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1939: ‘Canada at the side of Britain’

The Story

War! On Sept. 10, 1939, a special session of Parliament approves Prime Minister Mackenzie King's request that Canada join the war in Europe. The decision, seen by most Canadians as inevitable, comes exactly one week after England and France declare war on Nazi Germany. It is the first time that Canadians make their own declaration of war as a sovereign nation. For CBC Radio listeners, the announcement comes merely as a brief news bulletin interrupting regular programming (it was not preserved in the CBC archives.) But the news of war comes as no surprise to Canadians. The previous week, a solemn King took to the airwaves with an address called "Canada at the side of Britain." In this broadcast (which has been preserved in the CBC archives), Prime Minister Mackenzie King vows to secure Canada's defence, and take "all necessary measures" to curb Germany's "lust for conquest."

Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: Sept. 3, 1939
Guest: William Lyon Mackenzie King
Duration: 7:19

Did You know?

• The Second World War began on Sept. 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany on Sept. 3. In Canada, a special session of Parliament was called on Sept. 7. Canada remained neutral until Sept. 10, when Parliament approved the Prime Minister's request to go to war. King George VI announced declared war on Germany in the name of Canada the same day.

• On his way to the CBC to deliver this Sept. 3, 1939 speech, Prime Minister Mackenzie King discovered that page five was missing. In the rush to have his speech translated, the fifth page was lost and found just two minutes before the broadcast. In his diary, King recalled, "To my horror, before the missing page had reached me, Gladstone Murray [CBC's general manager] told me that this was to be the largest broadcast that had ever been made from Canada; that it was a worldwide broadcast."

• Though the decision to go to war was overwhelmingly supported by Parliament, it was not unanimous.

• James Shaver Woodsworth, a Methodist minister and pacifist who helped create the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, broke ranks with his party and became the sole member of Parliament to vote against the motion to go to war.

• French Canada was less supportive of rushing to join Britain in the war effort. Quebec MPs Wilfrid Lacroix and Liguori Lacombe voted for a "non-participation amendment" but were its only supporters. The next day the Globe and Mail called them "two French-Canadians who gained eternal distinction by an attitude unworthy of their people and country."

• When Parliament approved King's recommendation to declare war, CBC announcer Austin Willis interrupted the imported American radio show Music for Moderns to read a Canadian Press bulletin breaking the news. Willis then returned to the music program, which happened to be playing the Jimmy Durante novelty song Inka Dinka Doo. The Financial Post criticized the CBC, commenting that "Incredible stupidity has been shown by Canada's state-owned broadcasting system... No sense of sober gravity of the moment seized by the CBC."

The day after Parliament's decision, the Globe and Mail described Canada's entry into the war as follows: "This peaceful country, 3,000 miles distant from the scene of the conflict, which desires to live on terms of amity with the whole world, has spoken in its own right for human justice and equity, prepared to defend with life and its full treasure principles more sacred than life or material welfare."

• "The solemn decision reached was the echo of a nation's soul," the Globe and Mail continued, "torn by wholesale murder and brigandage on land and sea and tyranny which it could not in silence see imposed on others wishing to live undisturbed like itself."
• While keeping up a front of patriotic fervour, the Globe did take a swipe at King and Parliament for not immediately committing more to the war effort.

• Once war was declared, Canada readied its coastal defences and mobilized its armed forces, including thousands of volunteers. Almost 60,000 men and women enlisted in September alone. The first Canadian troops sailed for Britain on Dec. 10, 1939.  

• Italy, allied with Germany since 1936, declared war on France and Britain on June 10, 1940. Canada declared war on Italy the same day.

• Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, then promptly declared war on the United States, Britain and Canada. That evening, Prime Minister King and his Cabinet decided to go to war with Japan. The U.S., Britain and Canada declared war on Japan the next day. The event marked the entry of the United States into the war.
• Over one million Canadians served in the Second World War, and approximately 45,000 gave their lives.


The Coming of the Second World War more