In Depth

Canada's war brides

Love and war overseas

Last Updated November 3, 2006

Dutch war brides on the Lady Rodney in November 1946 in Halifax. (Canadian Press)

Most of Canada's war brides arrived at Halifax's Pier 21, first by the hundreds in 1942, then by the thousands in the next six years.

They were young, mostly British. They represent love found in a foreign place in the midst of war, the ultimate romance story. They fell for a Canadian in uniform, married, left their homes, boarded ships with their children at British ports.

They ended up in Canada, where they spread across this country in trains, heading to every province. While they were arriving, they represented a sizable portion of the immigration to Canada.

As the years went by, and their families flourished, the 44,000 war brides and their 21,000 children who made the ocean trip touched every part of Canada.

"The war brides have had an incredible impact on Canadian society and culture as we know it today," Melynda Jarratt, a war bride historian based in Fredericton, N.B., told

She estimates that one in every 30 Canadians is from a war bride family. They can track their family heritage to places like Holland, Italy and France. But most of them have roots in England.

A quick courtship

After the Second World War began, almost half a million Canadian servicemen eventually landed in Britain, either to be based in the country or to move on to other places.

The first marriage between a Canadian serviceman and a British woman happened just 43 days after the soldiers arrived. It was January 1940.

"The soldiers were like immigrants in a way arriving in England, all making their way though Aldershot, which was called 'Little Canada.' " Jarratt said. "Naturally they are going to meet women at the dances, at the theatre and on the street getting an ice cream. Or dodging bombs."

Recognizing that weddings were starting to take place, the Canadian army set wedding rules on the fly. Before allowing a solider to marry, the army required that he ask an officer for permission and prove he was debt-free.

War brides by country
Britain 44,886
Holland 1,886
Belgium 649
France 100
Italy 26
Denmark 7

Source: While the total represents all women who married Canadian soldiers, some of the brides did not come to Canada.

The woman, the rules said, should be of "good moral character." The rules were changed later to require the solider to help pay for his wife's journey to Canada.

Soon, clubs of British war bides were sprouting up. These new Canadians-to-be were schooled on life in Canada with books like Canadian Cook Book for British Wives. The government also set up a Canadian Wives' Bureau to help co-ordinate the move to Canada.

'Operation Daddy'

The responsibility for getting war brides to Canada was shifted from the immigration branch of the Department of Mines and Resources to the Department of National Defence in late 1944.

The Canadian government offered citizenship and passage to Canada for war brides and their children. They were all granted citizenship.

So from the British cities of Liverpool and Southampton, the brides made their way to Canada. About 58 ships made the journey that often took up to two weeks.

Included was the ocean liner the Queen Mary, which could carry about 1,000 people, and RMS Mauretania.

During these trips, many women remember, the food that was absent from wartime Britain, such as butter, white bread and bananas, was abundant.

The biggest wave of immigration came in fiscal 1946, when 39,000 war brides and children arrived.

Two years earlier, during the war, about 6,500 made the journey. So many war brides were coming that in 1946 that they represented about 55 per cent of the total immigration.

Canadian news media widely reported on the arrival of the new immigrants. Some called it "Operation Daddy," while others called the train service that carried the war brides across Canada the "Diaper Special."

The war brides spread out across the country. New Brunswick may have received as many as 2,000 war brides with 1,000 children. Ontario received as many as 7,000 while Quebec had about 5,000.

Planting roots, problems with identity

"They were a huge influence on Canadian society. They came here and raised large families," Jarratt said. "They became very much a part of the Canadian cultural mosaic and their children identify with that historical experience. They are very proud of their mothers and their fathers."

For some, the question of citizenship has come back to haunt them.

Many war brides, and particularly some children who never left the country, took their citizenship for granted.

One example is a man named Joe Taylor, a son of a Canadian soldier and a war bride who was denied attempts to gain his Canadian citizenship. He was born out of wedlock, and his parents eventually separated.

He brought his fight for citizenship to Federal Court in British Columbia and won in September 2006, yet the federal government said it is appealing the decision.

Politicians have come to his defence, including Senator Romeo Dallaire, whose mother was a Dutch war bride.

In the early 1970s, Dallaire was told that he couldn't get his passport renewed because he wasn't a Canadian citizen.

Some war brides, homesick, went back to England, but most of them stayed, and to this day, perhaps a million Canadians can trace their heritage to war brides.

"In the post-war world, Canada was eager to have this stock of mainly British women arriving here with rosy cheek little children," Jarratt said.

War bride and children immigration to Canada
Year Brides/Dependents % of total immigration for year
1942-43 188 2.4%
1943-44 1,255 14.8%
1944-45 6,442 50.3%
1945-46 16,133 71%
1946-47 39,092 54.5%
1947-48 1,336 2%
Total 64,446 34.3%


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by Brian DuBreuil
My mother, the war bride
by Mary Sheppard
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