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Canadian War Veteran and humorist Stephen Leacock wrote of war veterans in 1938: “When the war ends they are welcomed home under arches of flowers with all the girls leaping for their necks, and within six months they are expected to vanish into thin air, keep out of the public house and give no trouble.” The comment, made with another war imminent, summed up Canada’s rather shabby treatment of veterans of the Great War of 1914-18. Canadians made amends after the Second World War with generous rehabilitation programs, generally recognized as the best in the world, though with oversights such as long-delayed grants for Prisoners of War.

Canada has had war veterans since 1759 when 6 militia battalions took part in the unsuccessful defence of Québec. The brunt of the fighting in the War of 1812 was done by British regulars, but Canadian militiamen were employed, as they were later in the 1837 uprisings in Lower and Upper Canada (see Rebellions of 1837) and in the Fenian raids on Canada in 1864, 1866 and 1870. The militia of the Northwest Field Force fought against Louis Riel in the 1885 North-West Rebellion – a widow of a force member was still receiving a pension in 1987 – and Canada contributed voyageurs to the Nile Expedition in 1885 and contingents to the South African War of 1899-1902. Canada was heavily engaged in the 2 world wars and sent land, sea and air contingents to the Korean War 1950-53 for United Nations action.

A favourite method of rewarding veterans in Canada has been the land grant or scrip. Veterans of the Fenian raids were given 160-acre grants on the Canadian prairies. In 1931, 160 surviving members of the North-West Mounted Police who had served in the 1885 Northwest Field Force were awarded $300 each in lieu of scrip to which they had been entitled but had never received.

Canada expends nearly $1.5 billion a year in war pensions, mainly for survivors’ disabilities. The number of veterans in Canada was about 708 000 in 1987, of whom 32 300 are women and about 11 000 merchant seamen. The veteran population is expected to decline to 206 000 by the turn of the century and to fewer than 200 by 2031, barring future wars. On 1 June 1987, the average age of surviving WWI veterans was 90 and of WWII veterans 67. Recipients of allowances for “burned-out” veterans included 2 from the S African War, 1989 from WWI, 45 522 from WWII and 2354 from the Korean War. The total number of recipients of these allowances was 83 872, including widows and orphans. Another 142 167, including dependants, were receiving pensions for war disabilities. Of these, more than 95 000 were veterans or nearly 1 in 7 for all surviving veterans.

The first and second world wars came so close together that veterans of the first recognized what had gone wrong with rehabilitation plans for them (financing for soldier settlement on farms was niggardly) and corrected them for veterans of the second. Nearly all legislative proposals, including the 1943 suggestion for the creation of a veterans affairs department, came from veterans themselves. It helped that scores of MPs, including those in the Cabinet, were veterans. As a result, 50 000 WWII veterans attended university, while 96,000 other veterans received benefits for farming, fishing, small holdings and businesses, and housing.