Snapshots of Canada’s Past: History is more than just words on a screen or from a textbook; this series is a thematic look back at Canadian history through visual imagery.
Eye-catching posters weren’t the only art form during the First World War designed to deliver a message to the Canadian public. Newspapers across the country utilized their artists to depict the war abroad through political cartoons. However, unlike the government and the Red Cross, their agendas weren’t always pro-war. This post takes a look at how political cartoons changed overtime as the journalists and the public’s opinion of the war began to sour as the years went on. Also, we will be looking at other issues that arose during the Great War and how Canadian cartoonists responded to them as well.
Canada’s entry into World War I came on August 4, 1914, the same day Britain declared war on Germany. In the following days, most newspapers (both English and French) held the same opinion: Full steam ahead! Surprisingly, even French papers like La Presse in Montreal argued the importance of supporting “the Motherland.” Although, it’s really “Motherlands” for French Canadians. You will notice in the second cartoon that the female figure is holding both Britain and France’s flags. English cartoonists focused mainly on the Empire and often included references to follow members like Australia and New Zealand.
Growing Anti-War Sentiments
As the years wore on, Canadians grew disillusioned with the war. This was especially apparent in French Canada. Their opinion of the war quickly soured as death tolls rose and rumours of conscription began to leak out. Why were we involved and letting so many of our men die for a foreign war that had little impact on us? Worse, it appeared that it was only rich businessmen who were really profiting from the war and they certainly weren’t the ones taking up arms. Non-Ontario based newspapers particularly showcased the discontent.
Conscription, Women, and the United States
Just because the action was over in Europe doesn’t mean things were calm back at home. To the horror of traditionalists, tens of thousands of women were now working. Volunteers for the war effort were rapidly vanishing. The response to this was conscription, but the debate over the issue caused relations between English and French Canada to deteriorate. Newspapers covered all of this, as well as detailed military successes and the rising death tolls. This added to the arguments on both sides of the debate. As such, the Canadian homefront was in the midst of political turmoil and change from 1914 to 1918. Artists across the country captured the divisive era on paper.
A lot of the rhetoric we read and hear today about Canada and WW1 came right from those years and not from historians later on. The cartoon below is one example of this. John Bull, a national personification of Great Britain, fixes a sign regarding Canada’s position on the global stage. Many argued WW1 is the moment where Canada matured from a colony to nation. Why? There was a major shift that occurred in our collective national identity: from British subjects to Canadians. Not all historians agree, but with lines like, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation,” (Brigadier-General A.E. Ross following Vimy), it’s not hard to see why cartoonists grew images like the one below—three months before the war officially ended.
Bumsted, J. M., A History of the Canadian Peoples, 4th ed, Oxford University Press, 2011.
“Canada and the First World War,” Canadian War Museum. Accessed from: http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/
“First World War,” Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom, The Begbie Contest Society. Accessed from: http://www.begbiecontestsociety.org/firstworldwar.htm (This site is a goldmine).
Morton, Desmond, A Military History of Canada, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007.