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.