What did the Canadian government do for its veterans?

Instead of being offered “the pick of the country” in 1917, veterans were being offered picks and shovels

Instead of being offered “the pick of the country” as promised by Prime Minister Borden in 1917, veterans were being offered picks and shovels —M.A. Orford, Victoria.

 

For the hundreds of thousands of Canadian servicemen who returned from the First World War — what? What, precisely, did the Canadian government do for them?

My maternal grandfather, who was gassed twice, shot through the knee and faced civilian life with damaged lungs, chronic ulcers and one leg shorter than the other, received a disability pension of $26 per month for himself, his wife and three daughters. And custom-made boots to counter his pronounced limp.

Even allowing for a century’s inflation, this doesn’t seem much for his sacrifice.

Returned soldiers who needed hospitalization received it, of course, and there were numerous attempts to encourage them to settle on the land with the aid of government grants and subsidies. But what else did the government do for the able-bodied soldiers, sailors and airmen who came back to a slowing economy once the war effort had subsided?

We get an idea, albeit an exaggerated and distorted one, from a meeting of a newly-formed branch of the Grand Army of United Veterans, a dissident offshoot of the Great War Veterans Assoc. Meeting for the first time in the Duncan Opera House, in September 1920, the 60 in attendance elected A. Griffin, president, A. Reid, vice-president, E. Helman, secretary-treasurer, and Messrs. Estridge, Bonsall, Shirlow, Middletown, Marsden and Dr. Swan, board members.

F. Eyre, South Vancouver president of the GAUV who was in the chair, began by declaring that his group wasn’t there as “Bolsheviks, reds or socialists, but to try to get veterans to stand together to get their rights”. Provincial GAUV organizer J.L. Miller said the GWVA had accomplished much but had “reached the limit as far as veterans were concerned” because they “could not take political action”. He then claimed that some GWVA officers had “betrayed their fellows”.

His organization, which he claimed to have the support of 60 per cent of veterans, wanted every man to be “re-established” with the aid of a cash bonus of $2,000 for those who’d served in France, $1,500 for those who’d served in England, and $1,000 for those who’d served in Canada. This money, an estimated $340 million, he said, could be raised through confiscation of corporate war profits or by compelling the CPR to pay taxes on “land given by the Dominion,” or from the indemnities imposed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.

Other goals were pensions to dependents, abolition of money qualifications for veterans seeking municipal office, proportional representation, exclusion of Asian immigrants, veteran appointments to the Senate, referendum and recall, taxes on unimproved lands, publication of ownership of newspapers, reform of the banking system and public ownership of forests, mines and oil wells!

And no government officials could hold office in the GAUV “unless specially nominated”.

Provincial GAUV secretary R.A. Webb denounced the government’s $30 million subsidy for farmers as a “profit for the bread of life”. The real problem with government, he said, was that it was controlled by profiteers. “We went to fight to protect our capitalistic system against the German capitalistic system and, as far as we were allowed, we won. If we can’t clear up this dirty, rotten mess it is our own fault. We control 1,000,000 votes and the total vote cast in the last election was 1,700,000.”

Instead of being offered “the pick of the country” as promised by Prime Minister Borden in 1917, veterans were being offered picks and shovels, raged M.A. Orford, GAUV president. Most of the money ($76 million) spent to date on re-establishing servicemen had been consumed by the cost of administration composed largely of “slackers…in fat jobs”. British, Australian and New Zealand veterans did better, he said. Another villain in his view were veterans who’d “sold out” their fellows for rewards he didn’t specify. As for paying for it all, he reminded the audience that Canada’s successful Victory Loan campaigns which had indebted the nation to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, clearly showed that the nation could meet veterans’ demands. He concluded by calling Borden “the biggest coward of them all” and a “fatuous ass”.

What about giving veterans preferred status for government job appointments? asked H. Richards of Vancouver. Why, he noted, right here in Duncan, the newly-hired city constable was a non-veteran! And Asiatics were getting other good jobs because they accepted lower wages. Why didn’t the government help returned servicemen learn new trades?

And so it went, with increasing vitriol and stronger rhetoric but with few practical suggestions for government improvement, further heated denials of being “Bolshies,” and pleas for more help for soldiers’ widows and orphans.

It remained for Col. G.E. Barnes, Crofton, to act as a moralistic counterweight. Allowed to speak only after some discussion, he reminded those present that they’d served King and Country voluntarily. To now demand $2,000 for their service would be selling their souls. Did they, he asked, wish to go down in history as “fellows who took credit for voluntarily fighting for their country and then using that credit as a crowbar to lever $2,000 out of their fellows”?

His comments drew insults and dismissal of his service as a professional soldier. Only officers who were commissioned in the field rated their consideration, he was told. With that, the meeting adjourned.

Viewed a century later, it serves to remind us of subsequent wars and criticism of the federal government’s approach to veterans’ affairs.

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