurring in places like Hong Kong and the Philippines.

This all created Canada’s unbelievable war effort. Mackenzie King was hesitant about going too far, but the military did push him. They had plans for a six-and-a-half division army. A division is twelve to fifteen thousand, so that is a big army. Eventually, as the war closed there were five divisions and two separate army tank brigades. It was a tremendous drain and on top of that were the air force and the navy.

For example, miners were kept on their jobs. Nickel, lead and zinc were so important. Now, the miners did get more and more pay. And they were ready to strike if they didn’t. Workers like that were a major factor in the war effort.

Those were in some ways Canada’s finest hour. After the war, the bureaucrats took credit for it. They were not prepared to give any of the credit to generals or air marshals. It was a ‘war that we managed and arranged’ mindset. They deserved credit, but denied it to others.