Canada and the First World War


A small number of Canadians vocally opposed the war, despite the intense pressure in most English-speaking parts of the country for its unqualified support. The women’s suffrage movement, organized labour, farming organizations, and socialist groups were well represented in the ranks of peace activists.

J.S. Woodsworth

Popular Methodist minister James S. Woodsworth was an outspoken critic of the war and, later, of conscription. At a time when most churches, including his own Methodist Church, actively supported the war and compulsory service, Woodsworth received great notoriety for refusing to use his pulpit to encourage recruitment. This anti-war stance cost Woodsworth his position as Secretary of the Canadian Welfare League, and he left the Methodist Church over its lack of commitment to pacifism and other social issues, including working class poverty.

“Radical Pacifism”

Woodsworth’s rejection of the war and the means used to fight it found support among some socialists, farmers, and organized labour. Unlike liberal pacifists, many of whom supported the war as a necessary evil to defeat European militarism, radical pacifists tended to see the war in starker terms. They viewed it as evidence of a corrupt and unjust social order that could only be fixed by sweeping social and political reform. They linked this critique with broader calls for social justice, the ‘conscription of wealth’ before men, and expanded rights for agriculture, labour, and immigrants. Most shared the disdain of Francophone nationalists and draft resisters for Canada’s seemingly uncritical support of the British Empire. In appearing to reject not just the war but the very governments and societies that had produced it, radical pacifists encouraged broad opposition to their views.

Pacifists who held to their convictions during the war often did so at great personal risk. Theirs was not a popular position, even among unionized workers, farmers, or mainstream socialists. Activists voiced their opinions through organized demonstrations, published pamphlets, and the public support of conscientious objectors. Some pacifists attracted attention and controversy by urging a negotiated peace. Others echoed the views of most Canadians in condemning wartime profiteering and business corruption.

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