Canada and the First World War


Food production and agriculture were essential parts of Canada’s war effort, and Ottawa encouraged farmers and food processors to maximize their output.

The Expansion of Agriculture

Agricultural production grew rapidly in response to federal urging, international scarcity, and high prices. Rural families grew wealthier as exports of wheat, cheese, meat, fish, and other staples rose in the face of rising international demand. But soaring profits hid serious problems, especially on the wheat-producing Prairies, where heat, drought, frost, and soil exhaustion during the war reduced output per acre even as the size of farms expanded and demands for farm labour grew.

Farmers Need Workers, Oppose Conscription

In the conscription debate of 1917, farmers pushed the Borden government to acknowledge their important wartime work by exempting their sons from conscription. Borden’s Union government, desperate for farmers’ votes, initially complied but ended the exemption in April 1918 in the face of continuing casualties overseas and recruitment shortages at home.

Believing that Borden had betrayed them, farmers united in protest, but conscription continued. Rural reaction to wartime Ottawa’s handling of agriculture and rural or regional issues continued after the war and fuelled the creation of new political parties and protest movements.

Soldiers of the Soil

Farm labour shortages led the authorities to ask older children and adolescents for help. ‘Soldiers of the Soil’ (SOS) was a national initiative run by the Canadian Food Board. It encouraged adolescent boys to volunteer for farm service, and recruited 22,385 young men across the country. Many came from urban high schools and lived on rural farms for terms of three months or more.

In exchange for their labour, SOS recruits received room and board, spending money, and – in the case of high school students – exemption from classes and final exams. On completion of their term and “honorable discharge,” they also received an SOS badge acknowledging their service, often at a community ceremony.

The Farm Service Corps (“Farmerettes”)

The labour shortage also led to government and private sector support for the employment of women, and some high school girls and boys, in agriculture.

The Farm Service Corps, for example, was an initiative of the Ontario government similar in purpose to the national Soldiers of the Soil program, but aimed mainly at women.

Its “farmerettes” assisted in all aspects of farm work, replacing the labour of men lost to military service. In 1918, for example, 2,400 women picked fruit in the Niagara region. The Young Women’s Christian Association, or YWCA, also ran agricultural work camps, as did some charitable agencies and provincial departments of public works. While there were no formal programs like this in other provinces, rural women contributed extensively to farm work, as they had before the war, but now they often did so without their husbands, sons, or labourers to assist. Despite these challenges, it was this type of lonely, back-breaking labour that helped Canada to supply its Allies with war-winning material and food.

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