Canada and the First World War


The war pulled Canada from a two-year economic depression by boosting economic activity and reducing unemployment. It also strained the country’s fragile, resource-based economy and its mostly unregulated industries. Wage and price inflation, scarcity, profiteering, and labour shortages led to growing efforts by government to manage resources in support of the war.

Appeals to Voluntary Effort

Government at first appealed to voluntary efforts. It asked the public to reduce the consumption of scarce commodities, including fuel, to produce more food, and not to hoard essential items. In most cases, it avoided trying to set prices or regulate commercial activity.

Rising prices for Canadian commodities such as wheat were good for farmers and exporters, but inflation eroded the purchasing power of many families. In busy, fast-growing cities energized by war employment, prices rose faster than wages, leading to labour unrest and strikes. Inflation posed special hardships for people on fixed incomes or those who did not benefit from the competition for skilled workers. Women living at home on the fixed salaries of soldier-husbands overseas often faced difficult social choices: a lower living standard; or entry into the growing paid labour force and daycare for their children.

More Involvement, but Little Regulation

In the summer of 1917, Ottawa resorted to more direct efforts, appointing food and fuel controllers to encourage production, avoid waste, and manage shortages.

A new Board of Grain Supervisors coordinated bulk sales of the West’s most important product, wheat, at high fixed prices to European markets. By early 1918, the new Canada Food Board licensed and monitored food sales in public establishments and encouraged food or ingredient substitutes for high-demand items. Propaganda posters urged “fuel-less Sundays”, “meatless Fridays”, and the elimination of wasteful shopping and cooking practices. Newspapers published special “war menus”. Provinces and municipalities managed local hydro and power shortages, sometimes by short-term closures in schools and factories.

These measures represented more government coordination and control than Canadians had ever experienced. Many of them proved temporary, ending in either 1918 or 1919, but in some areas, such as taxation, social welfare, and the responsibility for veterans, the state assumed powers it would never again relinquish.

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