From One World War to Another (1919-43)

Independence and Isolation

Drummer, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 1924-1927

Caption: Drummer, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 1924-1927

The colony that went to war came out of it virtually an independent partner of Great Britain. Yet when, after 1917, Canada began to take part in the great strategic imperial decision-making, its foreign policy remained that of the Empire. In 1922, however, an incident between Turkey and Greece threatened to erupt into a major conflict. When Britain asked Canada if it would provide military support against the Turks should things take a turn for the worse, Canada declared that it would not. Common imperial doings had reached their limit. The 1931 Statute of Westminster would make Canada officially independent and the equal of the United Kingdom.

In Canada pacifism was in fashion and voices denouncing militarism could be heard daily. William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister from 1921 to 1930 and again from 1935 to 1948, would play peace and isolationism as his trump cards until the late 1930s, announcing that in the event of another European war Canada's participation would not be a foregone conclusion: Parliament would decide. In any case, on a visit to Germany in 1937 he gave Adolf Hitler to understand that Canada would not sit idly by if London were bombed. His threat seems not to have made much of an impression on the German Chancellor.

Canada's isolationist determination prompted it to fight Article X of the Geneva Convention, which embodied the principle of mandatory action by members of the League of Nations against belligerent countries. When it came time for the League to consider taking measures against Japan for invading Manchuria and Italy for invading Abyssinia, the Canadian prime minister, who was also undersecretary for external affairs, would draw back from imposing sanctions. However, Canada did sign the high-minded, toothless Kellogg-Briand Pact for peace and became an ardent partisan of compulsory arbitration on the international scene.

Mackenzie King had learned an essential lesson from the experience of 1914-18: Another war, however distant from Canada's shores, might tear the country apart. His objective was to keep the international situation from developing into armed conflict. But King had no leverage with European fascism or the rise of the dictators of the right and the left around the world. Nor could he do anything about the international crisis that, beginning with the stock-market crash of 1929, would grow more generally financial and economic. The Depression of the 1930s would help trigger the conflict of 1939-45.

Additional Images

Officer, Royal 22e Régiment, 1930s
Trumpeter, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, 1933