MPs like to quote Churchill. No MP ever quotes Mackenzie King. One Conservative said King was guided by “the cold hand of political expediency” in the Second World War, perhaps forgetting both major parties campaigned against conscription in a 1940 general election for fear of losing seats in Québec.
Historian Jack Granatstein’s Canada At War documents the era in a compelling collection of essays. Consider the 1940 election. At the very moment Britain was rationing butter and evacuating schoolchildren from its cities, when Finland and the USSR were at war, when Japan was waging its brutal campaign of “kill all, loot all, burn all” in northern China, Liberal Party fundraisers were shaking down federal contractors for cash contributions: Canada Packers, Northern Electric, National Steel Car. “Companies were virtually forced to contribute to party coffers out of fear of losing their government contracts,” writes Granatstein.
One Liberal Party contributor bought the lieutenant governorship of Ontario for $30,000. Six other fundraisers won appointments to the Senate. “There were no problems whatsoever with money,” writes Granatstein. Mackenzie King won the election handily.
“Many Canadians, French-speaking and others, believed incorrectly that their interests, Canadian interests, were not directly threatened by Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo,” notes Canada At War. It is an arresting statement.
Granatstein describes Canada as “a small and weak country” at the time. “We are the safest country in the world as long as we mind our own business,” he quotes one Canadian diplomat of the era. When Churchill met Roosevelt at the famed 1941 Atlantic Charter conference at Newfoundland, Prime Minister King was not even asked to attend. Canada was “reduced to the status of a pest with its perpetual clamour to be present,” says Canada At War.
If the story ended there, it would rank as an inglorious chapter unworthy of being quoted by any MP. Of course the story does not end there.
Granatstein puts it best: “Like those of other prime ministers, King’s separate acts do not always appear honourable, fair or just. Too often expediency, power considerations or patronage appear to shape policy, and the individual parts of the whole often look pretty shabby. But the entire picture should not be distorted by too much emphasis on the bits and pieces.”
Canada did win its war. In a country of 11.5 million people a total 330,000 did volunteer to fight and die with the army, navy and air force by 1941. Canada did make a gift of billions in war production that helped turn the tide. Canada At War documents this in spirited anecdotes and tireless research.
A final word about the author: Jack Granatstein rates among those few historians who have devoted their lives to telling Canadian stories. Their work is indispensable. Everyone is richer for reading and enjoying it.
By Holly Doan
Canada at War: Conscription, Diplomacy and Politics, by J.L. Granatstein; University of Toronto Press; 328 pages; ISBN 9781-48752-4760; $21.42