The war brought bloodshed and killing to the millions of men who fought it. But while the armies suffered through the poison gas and bullets of the battlefields, Canadian industry was humming happily along. During wars the capitalist economy usually booms. The demand for war materials - - guns, tanks, planes, ammunition, uniforms -- creates a whole new market, it also creates enormous profits for the industries who get government war contracts. Many Canadian fortunes were founded during the high profit years of the First World War.
The war taught the Canadian people several lessons. They learned that in wartime, as in peacetime, it was all right to sacrifice the lives of workers, but not to sacrifice the making of profits. The government broke its promise not to conscript workers for the army but refused to conscript the wealth of Canadians.
But the biggest lessons were reserved for the years after the war. With the fighting over, Canadians expected to find some of the freedom and happiness they had been told they were fighting for. They were disappointed.
The complete irrationality of our economic system is shown by the fact that once the war was over, the economy fell into a major depression. As the demands of the country switched from war supplies to the needs of ordinary people -- good homes, good food, cheap clothes and other goods, steady work -- the economy slowed right down. There was little profit to be made from selling the necessities of life at a reasonable price. The owning class preferred to sit on its wartime profits rather than satisfy the needs of working people.
Soldiers returning home found their families in poverty and no jobs available. In Cape Breton fewer and fewer shifts were required in the mines as the pace of the economy slowed down. The steel plant was operating only two days a week, and in the middle of 1919, it shut down completely.
Canadian workers did not take the crisis quietly. Militancy increased drastically all across Canada at the end of the war. The workers wanted their share of the profits that had been earned from their sweat during the war, both on the battlefields and in the factories and sweatshops at home. It was not right for the capitalists to reap all the profits in good times and for the workers to bear the brunt of the suffering in bad.
Canadian workers were beginning to understand the crisis in terms of more than whether they could get higher wages or have a union of their own. These battles would still be fought for years, but the workers were gaining a deep understanding of the nature of the capitalist system as a whole. They were looking for alternatives.
The government was extremely worried about the spread of radical ideas among Canadians. Under the War Measures Act -- the same piece of legislation Pierre Elliott Trudeau was to use more than 50 years later -- the prime minister outlawed 14 different political and trade union organizations and made it a crime to possess any one of 1,000 books.
During May and June of 1919 the workers of Winnipeg fought the first of a series of militant union struggles which spread across the country during the following years. In the midst of these battles – over wages, prices and the principles of trade unionism --something new was being born. An awareness was growing that an entire system was under question; Canadian workers, were looking for alternatives. It would require the brute force of the Canadian state to suppress them.