After the war is over: Canada and its Great War veterans

British Empire Services League | Canadian Legion, [pin], Griffin Collection, Collections CCGW/CCGG. 2013.12.13.06
British Empire Services League | Canadian Legion, [pin], Griffin Collection, Collections CCGW/CCGG. 2013.12.13.06
The First World War not only changed the political make-up of the world, it also brought about huge changes to the societies who had participated after the war. The scale of involvement in the conflict meant that entire populations were affected by the war, which had killed their loved ones and friends, perhaps changed their occupation, and certainly changed how they viewed war and the prosecution of war. Just as Canada had to deal with mobilising, feeding and training 10% of its population during the war, the country had to then figure out how to care for those who came back afterwards. 

The 5 year period during the war removed many men from the work force during their prime working years (18 -40); those gaps had been filled by women and essential war workers, but after the war there was no surety given to returning soldiers that they would have employment. No support system existed at that time, beyond that of family and friends, which makes sense given that Canada, and indeed most European countries, had not had to deal with such a mass movement of people before. Those who left their jobs needed employment, those whose primary supporter had been killed needed money to live, and those who had been wounded needed care and the possibility of future employment.

Since no government system existing in Canada at this time that dealt exclusively with the needs of veterans, most support in the early 1920s came from grassroots groups. Veterans associations sprung up across the country to provide support for those who were returning; the Great War Veterans Association was founded in 1917, before the conflict had even ended, and by 1925 there were 15 organizations across the country. The Canadian Legion of British Empire Services was founded in Winnipeg in 1925 and became the pre-eminent veterans’ association in the country, today known as the Royal Canadian Legion.

For most veterans, fitting back into life in Canada was very difficult. Those who had families who could help them may have transitioned more smoothly, but for many men, particularly blue collar workers whose jobs had been given to others, the 1920s were tough years. Their military service seemed to mean little, and bravery awards did not translate into viable employment. VC winner Filip Konowal, a Ukrainian who had immigrated to Canada to work before the war, ended up being arrested for murdering a man, and spent years in an insane asylum before working as a janitor in the House of Parliament. Another VC, Michael James O’Rourke worked as a log skidder after the war and was later involved in the longshoremen’s strike of 1935 in Vancouver, where he marched wearing his medals.

By 1928, the need for medical care  and pensions for veterans had become such a pressing issue that the Canadian government made the Department of Pensions and the Department of National Health responsible for seeing to the needs of those who served. Though the post World War II veterans’ re-education initiative will still a long way off, having access to health care and a guaranteed (if small) pension was the first step to ensure that those who had volunteered to fight would not find themselves left completely uncared for when they returned.

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2 thoughts on “After the war is over: Canada and its Great War veterans

  1. Another benefit started after WW1 was the veterans’ preference. Returning soldiers went to the front of the line for jobs in the public service and federal government contracts. It was Canada’s first affirmative action program, and continues (in a modified form) today. As does the struggle for fair veterans’ benefits, unfortunately. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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