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Canadians’ reactions to the start of WW I

Overview of the set

This set of History Docs invites students to determine the response of Canadians to Canada’s entry into World War I after examining a variety of primary and secondary sources including photographs, interviews, letters-to-the-editor, newspaper articles, pamphlets, speeches, political cartoons, journal articles and websites.

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Primary sources

1. “Not a 20-Years' war” |



2. Relieved that war has come at last |


3. “War declared!” Scene outside "Star" office |

4. The demon of war |



5. Diary entry of Private Frank Walker |


6. A rural perspective |


7. Financial incentives |


8. Reverend Dr. C. W. Gordon's message on the war |


9. The Angel of Death is abroad in Europe |


10. War clouds |


11. Speech by Prime Minister Robert Borden, August 19th, 1914 |


12. Memoir of Private Harold R. Peat, August 1914 |


13. Interview with Maria Pawel |


14. Paying the Price of War |

Secondary sources


1. Scenes at the moment of the declaration of war |


2. Reactions to the outbreak of the First World War |


3. French Canada and recruitment during World War I |

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Student tasks

Question: How did Canadians respond to Canada’s entry into the Great War in August 1914?

When answering this question consider the:

  • reactions of different groups and individuals in Canadian society (e.g., government, military, media, others)
  • factors that influenced the different viewpoints and reactions of Canadians
  • reactions of different regions and provinces in Canada
  • possible outcomes of the war that Canadians were predicting at the beginning of the war.

Teacher notes

The following notes on topics addressed in the History Docs are intended to enhance teachers' understanding of the sources and ability to guide students in interpreting them.

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Historical context for teachers

Causes of World War I

  • The immediate chain of events that led to the outbreak of World War I began when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the
    Austro-Hungarian throne, on a visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
  • By that time, a system of alliances had formed in Europe, creating a very unstable and volatile situation. The Triple Entente, an alliance between England, France and Russia, supported Serbia against the Triple Alliance of Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary.
  • Nations in both alliance groups were growing their military strength and racing to establish colonies around the world. By the summer of 1914, the countries involved in both alliance groups began to assemble their militaries in preparation for conflict.
  • After the June 28, 1914, assassination, Austria-Hungary sent Serbia an ultimatum that made a number of unrealistic demands. Serbia did not accept all of the terms of the ultimatum and, on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. To protect Serbia, Russia began to mobilize their military on its borders with Germany and
  • Germany put into effect the Schlieffen Plan—a quick-strike plan to quickly defeat France by invading its northern flank through Belgium, before moving the bulk of its troops back to the east to confront the enormous yet slow-to-mobilize Russian army.
  • Germany invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914; as a result, Great Britain, which had a treaty with Belgium to defend their neutrality, declared war on Germany on the same date.
  • When Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, Canada was automatically at war. As a colony of Great Britain, Canada did not make its own foreign policy decisions and was not allowed to make an independent decision about participating in the war.

Canada reacts to war

  • Before war was even declared, Canada’s Governor General sent Great Britain a message that cabinet was “confident that a considerable force would be available for service abroad.” This sense of obligation to participate in the war was influenced by the fact that, in 1914, the great majority of people living in Canada were of British or French descent. The 1911 census reported that 54 percent of the population was of British descent and 29 percent were of French descent.
  • Despite its ties to France and Great Britain, in the years leading up to World War I there was an increase in immigration from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire. When World War I began, these countries were at war with Great Britain, and their people were considered “enemy aliens.” Canada was confronted with the fact that thousands of “unnaturalized” (not citizens) immigrants from enemy countries were living within its borders.
  • In response to this and other perceived “internal threats,” the House of Commons passed the War Measures Act on August 4, 1914, that gave the federal government the authority to do anything it deemed necessary to ensure the “security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada.”
  • Under the terms of the War Measures Act, an estimated 120 000 people living in Canada were designated as “enemy aliens,” and 80 000 individuals, the majority Ukrainian, were obliged to register with local authorities and report to them on a regular basis. In total, 8579 prisoners of war and enemy aliens were eventually interned in labour camps across the country.
  • In addition to stripping some Canadians of their democratic rights, the War Measures Act also imposed censorship laws and controls on the economy.
  • Prior to the outbreak of World War I, Canada had a regular army of approximately 3000 soldiers. With the proclamation of war, the Canadian government quickly started to recruit soldiers for overseas service.
  • Recruiting began on August 6 and, on August 16, 1914, the Canadian parliament approved the establishment of a Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) of 25 000 soldiers to fight overseas alongside Great Britain.
  • The training camp for the CEF was quickly established in Valcartier, Québec, and led by Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence. The first contingent of Canadians left for Great Britain on October 3, 1914, and included over 31 000 soldiers, well over the original goal of 25 000.
  • As Canadian husbands, fathers and brothers left to fight at the front, Canadian women were called upon to help fill the jobs traditionally reserved for men. Canadian factories began to produce materials for the war effort, Canadian women took jobs in the transportation and metal trades, and over 30 000 were hired to work in munitions factories. In rural communities, Canadian women worked on farms to produce the agricultural goods required for the war effort.
  • While women were not allowed to join the armed forces, some women volunteered for service in Europe as nurses. At home, Canadian women knit socks, made preserves and rolled bandages for men at the front, as well as gave countless hours of time staffing important voluntary organizations like the Red Cross and the Canadian Patriotic Fund.
  • Some Canadian citizens were opposed to war for moral, religious or political reasons. Christian pacifists, including some Methodists and Presbyterians, as well as many women’s groups and other social activists, believed that war endangered all of society, not just human lives. Some of the immigrant groups that settled in Canada from the late 18th century onward were members of the “historic peace churches:” Mennonites, Hutterites, Quakers and Doukhobours. These religious groups were all pacifist (opposed to violence in any form), and did not support or take part in any kind of armed conflict.