by Kyle Pritchard

Alongside reuniting with their families and receiving medical treatment, employment was pivotal to First World War veterans’ return to normalcy and financial stability after the traumas of the trenches. With about half of Canadian soldiers engaged in factory work before the First World War, examining veterans’ relationship with industry is crucial to understanding how soldiers returned to their civilian lives, and what obstacles stood in the way of readjustment.[i] The Canadian government relied on manufacturers’ capacity to act as care providers in a larger state program of rehabilitation. Relying on original research from McMaster Archives, as well as other supporting print material, this preliminary project demonstrates how veterans’ experiences with industrial reconstruction varied based on their battlefield experiences, mental health and the degree to which veterans were either injured or disabled. Rather than a linear progression towards recovery and full employment, I argue that the majority of wage-dependent veterans had difficulty escaping periodic cycles of unemployment, and that their ambitions to secure long-term employment became harder throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Those who had seen some success in limited government programs continued to experience financial difficulty in the high-inflation climate of the post-war economy. As veterans often embraced deeply-held values of perseverance and self-support, employment was a critical step in rebuilding veterans’ identities. It was also veterans’ most desired pathway to regaining some semblance of pre-war stability. Yet, between government and manufacturers, it was also one of the pathways least supported. Post-war industry and agriculture programs were highly beneficial to veteran rehabilitation efforts. And still, veteran’s programs lasted but a short time and did not often provide the long-term and stable employment necessary to fully reintegrate them into Canadian society.

Veterans’ Organizations, Government Programs and Industrial Collaboration

Veterans’ demands in wartime literature explained that remuneration should not be limited to reasonable pensions, homes, medical care and family provisions, but also include the ability to work as an extension of their service. Reconstruction was intended to assist returned soldiers in need and wartime reconstruction literature envisioned veterans as leaders in a project of national rejuvenation. For veteran organizations, this literature showed employers that veterans offered more patriotic, disciplined and committed labour than the workmen they replaced. Many of these assumptions were in line with the cultural milieu of the period which anticipated that the war would build men up. However, many returned home having suffered mental and physical injuries which made it harder to cope with daily working life.

Early organizational discussion of veterans’ programs was optimistic that wage-dependent soldiers may easily be reintegrated into Canadian industry. James Lougheed of the Military Hospitals Commission, later the Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment, believed that with technical training programs “so many men will be taken back to their former kind of employment that there will be comparatively few to teach.”[ii] As the war dragged on, government reconstruction initiatives corresponded to the economic demands of a country increasingly in debt while continuing to be guided by masculine constructions of veterans as independent and self-supporting breadwinners.[iii] While new programs emerged to retrain and resettle returning soldiers, most assistance became grounded in the belief that veterans were responsible for their own reintegration into the Canadian workforce and society.

Upon their return to Canada, veterans were divided by the Military Hospitals Commission into four categories in relation to employment: soldiers whose positions had been guaranteed by employers before the war; soldiers who were unemployed at the time of enlisting; wounded and disabled soldiers unable to retake their former position, but who could be retrained; and men with a permanent disability and unable to work. Able-bodied veterans ultimately had two options if facing the prospect of unemployment: either they were retrained for skilled labour or they chose to resettle on farmland through the Soldier Settlement Board. In both cases, employment was deeply important to the rebuilding of veterans’ masculine identities. As American historian Beth Linker, among others, has suggested, war and the process of hospitalization and rehabilitation emasculated injured soldiers. “Citizen-soldiers,” a term used for yet-to-be employed veterans, were described as steadily reclaiming their masculinity through the social and remedial elements of the work environment. And once they fully returned to employment and their roles as a family provider, they could then focus on restoring themselves to good health.[iv]

Technical Training and Unemployment

Yet any hope placed in the market to solve veterans’ unemployment without institutional support had quickly dissipated by the end of the war, as Canada’s major cities filled to their seams. During the war, industries in Central Canada promoted provincial migration from the West in search for employment which, coupled with international immigration, increased the population of urban centres. President of the Canadian Reconstruction Association John Willison described the situation aptly: “When peace comes, two or three hundred thousand men will cease to manufacture munitions in Canada. Between three and four hundred thousand men will come back from the war for whom employment will have to be provided.”[v] Some veterans returning from the front could also be expected to stay within major urban centres in search of employment, even if they had lived elsewhere previously. Toronto’s population, for example, expanded from 377,000 to 522,000 between 1911 and 1921. Work was difficult to find and unemployment was on the rise.

At the beginning of 1918, the Russell Motor Car Co. in Toronto collaborated with the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment to train around 200 returned veterans in semi-skilled labour. Drop-out rates were high, partly because business advocated that technical training be made difficult “to weed out the incompetent and lazy,” and also because successful navigation of the programs towards employment was low.[vi] This was exacerbated further at war’s end with the dismissal of over a quarter-million munitions workers across Canada. Russell’s own mass workforce reductions had involved over 3,000 workers and were echoed by manufacturers throughout industrial Canada as the cancellation of munitions orders, overstocking of consumer products during the war years, and dried-up domestic markets led to a year-long national unemployment crisis.

Veterans in Technical Training, Soldier-Citizens (Toronto: RMCC, 1918), 12.

While veterans were more successful at regaining employment than civilians in this period, with roughly half of veterans finding industrial positions compared to a third of ordinary workers, this meant relatively little in the post-war financial collapse. Especially intense cycles of seasonal unemployment due to economic recession meant re-employed veterans often could not escape being laid-off again. For instance, in September 1919, the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment had found employment for 64,000 out of 70,000 veterans. By February 1919, 20,000 men in Toronto alone were once more experiencing unemployment, many of them veterans. The situation became so pervasive that George Pearson of the Great War Veterans’ Association was told by one unemployed veteran in downtown Toronto that he regarded “the occurrence with the detached air of a spectator of an unusually comical farce.”[vii]

Veterans and Agricultural Training

Greater opportunities were available through resettlement through the Soldier Settlement Board. Established in 1917, the Board collaborated with manufacturers to loan undeveloped land to teach veterans agricultural skills. The program was popular with manufacturers, some of who believed unemployment could only be stabilized if most former soldiers returned to farming. The aim was to settle veterans on federally owned lands in the Prairies so long as they could cover a fifth of the costs, building supplies and equipment. In effect, soldier settlement was a tool of Western colonialism. Over three years, 68,000 acres of Indigenous reserve lands was surrendered and sold to soldier settlers. However, many of soldiers relied on loans for collateral and had troubles with soil fertility and a poor agricultural market.[viii] Less than half of veteran applicants were successful at sustaining a farmstead, and some of them did not last the decade.

Veteran Agricultural Training Farm, Soldier-Citizens (Toronto: RMCC, 1918), 5.

Other veterans not seeking farmland were sent to work the land as a form of therapeutic labour, acting in a way to heal war traumas and serving as a transitionary period until they might be ready to re-enter the workforce. A pamphlet published by Russell describes how “A man who is physically fit to leave the hospital is rarely industrially fit. He recovers his normal health in a miraculously short space of time when he ploughs and plants, working and living under the blue sky, close to the soil of this Canada that he has fought for.”[ix] The Soldier Settlement Board and its industrial collaborators hoped to reinvigorate veterans’ sense of work ethic through an attachment to land, patriotism, and reclaiming their masculinity through physical fitness.

Veterans in Agricultural Training, Soldier-Citizens (Toronto: RMCC, 1918), 4.

Employment with a Disability

Not withstanding general industrial layoffs due to financial downturn, to retain a position long-term required physical and mental stability. Yet in most cases it was difficult for soldiers who had experienced trauma in combat to settle back into old routines or readjust to new ones. Veterans’ “restlessness,” as one historian once described their mental health, could mean leaving employment due to dissatisfaction or a failure to readjust to work conditions.[x] For those suffering from shell shock, workplace outbursts or misunderstood behaviours could be the difference between reintegration and dismissal. While in some cases veterans’ physical disabilities might serve a temporary advantage, in most cases it was an impediment to employment.

Amputated Veterans Training as Wheel-truers. Industrial Canada, September 1918.

Employers gravitated towards veterans with noticeable, but workable, disabilities who they could present as part of their workforce, and who they typically paid a reduced wage. More pressing was that for many war-disabled, employment was a necessity, as it was difficult to sustain a family in decent conditions even with a full pension. Machines could either be adjusted or special modifications were made to accommodate specific physical limitations. At Russell’s Canada Cycle and Motor Co. plant in Weston, Ontario, amputated veterans, all having lost a single arm, were taught wheel-truing for bicycles as part of their technical training. Their work was later displayed at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1919, at least in part to advertise manufacturers’ commitment to some of the war’s biggest sufferers. But wage-dependent veterans with less noteworthy disabilities, such as having visual impairment, chronic illness or mental injuries, were far less likely to retain their position in industry. By 1923, just under half of veterans with disabilities were still seeking employment, most of them due to having disabilities which limited their ability to work.[xi]


In conclusion, the search for employment was an ongoing battle for wage-dependent veterans. Sandwiched between a financially indebted government and profit-holding employers, veterans of the First World War struggled to return to normality. Even those who had been successful in limited government programs which placed emphasis on the self-reliance of veterans continued to live in precarious economic situations and had difficulty in an economy of high post-war inflation. While many veterans embraced these constructions of perseverance and self-support as part of their own deeply-held value systems, the story of veteran industrial rehabilitation was often one of insufficient time to learn new skills and build opportunities which might lead to new avenues of employment. For many, the dream of dignified work continued to elude them.

[i] Canada, Department of Public Information, Canada’s War Effort, 1914-1918 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1918); and Canada, Department of Trade and Commerce, The Canada Year Book, 1919, ed. George Foster (Ottawa: King’s Printers, 1920).

[ii] The Globe, November 18, 1915.

[iii] For instance, even after borrowing $148 million in international loans in 1920, the federal deficit was still $40 million over budget. See Industrial Canada, Canadian Manufacturers Association [CMA], January 1920, Vol 20, 155.

[iv] Beth Linker, War Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 62; and John Kinder, Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[v] Industrial Canada, CMA, June 1918, Vol 19, 46.

[vi] Industrial Canada, CMA, June 1918, Vol. 19, p. 43.

[vii] Canadian National Industrial Conference, September 15-20 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1919), 193. And The Globe, January 31 1919: 4.

[viii] Pierluigi Pironti, “Post-War Welfare Policies,” 1914-1918 Online, March 21 2017.

[ix] McMaster University Mills Memorial Library. William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, RC0621, Vol. G005, File 8, Russell Motor Car Co. Ltd. Collection, Soldier-Citizens Pamphlet, 6.

[x] Desmond Moreton and Glenn Wright, Winning the Second Battle: Canadian Veterans and the Return to Civilian Life, 1915–1930 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 117.

[xi] Industrial Canada, CMA, September 1918, Vol. 20, p. 47.