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North Delta history: How the First World War changed the community

When the soldiers returned, much had changed in their North Delta homes
The Princess Sophia leaving Victoria harbor with troops for the First World War, circa 1915. (Maritime Museum of B.C./Facebook photo)

By Nancy Demwell, Delta Museum and Archives Society

North Delta was a quiet little place when the Great War began. Fishermen lived in Annieville and Sunbury and some farmers lived in Kennedy and Strawberry Hill. Women stayed home with their children and tended the garden and men followed the seasons as the fish migrated and the nets needed mending.

The end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918 was anticlimactic since it was some time before the Canadian forces could be transported back to Canada. As well, North Delta, like many other communities in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, was cocooned against the Spanish Flu; schools were closed, public assembly was discouraged and even church services were suspended.

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Despite the seeming calm, when the soldiers did return after four “short” years away, much had changed in their North Delta homes. Women could now vote, hold jobs and, in some cases, fished or ran their farms. Women were more independent, and hemlines had risen.

Some North Deltans returned with a variety of physical or psychological disabilities — lung and eye damage from gas attacks, hearing problems because of munitions barrages, missing limbs, and shell shock (now called PTSD) — realities that both soldiers and families had to deal with. Coping with the routines of a family fishing boat or family farm was difficult and sometimes impossible. Alcoholism and family violence became part of the social fabric.

North Delta was better off than many communities. It had a strong social community that worked together to support families and soldiers in need. Charity, compassion and unity were the pillars of the community and helped families in need to make it through the hard times.

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The economy also took a bit of time to recover. Income tax was an innovation introduced by the federal government to pay for the war, but now it was here to stay. Although the federal government could see the needs of the returning veterans, they were trying to be fiscally responsible considering the war debt that Canada had incurred.

Unions, labour unrest and inflation were on the rise. The war debt, with 100,000 men returning and looking for work, meant that Canada had a fragile economy. Wartime industries were closing and there were severe job shortages. In 1919 and 1920, the nation faced an economic downturn, yet injured and unemployed soldiers and their families expected some type of support after their contributions in the First World War. The economic unrest culminated with the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919.

Politically, Canada became more autonomous from Britain. At the beginning of the war, Canada was part of the British Empire. Britain decided our foreign affairs. With the appointment of General Arthur Curie as the head of the newly consolidated Canadian army, and its unique performance and victory at Vimy Ridge, Canada earned the respect of the Allies, gaining recognition as a nation, rather than as just another British colony. In 1931, with the Statute of Westminster, we finally gained our own nationhood.

Although there were painful lessons throughout the postwar period, the final outcome was the rise of the labour movement for better working conditions and equable pay. In addition, social welfare, veteran disability pensions and the rise of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the precursor of the New Democratic Party (NDP), all ushered in the welfare state we have today.

Nancy Demwell is a board member with the Delta Museum and Archives Society.

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