Book Review: “A Time Such as There Never Was Before,” by Alan Bowker

Published by Dundurn, 438 pp. $34.99

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

12570 Mike Kennedy

Amid the unprecedented turmoil of the current Covid-19 pandemic, we are at times painfully  reminded that a century ago Canada, and indeed much of the world, was writhing in the grip of a similarly mysterious and deadly plague. The strange new disease that had first appeared during the summer of 1918 rapidly raced across the country, and by the end of that year some 50,000 Canadians had fallen victim to the “Spanish Lady”. That was an incredible trauma for a country whose population was a fraction of what it is today, and one that had already lost tens of thousands of her sons to the most devastating war the world had experienced up to that point in time.

But the pandemic of 1918 was just one of a number of pivotal events that would transform Canada as a society in the years that followed in the wake of the Great War of 1914 – 18. In A Time Such as There Never Was Before author Alan Bowker, a long-serving career diplomat who at one time taught history at RMC, chronicles the many astonishing changes that took place in our country as the early 1920s unfolded. The book is a fascinating read, and one that reveals much about how Canada came to become the society that we know today.

The Canada of 1914 was a serene and genteel outpost of the British Empire whose citizens were intensely proud of their Imperial heritage and staunchly loyal to the Mother Country. When war erupted in Europe in August of that year, it was taken as a matter of course that Canadians would join the fray and do their bit to help defeat the Huns. Initially, it was expected that the war itself would be a short lived affair that would be over by Christmas, and in 1914 certainly no one in their wildest dreams could have foreseen that it would deteriorate into the drawn-out, bloody quagmire that it eventually became.

By the time the guns finally fell silent in the autumn of 1918, the Great War was a drama that had touched every family in Canada. Well over 600,000 Canadians had enlisted for service, and of those, some 60,000 had died, and countless others had survived the fighting being irrevocably wounded in body, or in spirit, and in all too many cases, both. It was an extraordinary contribution for a fledgling young nation that was barely 50 years old, and home to just eight million souls.

Troops of the Dominion had first gone into action at Ypres in the spring of 1915, and as the war ground on they would play a critical role in some of the most important Allied victories, notably the assault on Vimy Ridge in 1917, and during the “Hundred Days” that led to the final German capitulation the following year. Those who were lucky enough to survive in one piece began to return home in early 1919, and the year that followed the Armistice would see a torrent of over 250,000 newly demobilized Canadian soldiers land up on Civvy Street.

When they arrived, in many cases they were greeted with a hero’s welcome, but once the bands stopped playing and the cheering crowds went home, this enormous new generation of battle-hardened veterans were quickly confronted with the sobering realities of life in postwar Canada. Times were tough, jobs were scarce, and wartime inflation had significantly increased the cost of living. These circumstances spelled bad news for the returning soldiers: many had only a handful of years of schooling and few skills that were readily marketable in the civilian economy. A well-intentioned but poorly conceived system of postwar reintegration did little to facilitate their transition back into the civilian world. Not surprisingly, frustrations rapidly mounted, and many recently returned veterans called for more support and better treatment, only to watch their pleas invariably fall on deaf ears.

The victorious Canadian warriors also soon discovered that in many respects the country they were returning home to was a very different place from the one they had left just a few short years previously. The massive national effort that had expended every available resource in support of the war effort had wrought profound and far-reaching changes which were readily apparent to the men coming home. As one example, women, who in pre-war Canada had been perennially relegated to their traditional roles as wives and mothers, had out of necessity become much more independent and self-reliant. One consequence of the hardships that they had endured while working to keep the home fires burning was that support for women’s suffrage skyrocketed.

By the time the war had ended, six provinces – Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia – had granted women the right to vote. At the Federal level, in September 1917, the government of Sir Robert Borden passed the Wartime Elections Act, under which women whose fathers, husbands, or brothers were on active service were allowed to vote until the time their male relatives were demobilized. Less than a year later, Parliament passed the Act to Confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women, which granted women full voting equality with men as of January 1919.

One of the most dramatic harbingers of the many changes in postwar Canadian society that were yet to come took place six months after the Armistice. On Thursday, May 15, to back their demands for better wages, working conditions, and the right to collective bargaining, 30,000 workers walked off the job in what would come to be remembered by history as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. It was a massive and unprecedented labour stoppage of a kind that had never before been seen in Canada, and one that effectively shut down the city’s economy. Overnight, residents of the city found themselves at the mercy of the Central Strike Committee, who to their credit took great pains to ensure that citizens continued to be provided with the necessities that were needed to survive, while at the same time continuing to press the strikers’ demands.

At the time, Winnipeg was Canada’s third-largest city, and a coalition of local business and political leaders rushed to condemn the strike, and dismiss it as the work of a small group of Bolshevik agitators. They steadfastly refused to negotiate with the strikers, who in their turn stood firm in their demands, and continued to protest in an orderly and law-abiding manner. Meanwhile, the situation in Winnipeg was watched over in trepidation by Ottawa, and the decision was quickly made to dispatch armed troops to the Prairie city in case the situation turned ugly.

The confrontation that everyone dreaded finally erupted on June 21, a day that would be known ever after as “Bloody Saturday”. It began with what was supposed to be a peaceful march by the strikers down Winnipeg’s Main Street. As the marchers approached the city’s downtown, Mayor Charles Gray requested the intervention of the Royal North West Mounted Police, who charged on horseback swinging billy clubs in a futile attempt to disperse the crowd. The situation grew increasingly raucous, and at one point the strikers overturned a streetcar and set it alight. Meanwhile, the police regrouped and launched s renewed attack, this time firing their revolvers into the crowd in three separate volleys. One protester was shot dead and numerous others were wounded, one of who later died in hospital of gangrene.

The Winnipeg General Strike soon came to an end, thankfully without further incident. In the short term, it accomplished little in terms of advancing the strikers’ demands, but its longer-term impact would be far more significant. The events surrounding the strike highlighted in stark detail the tensions that existed between the privileged elite and the working class whose toil was the source of their wealth, and helped to set the stage for the rise of the organized labour movement in Canada in the decades that were to follow.

In 1904 Sir Wilfrid Laurier had famously proclaimed that “the 20th century will be the century of Canada”, and indeed as the nation moved forward into the third decade of the new century, the winds of change continued to be felt in many other corridors of Canadian society. One of the most important postwar developments related to the changing role of organized religion. Canada of the early 20th century was a staunchly Christian nation composed in the main of God-fearing Protestants and equally devout Roman Catholics. In both big cities and tiny hamlets, churches were the anchors of the communities they served, and ecclesiastical leaders of all denominations held sway over their congregations, at times in a manner worthy of benevolent dictators.

The experience of the Great War, however, had seriously undermined the previously unquestioned authority of the church. For men who had lived their entire lives in small communities where the arrival of the annual Eatons catalogue was their main link to the outside world, enlisting for service would provide the only opportunity most would ever have to venture away from their hometowns, and experience the world that lay beyond. In the minds of many of those who fought at the front and were lucky enough to return home to tell the tale, the horrors they witnessed while serving in the trenches raised serious doubts about the legitimacy of the religious teachings on which they had been raised. Not surprisingly, fault lines began to appear, and church leaders struggled to deal with the newly emergent scepticism they saw in many of their previously obedient parishioners. One perspective on the Great War’s impact was offered by the Methodist minister S.D. Chown, who was a central player in the founding of the United Church in 1925. The war, noted Reverend Chown, had “shattered many structures of belief in which devout people found refuge from the storms of life.”

Another area where there was a sea change of attitudes in the years that followed the war related to Canadians’ views regarding the consumption of liquor. Though Canada never went so far as to  implement full-on Prohibition similar to that enacted in the United States, this was certainly not due to a want of trying. In the years leading up to the war there was no shortage of vocal advocates for the notion of temperance, and governments were soon to heed their warnings about the many evils of drink.

Consequently, by 1918 the sale and consumption of alcohol had become more tightly restricted than time in the nation’s history. Alcohol could not be purchased in stores or consumed in public, and saloons and hotel bars had vanished from the landscape. Breweries had shuttered their doors en masse, and the few that remained were limited to producing “near beer” that could have no more that 1.5% alcohol content. Private citizens still had the right to make their own beer or wine, but they could not sell it or serve it outside their homes. The only way to obtain hard liquor was for medicinal purposes, and this required a doctor’s prescription.

One can only imagine the sufferings of RMC cadets of that era!

The stringent regulations that had been imposed during the war years were viewed with mixed feelings by the population. Naturally, they were warmly embraced by the many who perceived alcohol as being the root of society’s ills, but they did not sit well with the working class and especially with recently returned veterans, many of whom bitterly resented being deprived of one of the few pleasures they had enjoyed in their lives before the war. As time went by, pressures mounted on governments to relax the draconian rules that had been implemented, and to appease those who protested the regulations lawmakers began to relent.

The eventual solution was to permit the sale of liquor in a manner that was carefully controlled by provincial governments. In 1921, Quebec began to permit liquor to be sold by the glass, and two years later, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta authorized the provincial sale of liquor. In 1927, Ontario and New Brunswick created their own provincially controlled liquor control boards, and by 1930 Nova Scotia had established its provincial liquor commission. Apparently, many Canadians viewed these changes as welcome developments, as evidenced by the fact that consumption of beer nationwide swelled from 35 million gallons to 52 million gallons less than a decade later.

Fortunately for the population, the grim economic conditions that the soldiers had returned home to proved to be short-lived. By the autumn of 1920 the pandemic which had begun two years earlier had largely abated, and starting in 1921 the economy began to grow rapidly, fuelled by huge global demand for Canada’s natural resources and agricultural output. Over the next several years, unemployment shrunk to historic lows, wages improved, and Canadians basked in a newly discovered sense of prosperity. As a result, many families were now able to afford luxuries that had been previously unheard of, such as washing machines, toasters, sewing machines, and vacuums.

Probably nowhere did the effects of tidal wave of economic buoyancy manifest itself so visibly as in the ownership of motor vehicles. At the time Canadians first marched off to war in 1914, there were a scant 75,000 vehicles registered to the country’s eight million inhabitants. When they returned five years later, a brand-new Ford Model T could be had for $500, the equivalent of approximately $7,550 in today’s dollars. Over the next ten years demand for automobiles went through the roof, and by 1930, when the population had just crossed the ten million mark, there were 1.25 million motor vehicles registered throughout the land.

The exponential growth in motor vehicle ownership quickly laid bare the need to do something about the dilapidated state of Canada’s roadways. At the end of the war, the Dominion stretched from the easternmost tip of Cape Breton to the shores of the Pacific ocean, a distance of some 4,000 miles, but this vast expanse of territory had barely one thousand miles of paved roads. Virtually all the rest consisted of primitive, poorly maintained tracks that were challenging to navigate at the best of times, and virtually impassable in bad weather or winter.

Recognizing the need to do something to accommodate the rapidly expanding population of automobiles, in 1919 Ottawa passed the Canada Highways Act, which was intended to support provincial road construction efforts by subsidizing them to the tune of 40%. By the spring of 1928 a total of $20 million of Federal money had been spent for this purpose, and the mileage of paved roadways had grown tenfold.

As Canadians took to the roads in record numbers, the manufacturing sector also benefited handsomely. Entrepreneurs like Sam McLaughlin of Oshawa and Gordon McGregor of Windsor partnered respectively with General Motors and Ford to assemble cars and trucks, with the result that by the late 1920’s Canada was the world’s second-largest producer of motor vehicles, with eleven factories turning out 200,000 cars by 1929. Demand for products like petroleum and rubber soared, and it is worth noting that it was during this period that one of Canada’s best-known and most ubiquitous consumer brands was born.  In September 1922, the Billies brothers of Toronto invested their life savings of $1,800 (equivalent to $27,000 today) in a downtown tire shop. The business apparently prospered, and five years later they renamed it as “Canadian Tire” because “it sounded big”. The rest, as we now know almost exactly 100 years later, was history.

Bowker suggests that if Canada was able to reach any zenith in the years that followed the Great War, that moment undoubtedly came in the summer of 1927, when on July 1 the nation reached the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation. The occasion was marked by a spectacular celebration, the likes of which had never been seen before. Forty thousand people gathered on Parliament Hill to take part in a ceremony presided over by the Prime Minister and the Governor General; countless thousands of others from coast to coast tuned in on newly acquired radios to listen to the dignitaries remarks. One of the special guests was none other than the aviator Charles Lindbergh, who just two months earlier had become an international sensation as a result of his Transatlantic solo flight.

At the time, no one could have possibly foretold of the economic cataclysm that would descend upon the nation in a little more than two years’ time. On that memorable midsummer day, it seemed like the euphoric outpouring of national pride in Canada’s achievements of the previous 60 years had finally managed to bring some closure to the bitter memories of the Great War.

I really enjoyed A Time Such as There Never Was Before, and in many ways this book helped me to develop a greater appreciation for the pivotal events of modern times that helped to define our identity as a nation. In the midst of the agonizing circumstances that we have endured for the past year, it can at times be hard to believe the truism that “it is always darkest before the dawn.” But for those like myself who believe that history is bound to repeat itself, the events that are related in this book provide a good reminder that the years that lie ahead will bring great changes, and even greater opportunities, and it may well be that the best really is yet to come.

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