Book Reviews

Book Reviews:

MARGARET MACMILLAN, author of Paris 1919,  and The War That Ended Peace:

Alan Bowker has given us a richly textured picture of Canada as it emerged from the First World War.  His engaging and readable account shows the great social, political and economic trends that were changing the country yet also brings out the individual voices of Canadians.


The past year has seen significant attention devoted to the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War. Britain, France, and Australia are all moving ahead with major commemorative plans. While Canada seems to be lagging behind with formal, federal-led projects, there has been no shortage of interest. The weeks from late July into August—the anniversary of the period leading to the war and of its outbreak a hundred years ago — saw a frenzy of magazine articles, news stories, and fresh books.

There has been tremendous study of the outbreak of the war but less effort devoted to its ramifications. A new book by Alan Bowker, who holds a Ph.D. in history and is a former High Commissioner to Guyana, offers insight into how Canadians struggled in the war’s aftermath.

A Time Such as There Never Was Before is a bit of an unwieldy title, but it comes from political economist and humorist Stephen Leacock, who had watched Canada strive and sacrifice in the nearly unlimited war effort of 1914 to 1918. Leacock and many other English Canadians had been willing to pay almost any price in the pursuit of victory, but when the armistice came on November 11, 1918, no one knew how Canada would move forward from the ruin of war.

More than 620,000 citizen-soldiers served in uniform, and 66,000 had been buried overseas or would die of their wounds after the armistice. The nation had made a name for itself on the killing fields of Ypres, the Somme, and Vimy yet the exertion during the war had nearly torn the country apart along both existing and newly formed fault lines between regions, classes, and English, French, and new Canadians. Canada would never be the same.

Bowker has read widely and draws upon much of the latest scholarship to provide a window into Canada after the war. The return of hundreds of thousands of veterans presented an immediate challenge. These men, many of them wounded in body or spirit, came back to a country that was mired in debt. Women had stepped up to fill many of the men’s jobs, and they were now pushed back to the domestic sphere.

The federal government struggled to reintegrate veterans back into society, to provide care and training for the wounded and opportunities for the able-bodied. With only the most embryonic of social security nets, many veterans fell through the cracks, and most were angry about finding, in the words of the day, no “land fit for heroes.“

The nation was also plagued by the Spanish fu that killed fifty thousand citizens in late 1918 and 1919. Bowker offers poignant insight into this catastrophe and how Canadians reeled from this cruel blow coming on the heels of the wartime losses. From there, he explores the economic impact of the war and the political battles fought by Prime Minister Robert Borden to ensure a presence for Canada at the Versailles peace conference.

The struggle overseas was used by many groups in Canada to bring about change. They felt that the war, with its need for tremendous sacrifice, had to be about more than defeating Germany, and many Canadians had impossible expectations for a new Canada.

Various groups, largely led by women, had successfully ushered in wartime temperance to ban “demon drink,” and that carried into the 1920s in most provinces. This did not always sit well with returning soldiers, many of whom had grown fond of their almost daily shot of rum in the trenches. Organized religion went through agonizing debates, as the terrible war had, for some, shaken faith. And there were changes to the roles of women in society, although much more was needed for them to achieve equal rights.

But the war did not lead to upheaval in all sectors. First Peoples and non-English immigrants who had served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force came back to a country that continued to treat them with little respect or rights under the law. Quebec was further insulated from the rest of Canada as a result of the conscription crisis.

The First World War was a period of enormous upheaval. The nation had responded to Britain’s call with a massive war effort, but that had brought unintended consequences. Bowker has done us a service in exploring the turbulent postwar years and in unravelling the intricacies of the war’s impact on Canada and Canadians.


The Great War continues to fascinate us a century after its outbreak. Thousands of books have been published in many languages trying to explain its origins, its nature, the strategies and tactics, the apparent failures of the generals and the impact of its mass slaughter and mutilation of millions of men. There is a good reason for this because it was, as most people came eventually to recognize, a sharp dividing line in the evolution of western civilization. It is a cliché to say that the nineteenth century ended in 1914, but like most clichés this one is essentially true.

Curiously, not much has been written about the aftermath of the war except for books which rightly point out that it was the instability of the 1920s and 1930s that led to the rise of fascist regimes in Italy and Germany and resulted in the Second War—or Round Two of the Great War, as many would describe it. This general lack of interest in the 1920s is especially notable in Canada, which historians have generally skipped over lightly on their way to the seemingly more interesting 1930s.

Happily, Alan Bowker has addressed the situation with A Time Such as There Never Was Before, a history of Canada in the 1920s, and has done it well. This is a large densely-packed book of just under four hundred pages of text, not including endnotes and bibliography. And it’s all there: the struggle of the returning veterans to readjust to civilian life; the well-intentioned but ill-conceived effort to settle thousands of them on new farms in the northwest; the Spanish influenza epidemic; the impact of the war on prewar social reform movements which embraced the war as a noble crusade that must surely led to a new and better world; the political uprising of the farmers and organized labour and the destruction of the two-party political system; the dramatic increase in American investment and cultural impact on English Canadian popular culture; the tentative beginnings of women’s liberation but the persistence of racial and ethnic prejudice; and more.

As thorough as Bowker is, however, one cannot help regretting that some issues are passed over more quickly than one might think they should be. The dramatic changes in the Canadian economy, most notably its emergence as a supplier of raw materials to the United States, are barely touched upon. Similarly, the constitutional dilemma that plagues us still—the rapid growth of expensive provincial responsibilities such as education, roads and social programs despite inadequate provincial tax powers—is ignored, as are politics generally except in regard to specific issues like prohibition and women’s suffrage. The alarming emergence of American-style racism as with the appearance of the Ku Klux Klan in Saskatchewan and Ontario is only hinted at as part of an otherwise excellent treatment of continuing racial, religious and ethnic prejudice in the postwar world.

More concerning is the virtual absence of the Maritime provinces, aside from occasional references, from the book. This may seem like petulance from an historian who lives and works in the region but it’s actually a serious problem because, while the rest of Canada was generally enjoying a prosperous decade after the immediate postwar slump, this was a period of traumatic economic collapse, from which it has never recovered, in the Maritimes. A variety of factors contributed to this but most significant was the nationalization of the railways (except the CPR), which Bowker does discuss but apparently without realizing its particular significance to eastern Canada.

When the government created Canadian National Railways, it included in the new company the Intercolonial Railway (ICR), which the federal government had built and operated since the 1870s. This proved to be disastrous because the ICR had subsidized the cost of shipping goods from the Maritime provinces to Central Canada. Although it is rarely discussed by historians as such, this was an important part of the National Policy because it helped industries in eastern Canada get their goods to the main Canadian market at competitive prices. The CNR, however, backed by the government, saw no reason why freight rates in the Maritimes should be different from those elsewhere (although it retained the Crow’s Nest Agreement in western Canada) and promptly abolished the subsidy.

The impact on Maritime-based industries was immediate and catastrophic. Between 1919 and 1921 the number employed in manufacturing in the region declined by nearly forty-two per cent, as companies moved to central Canada or drastically reduced the scale of their operations. In the course of the 1920s industrial Cape Breton—the British Empire Steel and Coal Company, whose two steel mills and mines had produced thirty-five per cent of the nation’s pig iron and more than forty-four per cent of the nation’s coal during the war—ruthlessly slashed wages in an effort to remain competitive. One steel mill closed in 1920 and the resulting industrial turmoil required the use of troops to maintain order. When the great depression arrived in the 1930s most people in industrial Cape Breton failed to notice any real difference. The federal government’s economic policies in the 1920s led to the formation of a Maritime Rights Movement which so alarmed W.L. Mackenzie King—who led a minority government until 1926—that he set up a royal commission to investigate the problem. Needless to say, when he won a majority in the 1926 election, he lost interest and it was not until John Diefenbaker came into office in the late 1950s that the federal government established an equalization program and policies to encourage regional economic development.

Another startling weakness, which undoubtedly is not Bowker’s fault, is that his endnotes are not included in the book. They exist but to see them the reader is directed to the publisher’s website or Bowker’s personal website. The decision to omit them from the book presumably reflects the publisher’s concern about the cost of including seventy-three more pages in the book, but it was a disservice to both the author and his readers.

There is little in this book that will interest students of Canadian military history. To be fair, it was not on the whole an interesting or at least encouraging decade for the armed forces, as the King government spent the decade cutting the defence budget in the naïve hope that the armed forces would not be needed again in the foreseeable future. At the same time, even though the army was used on a number of occasions to suppress strikes, the only strike that Bowker discusses is the Winnipeg General Strike, in which the army was not involved (although veterans were).

These are quibbles, however. Bowker, who is recently retired from a distinguished career in the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs but is also a qualified academic historian with a particular interest in Canadian social history, has written a highly readable and generally thorough and fascinating account of the 1920s, showing the tremendous impact of the Great War on Canadian society. It will be widely read and enjoyed by both historians and the general public.

RON DART, University of the Fraser Valley:

A Time Such as There Never Was Before (a quote from Stephen Leacock of whom Alan Bowker is a meticulous specialist) is written with a dramatic flair and inviting charm. There is a thoughtfully researched “Timeline” in this dramatic overview with the “Cast of Main Characters” listed at the end of the book. The timeline in which this informed tome covers is from 1918-1927----momentous years in many ways that did much to shape and reshape Canada and the world.... The fourteen accessible and readable chapters cannot but hold the curious reader and draw the inquisitive into the living theatre of Canadian history. This is definitely a book for both Canadian history keeners and those who often find history dry as Ezekiel’s parched desert bones. Bowker, to his literary credit, has enlivened the Canadian dramatic tale between 1918-1927 in a way few have been able to do and do well. All of the chapters in this timely overview probe deftly and wisely into different aspects of the Canadian soul and how shifting social demands and expectations have called forth varied responses from Canadians. There is a fine breadth and cross disciplinary approach to A Time Such as There Never Was Before that makes the book most attractive reading indeed---this is not history that is cabined, cribbed and confined for narrow specialists----this is an approach to history that is lively, informed and with a spacious breadth to it---such a creative approach to Canadian history makes this gem of a book burnished gold of the finest quality---worth many a read and each read will reveal much about the Canadian journey at a turbulent and trying phase of history ... a cultural imperative to read."


A Time Such as There Never Was Before: Canada After the Great War by Alan Bowker is a rich social and political history of Canada following the First World War. Bowker served for thirty-five years in the Canadian foreign service including the position of High Commissioner to Guyana and ambassador to Suriname. He holds a PhD in Canadian history from the University of Toronto and has taught at the Royal Military College.

A bit of a disclaimer on my part: I am a citizen of the United States and looking in from the outside at the country I grew up eighty miles from. I also hold an MA in International relations and find Canadian history something that was sorely lacking in my education. I would also like to thank Dundurn Press for their willingness to let a Yankee review so many of their publications and become a better informed neighbor.

To most Americans, Canada is like our quieter, better behaved brother on the world stage. They speak the same language, share the same common British heritage, and until recently shared the largest open border in the world. There are many similarities in our cultures and many parallels that give us a common ground. Bowker presents Canada’s history after WWI as a unique period of great change and untested waters. For both our countries, WWI brought our nations to adulthood despite our closeness there were different paths taken.

Canada lost more men in WWI than the United States and was involved in the war for a longer period. The war became a shock to the general population. No one expected the mass slaughter. Farmer’s sons volunteered never expecting to be gone for years. As a result, farming suffered in the agricultural giant Canada was becoming. America, only fifty years earlier, experienced its long bloody war and was hesitant to fight another. WWI was a wake up call to Canada and a chance for Canada as a nation to define itself outside the British shadow.

Many changes happened after the war. There was religious growth and change as evangelicalism rose and fell and atheism began emerge. Religious opinion was no longer in unanimous agreement that “khaki was a sacred color”. Race issues began to be more pronounced. Many non-French Canadians viewed Canada as English, many were English, and not open to foreigners. Slavs were not welcome, unless there was a need for farming experts. Immigrants from India were required to make a direct trip from India to Canada. There, however, were no direct trips. It was an indirect way of saying “You are not welcome.” Chinese were restricted. Blacks however avoided much of the persecution as Canada remained proud in its role as the terminus of the Underground Railroad.

The government began to feel opposition to the war in as the body counts rose. French Canadians were vocal in their opposition. The election of 1917 was bitter and rigged. At the end of the war Canada demanded representation at the table in Versailles, no longer content to being just a part of Britain.

The national government was faced with the problem of what to do with the returning veterans. Once the men came back they were demobilized. Discharges were processed at an unbelievable rate. The government worked through several programs appearing to try and do what was needed. An attempt to offer land to the returning soldiers to farm was one plan. There was not room in the workplace for returning soldiers. With the victory, 200,000 civilians employed in the munitions industry found themselves unemployed. There was no “Peace Dividend” for Canada. To compound matters the Spanish Flu devastated nations. Bowker notes that the life expectancy in United States dropped for 54 to 40 as a result of the Spanish Flu.

A Time Such as There Never Was Before condenses a great deal of history into a relatively few pages. The coverage of the interwar period is more Canadian history than most Americans will ever experience. Bowker provides detail with enthusiasm. The Information is written in a clear and stimulating fashion making the history a compelling read. The post WWI years were an exciting and sometimes trying time in Canada. Bowker does an outstanding job bringing this history to life. Highly recommended.