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Vancouver during WWI : The Homefront

This is a repost of a blog from several years ago. It commemorates those who nobly served and fought for the freedom of future generations.

In commemoration of this year’s Remembrance Day, we will explore another aspect of the connection between WWI and Vancouver. World War One, The War to End All Wars, the War of All Nations, the Great War… it was an event of global importance that symbolized the end of the old era and the birth of the 20th century. And, as we’ll see shortly, the four years during which it raged in Europe were also formative years for our young city. The first noticeable effect of the war on Vancouver was the sudden decline in men. Vancouver sent more men to fight, per capita, than any other major city in Canada. B.C. contributed more volunteers in proportion to its population than any other province. So many went that Vancouver’s population fell by 26,000 and didn’t recover until 1919. The Canadian Great War Association identified 1,401 Canadians killed in the First World War who had next-of-kin addresses in Vancouver. Of those who did return, many would be physically injured or suffer from “shell-shock”, now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Click here for an excellent article that goes into the Japanese-Canadians, First Nations, and African-Canadians struggles to join the vast numbers of white Canadians enlisted.

While the war was playing reaper with the city’s population, things on the home front were shifting ceaselessly. Some of the most influential changes are listed below, though the list is far from exhaustive:

The Economy As a result of the declaration of war, the Vancouver Stock Exchange suspended trading for two months. Speculation was grim about the harsh realities that the war would have on the common folk. Would the young and bustling city (only 20-odd years old at this point) be crippled before it was barely established? There are few things as dangerous as panic, and within the first month of the war, food merchants begin selling out as people were hoarding food, preparing for the worst.

Luckily, this fear was unfounded – the province of BC did wonderfully – economically speaking – during the Great War. The war machine was hungry for natural resources, and BC was quick to feed it. Rapid industrialization began – in 1910 there were 40 registered forest companies, and by 1918 there were 140. Where the province had a single pulp mill before the war, by its end there were six. Copper, used in shell casings, became B.C.’s most valuable mineral commodity with exports tripling to $18 million a year. Zinc production, another strategic military metal, grew sevenfold.

In 1914, industrial output for B.C. was less than $150 million a year. By the war’s end it was $400 million, with dramatic increases in both resource extraction and manufacturing. The development also accelerated urbanization, as populations concentrated in the Fraser Valley, around Vancouver and on southern Vancouver Island near Victoria. Before the war, only 20 per cent of the population was urban. After the war, the ratio had begun to reverse and more than half lived in cities.

Alien Enemies The Vancouver of over 100 years ago was not the hallmark of diversity that it is today. Deep-seeded racism underpinned many aspects of life, affecting where one could work and if one had the right to vote. The Great War had the strongest effect on the Austrian and German members of Vancouver’s (and Canada’s) population.

In May of 1916, the Vancouver City Council made enquiries of all not-yet-naturalized city residents of German or Austrian birth to determine if they should be interned or deported. Deemed “Alien Enemies,” those not deported or interned were required to report to the police every two weeks.

Unionize! Rumblings of unionization began in the early 1900s, but came into public fruition in Vancouver during the 1910s. A series of strikes and boycotts rocked the city (and the police department) right up until the late 1930s.

The 1912 Free Speech riot was one of many public outcries against “wage slavery” and anti-labour government. It set the stage for the next 25 years of labour disputes in the city.

During the war, it seemed that all factions of Vancouver’s working world are uniting and fighting for their rights. The effect of this even went beyond Vancouver: Seattle longshoremen and others on the West Coast boycotted all ships going to or coming from Vancouver in support of striking Vancouver longshoremen.  Other prominent organizations organized strikes at the time:

  • Fire department,

  • City streetcars,

  • Dominion Postal Workers,

  • Vancouver Trades and Labor Council held a general strike – the first in Canadian history

Although the Vancouver Police Department didn’t go on strike, the department was torn by the responsibilities it had to keep the public peace during strikes and public demonstrations, and dealing with the pressure from within to form its own union.

Prohibition British Columbia voters determined that liquor prohibition would become a reality in the province on October 1st, 1917. A social experiment that was often more slap-stick than anything, it certainly affected the City of Vancouver and its residents. After a short-lived period of calm, perhaps while Vancouverites figured out the loopholes of the new system, and the city basically returned to drinking as much as it had before… just not quite as legally.

For the first seven months, you could still legally buy alcohol outside the province and have it shipped to your home. Once that was nixed, a thriving black market made up of bootleggers, crooked pharmacists and doctors, and arbitrary and corrupt (often class-based) enforcement and punishment proved the experiment a failed one. A new vote in 1920 repealed prohibition in BC, opting to revert the liquor business to a system of government control.

Side note: Beyond the repercussions of the prohibition, the iconic 1917 vote was also a stepping stone for women winning the right to vote.

And So Much More A researcher would be hard-pressed to find another four-year period in Vancouver’s history so rife with history-making events and changes. Women’s right to vote, the maritime disaster of HMS Sophia, the beginnings of the Influenza epidemic, dramatic robberies… just to name a few. All of this, relegated to second-page news. War in Europe eclipsed everything – both in the news and on the minds of all Vancouverites.

November 11, 1918 ; Ottawa Citizen And finally, on November 11th, 1918, Vancouver came together to celebrate Armistice and the end of the Great War. After years of anticipation and heartbreak, the streets were filled with jubilation and relief.

Today, over a century later, we likely won’t see the streets filled shoulder-to-shoulder, and hopefully we won’t need to experience the overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude that comes with the end of such a tragic moment, but we certainly won’t forget. In commemoration to all those who have served our country in times of needs, both in the past and today, thank you. For more reading about Vancouver during WWI, check out these other blogs:


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