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Stresses and Strains in Canada

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

The announcement that the King and Queen of Great Britain will visit Canada next Spring suggested to many people that Mr. Chamberlain’s Government, having given Germany a free hand in Europe, would probably attempt to bind the Empire more closely together during the troubles that lie ahead. Canada, as the senior Dominion, one of the world’s greatest trading nations, and a country having intimate political and economic relations with the United States, is a highly important part of the Empire. The British move to strengthen the ties with the Dominion comes at a time when Canada’s unsolved internal problems are piled so high that she is considering whether extraordinary measures are not necessary to bind herself together. A royal commission has been investigating for over a year the Canadian governmental structure. The importance of the problems involved was emphasized by the language used in the letter of appointment, which said that representations have been made “that unless appropriate action is taken, the set-up of governmental powers devised at the time of Confederation, will not be adequate to meet the economic and social changes and the shifts in economic power which are in progress, without subjecting Canada’s governmental structure to undue stresses and strains.”

Readers of newspapers in the United States are supplied with very little Canadian news, but even that scanty news must have told them that the Aberhart Government in Alberta is the first Social Credit government in the world, that Fascism in Quebec is stronger than anywhere else on this continent, and that the strongest farmers’ organization in Saskatchewan recently instructed its officers to study the feasibility of Saskatchewan’s seceding from Canada. It is because of developments such as these that the problem of national unity is now the dominant political issue in Canada.


Canada went through a depression almost as devastating as that in the United States; it then, like the United States, experienced a recovery which was only a partial recovery; and it, too, in 1938, had a year of recession. But Canada had no New Deal. What is here meant by New Deal ought to be defined. After six years of the Roosevelt Administration, the outlines of the New Deal show through the alphabetical agencies, and its essence seems to be an extension of the powers and activities of the Federal Government to enable it to give the wage earners greater security and the farmers larger incomes. In the United States since 1933 the pace has been swift, the opposition aroused has been bitter; but, as a result, the Federal Government has undertaken vast new responsibilities which affect the lives of the largest part of the population and which cannot be entirely ignored by succeeding administrations.

In Canada the depression had just made itself felt in 1930, when a national election was held. The Liberals were swept out of office and the Conservatives in, on the latter’s promise to put an end to unemployment. The promise, of course, was not fulfilled. The depression measures of Mr. Richard Bedford Bennett, the Conservative Prime Minister, were fairly orthodox. He tried to find new markets, he spent a little, and went into debt a little. But the depression deepened and unemployment grew. The farmers of the West experienced not only low prices but year after year of drought. The Government bought wheat and held it from the market, but this action did not prevent larger and larger sections of farmers from being ruined. The provinces borrowed money from the Dominion Government, but relief in the country and in the towns continued to be inadequate. There were riots. Force was used. A Socialist party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (C. C. F.), based mainly on the Prairie provinces, came into existence. There were “Red” scares. The Communist party was made illegal, and its leaders were put in jail. Monetary reformers throve, particularly in the West. The recovery of the years 1933 to 1935 (a recovery based partly on that in the United States and influenced by such measures as the increase in the price of gold by the United States), did not eliminate the popular feelings of insecurity and discontent. Unemployment and drought continued. Just before the national elections in 1935, Prime Minister Bennett introduced a “New Deal” program of reform legislation, including agricultural credit, marketing control, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and limitation of hours. But the voters were suspicious of this last-minute shift, the proposed legislation was considered to be unconstitutional, and the program was attacked as being a mere political maneuver. The Conservatives were put out, and the Liberals, headed by Mr. Mackenzie King, came back to power.

Mr. King did not take his election as a mandate for large changes, and the government Canada has had for the past three years can best be described as moderate conservative. The budget is not significantly different from that of the Conservative Government. The heavy sales tax of eight per cent has been restored, and the Dominion continues to rely for almost two-thirds of its tax revenue upon taxes which take at least as large a proportion of income from the poor as from the rich; that is, upon customs duties, excise taxes, and the sales tax. Although a trade agreement with the United States has been negotiated, the tariff level has not been much reduced. The fact that Mr. King came into office after a series of six Liberal victories in two years in provincial elections may have induced belief that his Government need do nothing much; but the return of prosperity was not great enough and the contrast with developments in the United States was too obvious to the man in the street for this policy to be successful.

Internal dissension is the price Canada has paid for delaying reforms similar to those begun in the United States. Canada, some would say, has been fortunate in escaping a New Deal and the political and social bitterness it has engendered; but rather it would seem true that Canada has only postponed a New Deal, and that this postponement has wreaked upon her political framework a more serious disintegration than the United States has suffered. Political parties in the United States are evidently undergoing a realignment, and the process is a turbulent one. In Canada, the old alignment of parties has likewise begun to disappear, there is greater confusion than in the United States, and not even dimly can the new alignment be perceived.

The situation in Alberta may be taken as an example. The Social Credit Government of Premier Aberhart came into office late in 1935 on a tremendous wave of farmer indignation. A progressive “Farmer” party which had ruled Alberta for fourteen years was so completely wrecked that it has not shown any vitality since. After six years of drought and low prices, a large proportion of the farmers was on relief, many had lost their farms, buildings and equipment had deteriorated, a mass of unpayable debts hung over most of the population, and the mood was radical. The simple psychological interpretation which contrasts the shiftless, dependent, modern man with the early American pioneer, practicing the virtues of thrift and self-reliance, cannot be applied to Alberta, for there the pioneer settlers of ten, twenty, or thirty years before are still on the land and are clamoring for government action. The Farmer Government of Alberta found no legal way of helping the farmers. It would not repudiate its own debts. It attempted to induce the Eastern financial houses to reduce by agreement the private debts, but had no success. It had not sufficient power in the Dominion Government to force it to put through costly measures. And it could not successfully tax the large corporations which did business in Alberta but had their headquarters in Ontario and Quebec. By admitting that effective action was impossible, the Farmer Government forfeited its existence.

Mr. Aberhart arose in the ferment of monetary ideas which agricultural distress produces. He was a high school principal in the city of Calgary. He was also a preacher, with a church of his own, the Prophetic Bible Institute, and he conducted by radio a Sunday school which had several thousand members. During the depression he lent his radio pulpit to various monetary reformers, and eventually he emerged as a believer in Major Douglas’s ideas of Social Credit. A year of constant speaking and agitation paved the way for the formation of a political party to contest the provincial elections of 1935. Mr. Aberhart’s campaign dwelt on grievances as well as on a promise to pay every adult in the province a monthly dividend of twenty-five dollars. He harped on debts and promised to abolish them. Many voted for him who had no faith in his nostrums; they reasoned that he might do something and that certainly none of the other parties would. The result was a legislature composed of fifty-six Social Credit members, almost none of whom had held political office before, and an Opposition of seven.

There are two sides to the record of this legislature. On the one are a number of acts to alleviate the difficulties of the farmers, and especially popular in this field has been legislation to postpone, reduce, and cancel the private debts. When one of these acts is held unconstitutional, the Social Credit tactics have been to pass it over again in another form. On the other side is the Social Credit legislation proper. Shortly after the election a split occurred between Mr. Aberhart and the back-benchers in the legislature who wanted to make good their promises of a dividend. Despite the passage of act after act relating to Social Credit, this monetary scheme has never been tried in Alberta. A number of the legislators attempted to force the Premier to introduce Social Credit, but the nearest they came to success was in the issue of dated stamp scrip to persons on relief, a monetary gadget quite different from Social Credit. This scheme was quickly abandoned and the battle was renewed. The insurgent legislators won another pyrrhic victory when they forced the Premier to invite Major Douglas to come and take charge. Major Douglas sent representatives from England, but after the experts had been on the scene for a time it became evident that, with Major Douglas in control, the chances for Social Credit were slimmer than ever. The experts have devised a campaign of strategy and have passed acts intended to provoke court fights with the banks. When the Dominion Government disallowed this legislation, and spared the banks the ordeal which had been prepared for them, tempers flared among the followers of Aberhart and Alberta narrowly escaped a clash between the police forces of the Dominion and the province. It now seems clear that Major Douglas would prefer to have outsiders prevent the installation of Social Credit so that he may use that fact in his propaganda.

Opponents of Premier Aberhart once thought that the failure to pay the promised dividends would lead to a collapse of his movement, but in this they were mistaken. The fact that in a hastily organized campaign in 1938 in the neighboring province of Saskatchewan Mr. Aberhart polled less than a quarter of the votes probably indicates that in its present form the Social Credit party cannot spread, but the people of Alberta are unlikely to turn from Mr. Aberhart until they have something better. From him they have received positive, if unconstitutional, action to aid them against their creditors. This action keeps the Alberta Government in conflict with the Dominion Government, and, since the action is popular, it keeps the people of Alberta in conflict with their national government. The logic of the position drives the Alberta Government from one unconstitutional act to another, but the invalidating of the acts is no solution, for it increases the ire of the Albertans against both the Constitution and the national authorities.

The election of the Social Credit Government and its subsequent stand against debt-payment indirectly helped the farmers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba to make better terms with their creditors and to receive larger aid from the Dominion, because it showed the politicians and financiers of the East how extreme was the temper of the West. Social Credit was, in effect, a threat against those in control. In the present political milieu of Canada, the progressive farmers of the West believe that they have no way of getting their demands attended to except by such threats. This is the significance of the recent discussion of secession by the organized farmers of Saskatchewan, a province which last year had half of its population on the relief rolls. These people do not want to secede, but they threaten to because they have found no political means of getting the economic security which they do want. The Prairie farmers are not strong enough in the national Liberal party to make that party liberal. They can, and do, elect provincial governments which are liberal; but these governments, even if they are radical, cannot take very effective action to increase the farmers’ incomes. The matters of greatest importance for an agricultural program—taxation, credit, tariffs, and railroad rates —are all national matters. Until the Western farmers find or create a national party liberal enough to comprise their demands, those demands will not be met, and Prairie politics will become still more explosive and erratic.

If the Liberal party is not liberal enough for the farmers, and if there is no national party within striking distance of power which is liberal enough for them, the reason must be sought not in the West but in the East, where the bulk of the population, the wealth, and the industries, is centered. More definitely, the reason must be sought in Ontario and Quebec, which have sixty-one per cent of the total population, whereas the three Prairie provinces have only twenty-six per cent. Why has not this industrial East succeeded in creating a political party more responsive to such demands as those for social security, monopoly control, and the protection of labor? The experience of the United States may give a clue. In that country the Democratic party has become liberal not merely because President Roosevelt is liberal and not only because of the economic crisis, but also because large blocks of citizens were united in organizations through which policies could be agreed upon. Chief among these organizations were the trade-unions. It was the spectacular growth of these trade-unions and their political activity which made possible the New Deal program of social security. The labor unions in Canada have not increased their strength in a comparable way. A proper interpretation of their failure to do so would be complex and would have to take account of the recent disappearance of the frontier, the late development of Canadian manufacturing, the absence of heavy industries, and many other factors. But there are now two and a half million workers in Canada and less than a million farmers, and, despite the unfavorable factors, a marked expansion of labor unions might have been expected. One important obstacle in the way of such expansion is the existence of separate Catholic unions; the division between the French-Canadian and the English-speaking workers is probably the largest single reason why there has been no New Deal in Canada.

Ontario, the major industrial province, is predominantly English-speaking and has traditionally been Conservative in politics. Quebec, the center of a French-speaking national minority, anxious about its language, its religion, and its culture, has been Liberal. In Ontario politics religious issues have been prominent, with the fraternal Orange Order (Conservative) ever vigilant to protect the “dominant race” and to guard against the inroads of Catholicism. The depression partly broke the traditional pattern of Ontario politics, and in 1934 Mr. Hepburn led the provincial Liberals to victory in a campaign against the “reactionaries and big interests.” During the same period the Liberal rule of Quebec disintegrated, and in 1936 Mr. Maurice Duplessis, a former Conservative, came to power at the head of a new party, the Union Nationale, after a campaign against the trusts. These two developments, which smashed the established party alignments, might have been expected to create a strong progressive movement in the East. Instead they seriously weakened the Liberals as a progressive party, for the latter lost Quebec to a hostile regime, and Premier Hepburn soon broke with the national Liberal government and formed an alliance with Premier Duplessis, an alliance which was nicknamed, because of the rise of Fascism in Quebec, “the Ontario-Quebec axis.”

Quebec, like the South in the United States, is a country of lower wages and longer hours; the exploitation of labor is great, the social services poor, the education bad, and the political power of the Catholic Church is substantial. Here the discontent bred of the depression was canalized into French-Canadian nationalism. This nationalism took the form of a variety of small groups advocating vague ideas of “corporatism” borrowed from Fascist Italy. After a series of political scandals had been unearthed, the new forces united for long enough to bring down the perennial Liberal Government and place Mr. Duplessis in power. Once in power Mr. Duplessis substituted anti-Communism for his campaign plank of “Down with the Trustards.” His Government passed a “Padlock Act” which permits the provincial police to close any private house which they believe is being used for the dissemination of Communist propaganda. Under this act the police, without any court proceedings, have carried out hundreds of raids on the dwellings of supposed Communists, have confiscated literature—in one case a library of Jewish classics—and have padlocked houses.

The Communist party had become legal in Canada after the repeal by the Liberals of Section 98 (the clause under which it had previously been banned), and though it has grown in Ontario and the West, it is generally agreed to be weak in Quebec. The Padlock Act is only one part of a general anti-democratic campaign by the Quebec Government. Laws have been passed which make it difficult for international and even for Catholic trade-unions to operate. A number of openly Fascist groups have been organized and are supported by prominent politicians and members of the Catholic hierarchy. Extremist papers gloat over each new Fascist victory abroad and denounce democracy and liberalism as forms of Communism. An anti-Semitic campaign is being constantly carried on.

The largest Fascist group is that led by Adrien Arcand, and is called the National Social Christian Party of Canada. Arcand, besides editing his own Fascist paper, is the editor of L’lllustration Nouvelle, which is reported to be the official newspaper of Premier Duplessis. Arcand’s party is modeled on that of the German Nazis, with uniformed members, drills, and, until recently, the swastika emblem. On trade pacts and other matters of foreign affairs the Quebec Fascists take the German stand, and large portions of their propaganda undoubtedly originate in Germany. One openly stated purpose of Hitler is to immobilize Great Britain during the German drive eastward across Europe, and for this purpose the creation inside the British Empire of groups sympathetic to Fascism is desirable. The Fascists of Quebec are not a large organization, but they help to widen the gap between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians.

Although the Padlock Act is much more in harmony with the institutions of a Fascist state than with those of a democracy, and although the government at Ottawa was deluged with protests against it, the King Government, which had considered it necessary to disallow an Alberta Act taxing and controlling banks, feared to disallow the Quebec act.

The Liberal party hopes to win Quebec back, and its politicians fear that in any quarrel with Premier Duplessis over his Government’s actions, the Quebec leader will be able to play on the nationalist feelings of the French Canadians and win their support against “foreign” interference. Probably the only certain way of winning Quebec away from Premier Duplessis is to formulate a program which will obviously better the living and working conditions of the Quebec people. It is not possible for any other party to outdo Premier Duplessis and the Fascists on the issues of French-Canadian nationalism versus Communism. The development of Fascist and semi-Fascist groups in Quebec, however, has aroused disappointingly little analysis of the conditions out of which these movements come. Yet everyone admits that the Quebec Liberal party was overthrown not because it was liberal but because it was reactionary and corrupt, because out of it there would never have come a real program of economic reform.

Discussion of a Canadian New Deal has its constitutional aspect, just as it always has in the United States. The equivalent of the United States Supreme Court is the British Privy Council, and the equivalent of the American Constitution is the British North America Act of 1867. Recent decisions of the Privy Council have tended to reserve to the provinces control of all the matters involved in modern economic reform. As a result, when Canada entered the depression, it was the duty of the provinces to provide for the unemployed and the stricken farmers. Most of the provinces, however, had no way of raising the necessary money. The Dominion had the sources of revenue, but it lacked adequate powers to carry out the needed measures. This unfortunate state of affairs has ruined the financial standing of the poorer provinces and of hundreds of municipalities, has resulted in deterioration of the social services at a time when they are most needed, has made the burden of taxation on real estate very heavy, and has resulted in great and unnecessary hardships for those on relief.

The recent appointment of a royal commission to examine the existing division of legislative powers and sources of revenue between the Dominion and the provinces was, therefore, a step of the highest importance. What the commission has really been asked to do is to recommend how the Canadian governmental structure should be overhauled to enable Canada to deal with her economic problems.

The lines of possible conflict have already been drawn in the briefs submitted by the provinces: the Liberals behind the slogan of “National Unity” and the Conservatives behind the cry of “Provincial Rights.” The briefs of the Prairie provinces represent the Liberal elements. Although these provinces are dominantly agricultural, they ask for a far-reaching centralization of powers so that the Dominion government can embark upon a program of social insurance, labor legislation, and agricultural rehabilitation. They ask for a general scaling down of debts and the shifting of the relief problem to the Dominion government. They argue that their taxing powers will never be effective since the large corporations and wealthy individuals are practically all in the East. The brief of Ontario’s Mr. Hepburn, on the other hand, raises the cry of provincial rights and asks for a maintenance of the status quo. The West is assailed as spendthrift and as a drain on the pockets of the East. The Quebec Government of Mr. Duplessis, which presented no brief, takes the same general stand. However, it appears that in the majority of the briefs presented by Eastern business groups and voluntary associations, greater unification is asked for. It is noteworthy, too, that the new leader of the Conservatives, Dr. Manion, has recently advocated that the Dominion Government should take over the entire cost of relief.

The report of the royal commission is likely to mark the real beginnings of a drive for a Canadian New Deal. Whether the Liberal party will be the one to push for a wider program of social security and aid to farmers, or whether this will be done by another party, cannot now be said, but the Canadian political scene will be subject to quick and sharp changes until that program nears realization.


In Canada, as in the United States, the news reports of the demands for the partition of Czechoslovakia were accepted at face value, and it was assumed by most people that England and Germany were on the edge of war. Canadian newspapers had printed news which adequately revealed the policy of the Chamberlain Government; nevertheless, in the fortnight before Mr. Chamberlain flew to Berchtesgaden, most Canadians read their newspapers and concluded that there would probably be a war over Czechoslovakia and that England was likely to be in it.

During the period of tension before the public knew that the Chamberlain Government had agreed to the partition of Czechoslovakia, the Canadian response was noteworthy in several respects. The first was the powerful and almost unanimous condemnation of the Nazi dictatorship; the second, the complete silence on the part of the Government and the leaders of the major parties; the third, the prevalence of the expressed wish that President Roosevelt should intervene to restrain Germany. The desire for President Roosevelt’s intervention, which was voiced by numerous newspapers and individuals, reflected the special position of Canada, a North-American nation which is also part of the British Empire. Politically and economically, Canada stands between Great Britain and the United States, and she can be comfortable in between the two only when they follow a common course. But most Canadians expressed something more universal, the feeling that democratic countries should stand together.

Although there is a general agreement that in a time of serious danger for England it would be difficult for Canada to stand aloof and still remain within the Empire, nevertheless, that side which insists that Canada should make an independent decision about war is the popular one, and this attitude partly explains the quietness of the politicians during the European crisis. It should also be remembered that both the Government and the Conservative Opposition hope to win the province of Quebec, where the French Canadians, who resisted conscription in the last war, are thought to be opposed to any participation in a European war.

When the crisis was at its height, circles most loyal to the Empire, believing that a war was coming, launched a campaign to force Premier King to take a stand. In the resulting hue and cry, two kinds of demand were made, though the newspapers did not distinguish between them. One was the imperialist demand for a declaration of firm support for Mr. Chamberlain. It was argued that Australia and New Zealand had made such a declaration; why should Canada remain silent? The other, put forward by the peace groups and progressives, was that Canada align herself with the democracies and insist on the preservation of the independence of Czechoslovakia.

Even after Berchtesgaden, when it was announced that England and France had agreed to partition, the news reports continued to suggest that Germany would march, and accounts of Czech, British, and French preparations against this contingency were given in such detail as to convince Canadians that war was imminent. Few signs of Canadian opposition to participation appeared, although undoubtedly opposition existed. Some of the French-language papers most sympathetic to Fascism broke the editorial silence which most French newspapers in Quebec had maintained and denounced the Czechs, and a Socialist paper spoke out for abandoning democracy in Europe and building it up at home. But, these exceptions apart, Canadian newspapers continued editorially to take the view that Mr. Chamberlain was engaged in a titanic struggle with Hitler, and when the English Prime Minister came back from Munich saying, “It is peace for our time,” the feelings of joy and relief were similar to those in England.

After Munich, there was a reaction to criticism in some quarters. One of the most influential Canadian papers, the Winnipeg Free Press, which had throughout the crisis criticized the Chamberlain policy and asked for collective action to defend Czechoslovakia and check Germany, was quick and stern in its condemnation. Two prominent Socialist (C. C. F.) leaders took mutually opposite positions—Mr. Woods-worth, the head of the party, praising Mr. Chamberlain, and Mr. Coldwell, his lieutenant, denouncing the British Government’s policy. The Communist party opposed the handing over of a democratic nation to the Fascists. The position of the critics was strongly put by Senator Cairine Wilson, President of the League of Nations Society of Canada:

“Our leaders continue to subscribe to a concept of anarchy which actually permitted the World War of 1914 and which might well have permitted its repetition in the last few hours.”

Canadian Conservatives, like the English, were at first inclined to credit Mr. Chamberlain with a major victory; then to agree with him that he had won on points—as to the way in which Czechoslovakia was to be dismembered; and then, when fuller details of German gains and enhanced power in Central Europe came through, to ask for heavier armaments. Through most of the subsequent discussions, whether by Liberals or Conservatives, there ran a note of fear. An editorial of October 21 in the Toronto Globe and Mail, a paper supporting in general the action of the Chamberlain Government and opposed to collective security, illustrates the point:

The first line of defense [Britain] is under attack, but it has not fallen. It need never fall. But the task of maintaining it cannot decently be left to Britain any longer. Mere self-interest should convince the United States on this point. A coalition of the democratic nations willing to give collective action to their pledges could muster all the strength that is necessary to block the aggressors. Behind such an alliance resides the only hope of lasting peace and freedom.

The European crisis increased the antipathy of the average Canadian to Hitler. Canadians who had paid little attention to the Nazi dictatorship read theii newspapers and listened at their radios. The bullying demeanor of Hitler, his incessant demands for more and more, and the thought that these tactics were leading to a war, left effects which it would be hard for propaganda to eradicate. Canadians could never be induced to enter a war on the side of the Nazi regime; and though no one can say what attitudes would have dominated in the event of war, the attitudes which were displayed during the crisis indicated that Canada would have fought with Great Britain against Germany in 1938.

In England the view is gaining ground that Mr. Chamberlain and his chief advisers are pro-Fascist, and that the English Prime Minister intends to give Germany the hegemony of Europe in the hope that war will be directed towards the Soviet Union and away from Great Britain.

Such views are not current in Canada, but if coming events substantiate them, imperial ties will be severely strained. If English foreign policy were to become one of deals and maneuvers with the Fascist powers, it would be almost as difficult for Canada to subscribe to it as it would be for the United States. Canadians now, with the exception of the isolationists, are talking of a union of democratic countries for defence against Fascism; and if the United States were to take the lead in such a policy, England would be under great pressure from Canada to change its course. In any event, the Chamberlain Government’s policy of sacrificing—or sanctioning the sacrifice—of independent countries to the Fascist states is likely, if persisted in, to weaken the ties of Canada to the mother country, either by generating a Canadian policy opposed to the British or by heightening isolation in Canada.


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