Remembrance Day: The Homefront in Alberta

The Second World War was hard on the men fighting on the front lines as well as those they left behind

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Greg GazinWhile the Second World War was hard on the men and women fighting on the front lines, it was also hard on those they left behind.

This is important to remember this Remembrance Day.

It’s two sides of the same coin, said Dr. Adriana Davies, Executive Director and of the Heritage Community Foundation. “The front (line) was only one side of the coin. The home front was the other side,” she said.

World War II: The Homefront in Alberta, one of the newest sites within the Alberta Online Encyclopedia – albertasource.ca, contains powerful and compelling stories of the realities faced by the people who were thousands of kilometers away from the actual war front. The project is a result of a partnership with the Canadian Militaria Preservation Society and the Royal Alberta Museum.

“This virtual museum allows people to see over 3,000 artifacts, like Victory Bonds and Nurses and children in uniforms which will put you in the time of the event”, Allan Kerr, President, Canadian Militaria Preservation Society, said. “It really helps create awareness for the young people of Alberta as to what happened during wartime in Alberta.”

During the war, no Albertan – women, children, new Canadians or Aboriginals – was spared the hardships of the war.

Women were recruited into jobs historically performed by men, but still had to be mothers. You might say these women were the precursors of today’s “Super Moms,” but with a little “Super Dad” thrown in. Many of them became mechanics and pilots, and ran businesses and farms. In fact, they took on many jobs that required extensive physical labour. Besides continuing to be homemakers, they literally had to add just about everything that was considered to be “men’s work” before the war.

Life became much more difficult than simply waiting at home for news or a telegram from “over there.”

Children were affected too. They participated in such war-time activities as salvage drives and war savings stamp collection. While such activities instilled a sense of patriotism and duty, children lost the ability to simply be children. Their childhood was overshadowed by fear, as expressed in the war stories in the comic books of the time and the posters and propaganda that was present everywhere. And because “mother” was involved in the war effort herself, there was a lack of supervision which led to increased acts of juvenile delinquency.

Children also suffered from malnutrition because of supply shortages. Items such as butter, meat and sugar were rationed to ensure some could be sent to the troops overseas. In fact, in 1942, each Canadian was entitled to only 1.5 ounces of tea or 5.5 ounces of coffee per week. The shortages were exasperated by the lack of labourers to work the farms.

Rubber gloves and bathing caps were collected to free up materials for military production and even fat and bones, from left-over meals, were conserved to be used as ingredients in the production of explosives.

People flocked to Alberta to escape the war, increasing the demand for commodities and creating a housing shortage. Some communities doubled and even tripled in size, causing severe overcrowding. According to AlbertaSource.ca, previous immigration levels paled in comparison to the influx during the war year.

While today we may celebrate multiculturalism, with annual events such as the Heritage Festival and Canadian Multicultural Day, it was very different during the war. Anyone with a non-British sounding name was suspected of collaborating with the enemy.

Even those Albertans who were well established did not escape the suspicion, criticism and racism fueled by fear, panic and propaganda. While immigrants from many cultures were affected, those of German, Japanese and Italian heritage were hit the hardest.

For example, pharmacist and German-Canadian Paul Abele of Edmonton, an Albertan since 1911, was accused of spying for Hitler’s Third Reich and arrested in 1940. His drugstore was seized and he was separated from his family until 1943. Because he had the financial means, it was alleged that he had plans to blow up Edmonton’s High Level Bridge, but the accusations were never proven.

Enrico Butti, another casualty of the war, was investigated by authorities because he was the president of an Italian Cultural Society.

Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which created a backlash against Japanese-Canadians. Those Japanese-Canadians who lived on the west coast were forced from their homes. Many relocated to Alberta despite the government’s opposition. Even cities such as Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge passed bylaws, banning the Japanese from taking on even domestic work and barring them from entering establishments. Some even passed bylaws denying them the right to live in those cities. Many were sent to internment camps.

Some of the largest prisoners of war (POW) camps in North America were right here in Alberta. The camps were located in places like Seebe, in Kananaskis Country and Lethbridge in southern Alberta. Camp No.132, located in Medicine Hat, was the biggest, covering over 50 hectares and accommodating up to 12,500 prisoners.

August 1945 marked the end of the Second World War and an eventual return to economic prosperity. But the “silent” cost of war was still evident on the home front in Alberta. Families were in a state of flux. The effect on “Super Moms” who had to give up their new roles and positions to accommodate the men returning from the front lines and who expected to return to their jobs and the traditional role as the family breadwinner was a precursor to a second wave of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. The transition back to “normal” life often proved difficult for the women; many developed identity crisis.

The returning troops’ difficult transition to civilian life, and the nightmares brought on by their war experience that many of them suffered, led to marital breakdowns and a further deterioration of the traditional family unit.

Albertans of German, Italian, and Japanese descent continued to struggle for years while demonstrating their allegiance to their adopted countries.

But, Davies reminds us, even though the Second World War has long since passed, we are currently experiencing another home front today.   “As losses mount in Afghanistan, we experience the pain of the wives, husbands, parents and children waiting for their loved ones to return.”

Troy Media columnist Greg Gazin, also known as the Gadget Guy and Gadget Greg, is a syndicated veteran tech columnist, communication, leadership and technology speaker, facilitator, blogger, podcaster and author. Reach him @gadgetgreg or at GadgetGuy.ca.

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