20th Century Canadian History

The new Canadian Way of Life

Technological advancements saw elaborate new factories arise across Canada during the late 19th and early 20th century allowing thousands of Canadians — including women — to gain new forms of employment.

Originally a nation of farmers, loggers, and fur traders, the dawn of the 20th century saw a full scale transformation of Canadian society. As new provinces were settled and colonized in the late 1800s, new cities began to spring up, and by the 1910s over 50% of all Canadians were living urban, rather than rural lives for the first time. The development of new machines under the frantic period of modernization known as the Industrial Revolution saw a dramatic growth in city-based factory work. Canada’s raw natural resources were now being processed into useful products such as lumber, textiles, and meat — creating all sorts of new jobs that got people off the farm and out of the woods.

An influx of immigrants, originally intended to settle uninhabited parts of the Canadian west, had likewise changed the fundamental ethnic makeup of the colony. No longer simply French and English, large numbers of Canadians were now Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Dutch, or Scandinavian — and even some Chinese and Japanese, too. To this day, the ten years between 1906 and 1916, when Canada welcomed some two million new residents, remain the country’s largest population boom.

Under the 15-year leadership of Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier (1841-1919, served 1896-1911), Canada pursued policies that yielded great economic growth, and a rising standard of living for almost everyone. True, some fat, top-hatted people were getting much richer than others — and much faster — but overall, considering the state of much of the rest of the planet, things in Canada seemed pretty sweet.

World War I (1914-1918)

In 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, which forced Britain to go to war with Germany due to an alliance the countries had at the time. All of Britain’s colonies — including Canada — were then promptly drafted to fight alongside the motherland. It was an awkward reminder that despite the country’s emerging status as one of the wealthiest, most industrialized, modern societies on earth, Canada was still but a mere colonial possession of a much stronger empire, still unauthorized to run its own foreign affairs.

World War I exposed many soliders to horrifying new forms of warfare, and many returned home badly mangled. The Canadian government actively sought to censor photographs such as these, lest they weaken already shaky morale.

The French-Canadian residents of Quebec were particularly resentful. They had no interest in fighting “England’s wars” and viciously opposed any efforts by the federal government to impose a national draft. The Canadian prime minister of the time, Robert Borden (1854-1937, served 1911-1917), was a strong supporter of the war effort, but was similarly skeptical of Britain’s sense of entitlement regarding the service of colonial troops. Behind the scenes, he forcibly insisted that if Canadians were to be used to fight the Empire’s battles, at the very minimum Canada should have greater say in how those wars were fought.

The heroic sacrifices of Canadian soldiers in key European fronts such as the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France (1917), where over 10,000 Canadians were killed, solidified public opinion that Canada was a mature nation in its own right, and deserved to be recognized as such.

Canada Gains Independence (1918-1931)

In the aftermath of the war, successive Canadian governments, backed by the governments of other white-run British colonies like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, aggressively lobbied Britain to restructure the Empire to allow its colonies greater independence. The idea that Britain always knew best, or even that Britain was in some way superior to its colonies made less and less sense in a world where the British dominions were increasingly wealthy, important world powers in their own right.

Even after gaining political independence from Britain, Canada kept its ties to the British Crown. Here we see Prime Minister King with King George VI (1895-1952) and the late Queen Mother (1900-2002).

In 1926, an Imperial Conference in London featuring all the colonial prime ministers passed a resolution declaring that Britain and its dominions were, in fact, “equal in status,” and not merely master and subjects. In 1931, the British Parliament went even further, and passed a law known as the Statute of Westminster, which formally took away Britain’s ability to make laws for Canada and the other advanced colonies.

Instead of an Empire, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Ireland, and South Africa were said to form a “Commonwealth” in which they all shared loyalty to the same king, but had full independence in terms of their domestic and international policies. For all intents and purposes, Canada was now an independent country. Only in the realm of constitutional amendments did Britain still hold control.

Depression and War (1931-1945)

But not everything was jolly for Canada in the aftermath of the First World War. After a brief economic boom in the 1920s, a severe, worldwide economic depression hit the nation hard in the 1930s, putting millions out of work and plunging millions more into miserable poverty. Desperate Canadian workers and voters became increasingly drawn to radical ideas and political parties, and new movements including socialism, communism, fascism, Social Credit monetary theory, and farmer’s rights militancy steadily grew in influence across the country. It was a time of radicalism, but not all outcomes were equally tumultuous. Early feminist protests earned Canadian women the right to vote in 1918, for instance, and union activists helped abolish child labour in the 1920s.

This famous photo shows a young Canadian boy saying goodbye to his father heading off to war.

By 1939, however, the nation’s leaders had become distracted by political happenings in Europe. Britain had declared war on Adolph Hitler’s (1889-1945) fanatic Nazi regime in Germany, and although Canada was no longer obligated to do anything about it, pro-British sentiment remained strong. The government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King (1874-1950) passed a declaration of war against Germany one week later, and Canadian troops were once again sent to Europe. When Britain declared war on Germany’s Asian ally Japan in 1941, Canada once again followed suit, and the war expanded to the Pacific.

The Second World War — Canada’s first to be fought under Canadian command — involved a massive moblization of people and resources, both at home and abroad. Over one million Canadians would serve in the country’s armed forces, while the wartime production of ammunition, armaments, and vehicles gave an enormous boost to the depression-plagued economy. Overseas, Canadian troops would play a critical role on several of the war’s key fronts, notably the failed battles of Hong Kong (1941) and Dieppe (1942), and the more successful invasion of Sicily (1942), and liberation of the Netherlands (1944-45).

Though the war’s end in 1945 would be widely celebrated, one uncomfortable fact remained: the bulk of Canada’s fighting was done by English-Canadians. French-Canadians once again largely opposed the war, and vigorously opposed a national draft. Canadians of Japanese decent, meanwhile had little choice one way or another — for the duration of the war they had been rounded up and placed in internment camps in rural communities far away from big cities, an episode of racism that today remains one of the country’s darkest shames.

Post-war Boom Times (1945-1959)

The war had changed Canada, both in terms of economic development and national pride. Wartime industrialization had dramatically grown Canada’s manufacturing sector, allowing Canadians to become a world leader in new industries like car-building and chemical processing, while the 1947 discovery of oil in the province of Alberta put Canada on the map as a petroleum superpower. As education became more affordable, more Canadians were likewise able to pursue careers in new, non-physical sectors of the economy, such as science, finance, engineering, media, and of course, an ever-growing government bureaucracy.

1967 was Canada's 100th birthday, and centennial celebrations were held across the land, the most famous of which was the Expo '67 in Montreal. World leaders and celebrities all gathered in the city to eat cake and party, helping put modern Canada on the map.

All of this allowed more Canadians than ever to enjoy comfy, middle class jobs and lifestyles, and the growth of suburban communities in previously empty areas surrounding the cities, where Ma, Pa and the kids could live in small houses with their own yard and white picket fence, reflected the new standard of Canadian living.

Canada’s post-war governments of the 1950s and 60s further consolidated the gains of Canadian independence from Britain. In 1952, Canada said goodbye to its last British-appointed governor, the Viscount Alexander (1891-1969), and turned the office into a symbolic position to be filled by Canadian citizens. The dominion of Newfoundland on the Maritime coast, which, like Canada, had previously been a self-governing British colony, agreed to join the Canadian confederation in 1949, giving Canada its 10th province — and present-day borders. After much debate, in 1965 a uniquely Canadian flag, the Maple Leaf, was adopted, and the Union Jack went down over Canada’s Parliament for the final time.

In foreign affairs, Canada worked equally hard to move out of Britain’s shadow, and earn a reputation as a moderate, compassionate “middle power,” skilled at diplomacy and negotiation, rather than warmaking. Though over 500 Canadians would die fighting Communist forces in the Korean War (1950-1953), Canada’s refusal to participate in the American-led War in Vietnam (1964-1973) earned the country a reputation for moderation and restraint during the multi-decade Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Conflict with Quebec (1959-1980)

The French-Canadians never really recovered from being conquered by the British in 1759. Desperate to avoid becoming “another Louisiana” where their French culture would be assimilated out of existence by chauvinistic Anglo-Saxons, for the next 200 years, the province of Quebec existed as an ultra-conservative, extremely Catholic, and largely feudal, agrarian society that shut itself off from much of the modernization that had occurred in the rest of Canada. The idea that it was better to be poor and French than rich and English was very much the defining ideology of the times.

A paperboy brandishing the headline "WAR MEASURES ACT INVOKED," declaring that Quebec had been placed under a kind of martial law. The appropriateness of this controversial decision remains debated to this day.

But slowly the old ways began to break down. After the death of Quebec’s long-serving reactionary prime minister Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959), Quebec society underwent a phase known as the “Quiet Revolution” where a new crop of French-Canadian politicians and educated professionals helped aggressively modernize the province, making it more secular and industrialized, with greater corporate ownership and wealth concentrated in French, rather than Anglo-Canadian, hands.

But many Quebeckers felt things were not improving fast enough. Separatism — the idea that Quebec was too different from the rest of Canada to exist as a province, and could only realize its full potential as an independent country — began to grow in popularity during the 1960s, spurned both by Quebec’s poor economy and growing sense of self-reliance. This being the sixties, a certain radical vein of Quebec separatists turned to Marxism and terrorism, with the Front de Libération du Québec emerging as the movement’s main terror group, setting off hundreds of bombs in government buildings across the province.

In 1970 FLQ terrorists kidnapped and killed the vice-premier of Quebec, Pierre LaPorte (1921-1970), prompting Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000) to declare martial law in the province, deploying the military to restore order. Dubbed the October Crisis, hundreds of Quebeckers with suspected separatist sympathies were rounded up and thrown in jail — often with scant evidence — in a move that earned Trudeau great acclaim in English Canada, but considerably less so amongst the French. An openly separatist Quebec government, led by Premier Rene Levesque (1922-1987) was elected in 1976, and a referendum on separation from Canada was held in 1980. It failed, but the dynamic of Canadian-Quebec relations had forever been changed.

A Constitution that Works (1980-1993)

Prime Minister Trudeau, a charismatic, eccentric, and often authortiarian figure who led Canada for almost 16 years between 1968 and 1984, nearly single-handily determined Canada’s political priorities during the 70s and 80s — even after he left power. A Quebecer himself, Trudeau believed that much of Canada’s French-English tension could be alleviated under a new Canadian constitution that both protected Quebec’s French language and culture while also respecting the principle that all citizens were equal under the law.

Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926) signs the Constitution Act, as Prime Minister Trudeau looks on.

The result of years of intense negotiation with the provincial premiers, Trudeau’s new Constitution Act (1982) declared that Canada was a bilingual nation where all citizens had a protected right to speak either French or English, while a new Charter of Rights (1982) finally enshrined the basic civil rights of all Canadians, including freedom of speech, religion, and movement. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Constitution Act and Charter were also the final laws Britain would ever pass for Canada; following their approval, only Canada itself would be able to amend its own constitution.

Though the passage of the Constitution Act and Charter occurred amid amongst much patriotic pomp and circumstance, not everyone was celebrating. Quebec’s separatist government had remained opposed to the whole process — the only province to do so. From the French perspective, the new Canadian constitution was not much better than the old one: there was far too much emphasis on equality and not enough on recognizing and protecting Quebec’s distinctiveness. No sooner was the Constitution “brought home” than politicians immediately began trying to tinker and fix it, in order to win Quebec’s approval.

Trudeau’s successor as prime minister, Brian Mulroney (b. 1939, served 1984-1993) embarked upon two ambitious campaigns to revise the Constitution Act in a way that would finally please the French province, but both efforts ultimately failed after long, polarized national debates. Quebec’s signature remains symbolically absent from the Canadian Constitution to this day.

Turmoil (1993-2000)

The 1990s were an era of great political turbulence for Canada, a time when it was not uncommon to open the newspaper and read enormous scary headlines like “WILL CANADA SURVIVE?” For starters, the economy was in terrible shape. Excessive spending during the Trudeau era had driven the country to the brink of bankruptcy, and though Prime Minister Mulroney’s centre-right government attempted to fix the problem through deregulation, privatization, and tax reform, it was not until the tenure of Jean Chretien (b. 1934, served 1993-2003) that the books were finally balanced through unpopular cuts to social programs like welfare and pensions.

Fear of what Quebec's departure would mean for the rest of Canada — particularly the Canadian economy — prompted many Canadians across the country to rally to the province's defence.

Meanwhile, regional cleavages continued to dominate the country’s politics — and no longer just from Quebec. The fast-growing Canadian west, led by the wealthy, oil-rich province of Alberta, began to feel increasingly shut out of national politics, despite its large population and ample riches. The federal government’s National Energy Program (1980), which effectively nationalized much of Alberta’s oil — despite the fact that the management of natural resources was a provincial jurisdiction under the Constitution — caused massive outrage, as did increasingly strict bilingualism requirements for federal politicians and bureaucrats that seemed to herald the creation of a permanently Quebec-dominated political class.

The emergence of two new, highly successful political parties in the 1993 federal election — the right-wing, western-based Reform Party, and the separatist Bloc Quebecois — both greatly upset the stability of the traditional Canadian two-party system, and threatened to make Canada a more ungovernable country than ever. Things only got worse when a new separatist government in Quebec held a second referendum on Quebec separation in 1995 — and only failed by a margin of less than one percent.

Continue to 21st century history…

Links About Canadian 20th Century History:

Quick Facts:

  • The 20th century saw Canada emerge as a major industrialized country with a modern economy.
  • Canada participated in both world wars and used this participation as leverage to earn full independence from Britain.
  • Since the war, a major source of political unrest has been the separatist ambitions of the French province of Quebec.
  • Successive Canadian governments have used symbols and government policy to help define the "Canadian identity."