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Building the Nation: 1867-1929, Postwar Reorganization

western resources, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Pacific shipping, landscape painters, labor unrest

Canada had entered the war as part of the British Empire, but the huge commitment and terrible losses (60,000 Canadians died) strengthened its sense of nationhood. Thus Canada insisted on acting as a sovereign power in treaty negotiations after the war and in the new international body, the League of Nations. In 1926 the British government acknowledged the equality of the dominions with Britain itself, and in 1931 the British Statute of Westminster confirmed that Canada was a sovereign state sharing a common monarch with Britain. There were some leftover details: Canadian Supreme Court decisions could be appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council until 1949, and Canada had no procedure for amending its own constitution (which was an act of the British parliament) until 1982. Canada and Britain remained economically and politically linked, but Britain and the empire grew less effective as counterweights to American influence.

After the war, Britain began to lose its preeminence in world affairs, and the United States replaced it as the largest foreign investor in Canada. Most of the American money was direct investment: the purchase of Canadian companies or the establishment of branch operations of American companies.

American cultural influence also expanded with the increasing popularity of film, broadcasting, and other mass media. In reaction to American influence, Canadians established the publicly owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in the 1930s. The CBC operated French-language and English-language networks in radio and later in television. Canadian achievements in art (notably the Group of Seven landscape painters), in science (the discovery of insulin), and in other fields spurred Canadian national pride.

The 1920s, which were called the Roaring Twenties in the United States, did not roar in Canada. There was no surge of prosperity. There were difficulties in absorbing soldiers and converting industry from war production. One result was growing industrial unrest. General strikes erupted in several cities, particularly Winnipeg, which was rocked by a violent labor conflict in 1919.

The disturbances of the postwar years provoked wild fears that Canadian democracy would be overthrown in favor of Russian Communism or socialism, both of which would drastically redistribute wealth. Both doctrines did gain small footholds among workers and immigrants. This in turn intensified negative feelings toward the labor movement and foreigners in some segments of Canadian society.

In Atlantic Canada, attempts at industrialization had failed to stop the economy’s slide that began with the decline of shipping and shipbuilding, and the region was now relatively worse off than the rest of the country. Underemployment and labor unrest were constant, particularly in the coal and steel industries of Cape Breton Island. Residents, complaining that confederation unfairly favored central Canada, founded the Maritime Rights movement, which sought to revive Atlantic Canada by changes to transportation, industrial, and tariff policies.

Vancouver and the resource economies of western Canada benefited from the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, which increased Pacific shipping. Prosperity eluded many westerners, however, particularly on the prairies, and the prairie-based Progressive Party arose to argue that while central Canada got cheap access to western resources, westerners paid high prices for manufactured goods from central Canada. This was because the manufactures, protected from outside competition by tariffs, went for relatively high prices, while the prairie products—which were primarily food and raw materials—had no such price supports.

The key political figure of the 1920s was William Lyon Mackenzie King, leader of the Liberal Party, which formed a government in 1921. King was the first Canadian party leader chosen by an American-style convention, in which ordinary party members had a voice in choosing their leaders. Formerly leaders had been chosen in party caucuses, where the party’s members of Parliament chose and deposed leaders among themselves. King was a master politician who dominated national politics for almost 30 years. His wish to avoid international commitments and his resistance to imperialism were widely shared in postwar Canada. Although he was from Ontario and never learned French, he was acutely conscious of the support from Quebec that kept his government in office. King was one of the first prominent Canadians not to accept a knighthood, and after 1935 Canadians ceased to be entitled to British honors.



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