The Business of War

Canadian Businesses and the First World War

Canadian businesses participated in the war effort from the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August, 1914. The war offered them an unprecedented opportunity for profit, as Canada would need to supply the newly formed Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). In the first two years of the war, procurement was managed through private contracts, and businesses close to the government benefited greatly from the contracts system. The scandals surrounding the supply of the CEF have come to symbolise the operations of Canadian business as a whole during the war years; however, like the diverse experiences of Canadian individuals, businesses also performed many roles. This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue explore some of the many ways that businesses participated in the war effort and contributed to their communities.

Recruiting the CEF
After the declaration of war, thousands of men flooded recruitment offices to enlist as volunteer soldiers in the new Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many businesses chose to express support for their staff, even encouraging enlistment since it was thought the war would be short. The T. Eaton Company is but one example of this; its married male staff members were promised their full salary for the duration of the war if they served, and unmarried men 50%. Prime Minister Robert Borden also approached Sir John Eaton, son of Timothy, to fund the recruitment and outfitting his own battalion; the Eaton Machine Gun Battery.

Eaton Machine Gun Battery, February 8 1915. T. Eaton Company Fonds, Archives of Ontario. F229-308-0-2160.

Eaton put up $100 000 of his own money to buy 14 armoured cars with mounted Colt machine guns and uniforms for the men who enlisted. Like the Boyle Machine Gun Battery, raised in the Yukon and funded by the owner of the Canadian Klondyke Mining Co. Joe Boyle, the battery began as a private entity and was later folded into the Canadian Corps as part of the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade. A total of 3 327 Eaton’s employees served in the war, and of those 315 were killed[1]

Eaton was not the only Canadian millionaire to fund his own unit, nor was Eaton’s the only business to actively support its enlisted employees. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) saw over 11 000 of its employees enlist, and offered six months pay to the relatives of those serving overseas, as well as promised re-employment at the end of the war[2]. The CPR itself was involved in shell production and the company moved millions of tons of supplies across Canada to be shipped to troops in Europe.

Supplying the CEF
When the Minister of Militia and Defence, Sir Sam Hughes, made his now famous statement that Canada could provide the British with 100 000[3] men, he was also committing the country to supplying them with the boots, rifles, food, and additional equipment that they would require to fight. Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, also called upon Canada to supply shrapnel shells, and so on 6 September 1914 Sam Hughes signed the Shell Committee into existence, which was to manage private contracts for munitions, and was made of up of a combination of military personnel, industrialists, and Hughes himself[4].

The Canadian system in the first two years of the war functioned entirely on contracts, which drew significant criticism from the Canadian press as rife with cronyism[5], and by the fall of 1915 the process of giving contracts was being re-examined, both internally by the Canadian government, and externally by the British Ministry of Munitions. Munitions in particular came under scrutiny, and the Shell Committee was dissolved in the fall of 1915, to be replaced by the Imperial Munitions Board, under the directorship of Joseph Flavelle, an industrialist from Toronto.

Some companies were able to move smoothly through the transitions, like the Dominion Bridge Company, which had received its first contracts under the Shell Committee in 1914. Dominion Bridge was not initially a munitions factory at all, and underwent significant renovations and construction in 1914-1915, eventually refitting its yards in Lachine, Quebec with new buildings devoted only to shell manufacturing. As the war industry in Canada grew, Dominion expanded its activities into ship building and smelting, and managed to double its workforce, despite the loss of staff to the war in Europe.

Sir Charles Ross’s Military Rifle M-10, Technical Drawing. George Metcalf Archival Collection, Canadian War Museum. CVM 19860005-004.

Others, like the Ross Rifle Company, would not survive the war. Produced by Sir Charles Ross, the rifle had been adopted for use by the Canadian militia in 1902 and Ross’s supply contract was renewed in 1911 at the express urging of Sam Hughes, even as rumblings of its deficiencies grew. Opposition to the Ross reached its pitch in 1915, as word from France leaked back that not only was the rifle prone to jamming, Canadian soldiers were throwing it away on the battlefield and picking up Lee Enfield rifles from British bodies left on the field. When Robert Borden removed Sam Hughes as Minister of Militia and Defense in 1916, the Ross Rifle was also removed from active service, and Charles Ross’s Ross Rifle Company was expropriated by the Canadian government in 1917.

Cheering on the CEF
The outbreak of the war is commonly remembered as a time of great public patriotic demonstration. Hundreds lined up to voluntarily join the new Canadian Expeditionary Force, and when these volunteer soldiers were marched out to camp they were cheered on by crowds of thousands, waving flags and shouting. Burt Remington, a Montrealer and employee of Bell Telephone remembered “People singing in the streets. Everybody wanted to be a hero, everybody wanted to go to war.”[6] For many businesses, patriotism was also a golden marketing opportunity.

With over 20 000 men already enlisted in 1914 to join the 1st Division, products aimed at soldiers and their families were a great way for companies to profit from the war, while preserving their image as participants in the war effort. Like today’s branded products for breast cancer awareness or the Olympic Games, companies like Christie Brown & Co. and Cowan’s Royal Milk Chocolate Co. redesigned one of their best selling products, commemorative tins, to reflect the current mood. Customers could feel that they had participated in the patriotic act, much like buying a war bond later in the war.

Advertising is a reflection of its time, and during the First World War savvy marketers used the war as a jumping off point for everything from cigarettes to canned spaghetti[7]. The Christie Brown Company and Cowan’s were certainly not alone in their production of patriotic items, though unlike the English Rowntrees Company their tins were sold for profit and not provided free of charge to soldiers[8].

Cookie Tin, Christie, Brown & Co. Limited. Toronto, 1915. Collections CCGW/CCGG 2014.05.02.06

As well as offering branded products, companies also showed their support for the war effort through donations and fundraising drives. For example, chocolate manufacturers Ganong Bros. Limited of St. Stephen, New Brunswick donated its chocolate bars to the Soldiers Comforts Association, which provided care packages to soldiers overseas. Other businesses staged fundraising activities for their staff to raise money. The staff of the T. Eaton Company raised $600 000 during the war, which along with Sir John Eaton’s personal donations made the company a significant contributor to campaigns to fund the war.

Remembering the CEF
The Great War was Canada’s first experience of massive, industrialised war. Like the other combatant countries, Canada mobilised its citizens, government, and industries towards the war effort for 4 long years. By the time the Armistice was declared in November 1918, more than 60 000 Canadians had lost their lives and another 150 000 were wounded. For a country of barely 8 million people, this toll was catastrophic, and the effects of these losses would spread amongst families, communities and even regions throughout Canada. Today, the thousands of cenotaphs, memorials, tablets and other commemorative works are the lasting evidence of the devastation that the First World War wrought on the Canadian people.

Canadian companies now turned to commemorating those who had been lost. Some participated in the building of memorials in the communities where they did business, like Ganong Bros. The company had been active in the community of St. Stephen, since it was founded in 1873. As noted earlier, Ganong participated in charitable activities during the war, donating its products to soldiers overseas. After the war, the Ganong family donated a piece of land on Water Street in St. Stephens for the construction of the town memorial, which was completed in 1926.

As well as funding community memorials, some larger companies also chose to install memorial plaques or honour rolls in their places of business. The Hudson’s Bay Company commissioned and installed three memorials in its Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver stores to honour the 517 members of its staff who had served. The memorial in the Granville Street store in Vancouver was the last to be installed, and was unveiled in 1932 to “very favourable comment”, as part of a larger memorial arcade[9].

“Post Pilgrimage Tours of Europe”. Thomas Cook & Son, Ltd., London [1936]. Pamphlet. Collections CCGW/CCGG.
The Vimy Memorial Pilgrimage of 1936 was another moment when Canadian companies continued to show their support for those of their staff who had enlisted and their families. Coinciding with the official unveiling of Walter Allward’s National Vimy Memorial, the Vimy Pilgrimage was organised by the Canadian Legion, and offered Canadian veterans or the families of those killed in the war to visit the battlefields and graveyards in France and Belgium, as well as participation in the opening ceremonies planned at Vimy Ridge for 26 July 1936. The Hudson’s Bay Company was just one employer of many who offered vacation to their veteran employees so that they could participate in the Pilgrimage. Those who went were later featured in the company magazine, The Bayonet, to recount their time in France.

Business as usual?
The Great War was both very good for Canadian businesses and very difficult for them. The war opened up new markets, drove up commodity prices and helped to further industrialize Canadian industry. It also absorbed a large portion of the skilled workforce to Western Europe, and at the end, when there was no more demand for shells or other military products, resulted in factory closures and decreased production.

Like the Canadian population as a whole, business participation was varied. Many businesses supported their enlisted staff, donated to the war effort, and provided jobs for returned soldiers. Businesses like Dominion Engineering and the Ross Rifle Company profited immensely from the market for war material and the structure of Canadian government contracting. The system had flaws and was initially run, like the CEF, on personality alone, but by 1917 and with better stewardship the kinks had largely been worked out and Canada was producing arms at a rate not imaginable in 1914.

Businesses also shaped advertising and marketing to reflect the times of their customers, using the war to sell products and making a connection between the front line soldier and those at home through what they bought. Finally, Canadian business mourned and remembered its dead, both as part of the larger community and as individual environments. In doing so, they highlighted their commitment to supporting the communities where they came from, and paying tribute to those among their staff who had served.

[1] Archives of Ontario, Eatons Goes to War, online exhibition, 2014.
[2] Mary MacKinnon, “Canadian railway workers and World War I military service” in Labour/Le travail, 40 (Fall 1997), pg 220.
[3] Tim Cook, The madman and the butcher: The sensational wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie, 2010, pg 58. The full quote, made on 8 August 1914 is “We could raise 100 000 men if needed.”
[4] Carnegie, pg 6.
[5] Ryan Targa, “From Governors to Grocers: How Profiteering Changed English-Canadian Perceptions of Liberalism in the Great War of 1914-1914” (Masters Thesis, Queen’s University, 2013).
[6] Daphne Reid, ed. The Great War and Canadian Society: An Oral History, Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1978, pg 90.
[7] Daniel Pope, “The advertising industry and World War I” in The Public Historian, Vol. 2 no. 3 (Spring 1980), pg 13
[8] The Rowntree Society, “First World War, Rowntrees and Workers”, last modified 2014.
[9] A.H. Doe for the Hudson’s Bay Company to J. Horwood of Burke, Horwood and White, 20 August 1932. HBC Archives, Records of the Governor and Committee (London Office).


Sources primaires, non-publiés
Dominion Bridge Company Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, R5607-0-6-E

Milltown Soldiers Comforts Association Fonds, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, MC415

Records of the Governor and Committee (London Office), Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Section A

Sir Charles Ross Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, R1622-0-6-E

Sources sécondaires
Alexander, Kristine. “Education during the First World War”, Wartime Canada.

Beeby, Dean. “Christie, William Mellis”, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol 12. University of Toronto/Université Laval 2003- . Accessed 15 May 2016.

Bliss, Michael. “War business as usual: Canadian munitions production, 1914-1918”, Mobilization for Total War: The Canadian, American and British Experience 1914-1918, 1939-1945. N.F. Dreisziger, ed. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier UP, 1981.

Carnegie, David. The History of Munition Supply in Canada 1914-1918. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1925.

Christie, Norm and Gary Roncetti. For Our Old Comrades: The Story & Ephemera of the Vimy Pilgrimage, 1936. Canada: CEF Books, 2011.

Cook, Tim. The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie. Toronto: Penguin, 2010.

Fetherling, Doug. Vision in Steel 1882-1982: One hundred years of growth, Dominion Bridge to AMCA International, Montreal: AMCA International Limited, 1982.

Folster, David. The Chocolate Ganongs of St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Toronto: MacMillan, 1990.

Kraft Foods Inc. “The History of Kraft Foods Inc.”,

Mackinnon, Mary. “Canadian railway workers and World War I military service”, Labour/Le travail, 40 (Fall 1997): 213-234.

McQueen, Rod. The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family. Toronto: Stoddart, 1988.

Nasmith, George. Canada’s Sons and Great Britain in the World War. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1919.

Pope, Daniel. “The Advertising Industry and World War I”, The Public Historian, Vol. 2 no. 3 (Spring 1980): 4-25. DOI: doi:1

Read, Daphne, ed. The Great War and Canadian Society: An Oral History. Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1978.

Targa, Ryan. “From Governors to Grocers: How Profiteering changed English-Canadian Perceptions of Liberalism in the Great War of 1914-1918”. Masters Thesis, Queens University, 2013.

The Rowntree Society, “First World War, Rowntrees and Workers”, last modified 2014.

Vance, Jonathan F. Death so Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.