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Manitoba History: Western Canada at War: Introduction

by Esyllt Jones and Robert Coutts
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Number 82, Fall 2016

In fall 2016, we are at the half-way mark commemorating Canada’s First World War centenary. One hundred years ago, peace was a distant dream. This special issue of Manitoba History explores the wartime experience of prairie westerners. Any writing about the First World War must ask not only ‘what happened,’ but also ‘how do we remember what happened and why?’ The answers to these historical questions are simultaneously deeply personal, and of societal consequence, as our authors attest. In this issue we tell personal stories of the home front and the battlefield, of those who fought and their loved ones, of those who supported Canada’s war effort from farm and city, and of those who were conscientious objectors. We explore the tensions between immigrants and the state arising during the influenza pandemic as Armistice finally arrived; and the conflicted experience of indigenous soldiers. Contributors explore the evolution of art and literature in response to the war effort, the creation of war memorials, and the chronicling of it all by public media.

In their article “Are You ‘Doing Your Bit’?: Edith Robertson, Letter-Writing, and Women’s Contributions in First-World-War Winnipeg,” Andrea Martin and Tyyne Petrowski explore the experiences of young women in the west through letters sent to Edith Robertson, a young teacher and volunteer, by her fiancé at the front. Through women such as Edith, and others like her, we see both the private and public, individual and collective, experiences of war.

Conscientious card. An example of an exemption card from military service for conscientious objectors during the First World War, this one for the Rev. David Stoesz of Altona, Manitoba dated 13 May 1918. Canada had recognized conscientious objector status since the late 19th century but individuals claiming it during the First World War sometimes had difficulty convincing military tribunals that their grounds for exemption were genuine. See Amy Shaw’s article on conscientious objection in this issue.

Conscientious card. An example of an exemption card from military service for conscientious objectors during the First World War, this one for the Rev. David Stoesz of Altona, Manitoba dated 13 May 1918. Canada had recognized conscientious objector status
since the late 19th century but individuals claiming it during theFirst World War sometimes had difficulty convincing military tribunals that their grounds for exemption were genuine. See Amy Shaw’s article on conscientious objection in this issue.
Source: Mennonite Heritage Centre, volume 1561, file 43.

Not all in western Canada agreed with the bugle call of war. Amy Shaw writes about those Manitobans who rejected conscription; the men who claimed exemption from military service on conscientious grounds—religious or ethical—that prohibited them from engaging in combat and killing. Her study of the public reaction to conscientious objection in Manitoba offers insights into how western Canadians during the First World War saw minority rights, religious freedom, and the responsibilities of citizenship and masculine behaviour. In a similar vein, Vanessa Quiring in “Manitoba Mennonites and the State” studies the appearance of influenza in a pacifist Manitoba Mennonite community near the end of the war and how the pandemic was managed by the Canadian state in the midst of a wave of anti-German sentiment. As Quiring argues, the Great War served to alienate Mennonites, reinforcing the perceived necessity for communities such as Hanover to reject the intrusion of the “outside” world.

Continuing with the topic of how western Canadian groups approached participation in the war, Karine Duhamel and Matthew McRae from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights have employed photos, letters, reports and artefacts to show how Indigenous people had different motivations for their participation in the Great War, different at least from the official line of the Department of Indian Affairs which viewed Indigenous participation on the battlefront and the home front as a testimony to its success in its mission of assimilation. But as Duhamel and McRae point out, the contributions of Indigenous service people had more to do with treaty commitments, their relationship with the Crown, as well as family obligations and socio-economic pressures. In fact, Indigenous people, they argue, “had not acquiesced to the project of colonization; for many, their service was in fact a re-assertion of the original relationship established with the crown over the past three centuries”.

While we are well aware of the propaganda of war, David Gallant examines how western Canadian newspapers often viewed the war in apocalyptic terms, especially at its outbreak. In his article “Armageddon: Western Canadian newspapers at the Outbreak of the Great War”, Gallant reveals how many headlines and articles characterized the coming days as an overwhelming disaster, “the end of which no man can foresee and the horrors of which baffle human imagination.” While newspapers between 1914 and 1918 reflected emotions ranging from patriotic enthusiasm to anxiety, Gallant’s portrayal of the media of the time chronicles how the nation’s destiny was altered in “the abyss of war”.

Much of this special issue of Manitoba History deals with life on the home front, especially among the women of the west who helped to maintain the families, farms and factories that contributed to the war effort. In looking at specific contributions, the Royal Alberta Museum’s Sean Moir and Anthony Worman tell the story of the 1917 fundraising signature quilt by the women of Waskatenau, Alberta. If, as they write, the role of women in conflicts has changed dramatically since the early 20th century, the making of quilts to comfort the injured, dying and displaced continues. With the 1917 Waskatenau quilt we see the contributions of the women of a small prairie town and the legacy of their assistance to the war effort recorded and preserved.

“Sock Shower for Soldiers.” Support on the home front in western Canada was an important part of the war effort. These women, members of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire in Winnipeg, are knitting socks for soldiers at the front.

“Sock Shower for Soldiers.” Support on the home front in western Canada was an important part of the war effort. These women, members of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire in Winnipeg, are knitting socks for soldiers at the front.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, N16802

This issue would not be complete without a look at the legacy of the First World War, and specifically its art memorials. In “Shifting Memories, Shifting Meanings” Eric Story examines the various values represented by the collection of the Nutana Collegiate Memorial Art Gallery in Saskatoon. He explores the history of a memorial in a local community, providing insights into the collection and popular memory of the Great War in the 1920s. Story reveals how a war memorial later evolved into a multi-faceted cultural object, and how competing strands of meaning came to influence commemoration and memory.

The issue is rounded out with a number of book reviews that deal with the First World War from the battlefront to the home front, from personal memoirs to an analysis of war in art and literature. In Cool Things in the Collection, Wayne Chen writes about the Canon Wilmot Collection in the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections.

With funding support from the Department of Canadian Heritage and co-sponsors in three provinces, Manitoba History has organized “Western Canada At War” public events across the prairies, with additional events coming in early 2017. A number of speakers, some of whom are contributors to this issue, will address a variety of topics related to the war and the home front in western Canada. We wish to thank our many presenters, local organizers and supporters, and our Project Coordinators, Krista Walters and Andrea Smorang. A list of these events is shown on the back cover of this issue.

We would like to thank our many contributors to this special issue of Manitoba History. Their articles and reviews remind us that the legacy of the “Great War” remains with us in our sense of community, in our views of nation and region, in our art and literature, and above all in family memory. Their articles also remind us that then, as now, as Margaret Atwood once wrote, “war is what happens when language fails.”

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 12 November 2020

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