Bizarre but True Facts: Canada in WWII

Posted by Paul Rawlins on March 4, 2015 in Military Records
Canadian War Poster, Director of Public Information, Canada (public domain)

Canadian War Poster, Director of Public Information, Canada (public domain)

From the Holocaust to the famous Christmas Eve armistice, war tends to bring out the worst and the best in people, and it sometimes takes decades before those stories are ever told. Here are some crazy (but completely true) facts you may never have heard about Canadians in World War II.

Canadians voted for conscription

When Canada declared war on Germany at the outbreak of World War II, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King promised Canadian citizens that he would not impose conscription for overseas service. As the casualties mounted, rather than to renege on his word, King decided to hold a plebiscite—a general election—on the issue of conscription.

The measure passed, with two-thirds of Canadians voting in favor of conscription. However, this seemingly straightforward majority belies the divisiveness of the issue: while 78 percent of English Canadians voted for conscription, 72 percent of French Canadians voted against. This incident furthered the divide between French-speaking Canadians and their English-speaking counterparts.

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Canadians boasted the first zombie soldiers

Long before The Walking Dead or World War Z, Canadian “zombies” served in World War II. “Zombie” was the term given to conscripted soldiers who refused to serve overseas. Although the government promised that no conscripts would be forced to fight overseas, there was enormous pressure for them to volunteer to do so. Those who remained in Canada were in charge of home defense and were derogatorily called “zombies.”

POWs loved Canada so much, they wanted to stay

Throughout the course of the war, Canada housed more than 35,000 prisoners of war in 27 prison camps spanning the country. Though they were called “prison camps,” they were hardly run as such. Prisoners were provided with dormitories and nice clothing. There were dining halls where prisoners were well fed and recreation centers where they could play football or handball, skate, or wrestle. They had their own band and orchestra, access to books and education, and even paid employment. Many prisoners were so happy with their treatment that after the war ended, more than 6,000 of them requested permission to stay where they were rather than return to Europe.

Thousands of Italian Canadians were classified as enemies

When Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war against France and Britain, the Canadian government ordered the arrest and detainment of any Italian Canadians that might be considered a threat to homeland security. Feared to be spies or Fascists, 31,000 Italian Canadians were designated “enemy aliens.” Italian Canadians also suffered the effects of prejudice, from loss of work to verbal and physical abuse.

James Bond was “born” in Canada during WWII

Nestled away in Whitby, Ontario, “Camp X” served as a real-life, secret agent training camp. It was conveniently located right on the waters of Lake Ontario, serving its purpose to unite British and American intelligence. At Camp X, spies-in-training were instructed in parachute jumping, writing in code, using explosives, and hand-to-hand combat. Five future heads of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trained here, but even more famously, it’s believed that author Ian Fleming did as well. Ever heard of James Bond, 007? It was Fleming’s experience at Camp X that helped inspired his creation of the famous fictional secret agent.

—Connie Ray

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