Remembrance – Recalling the Wartime Laws of the 20th Century

Remembrance Day

Remembrance – Recalling the Wartime Laws of the 20th Century

The War Measures Act

In the shadow of Sunday’s Remembrance Day, our thoughts turn in to the devastating wars of the twentieth century, and all who suffered during the World Wars. Towards the goal of explicating that troubling historical context, invaluable insight comes not only from the stories of the front lines and the soldiers, but also the homefront and the civilian experience. In Canada, the civilian experience was greatly shaped by the wartime laws that were passed as emergency measures by the government of Canada. These expansive legal acts broadened governmental powers to a near unlimited extent, curtailing the civil liberties of civilians both directly and indirectly.

Impacts on Civil Liberties

The most prominent piece of Canadian wartime legislation ever passed was the now defunct ‘War Measures Act’ of 1914. Despite its short length, the War Measures Act represents the apogee of state power over everyday life in Canada through its provisions, which invested in the Governor in Council powers of censorship and the ability to suppress publications, expropriate private citizens of property, deport any immigrant labeled an illegal alien, and detain individuals indefinitely without leveling charges against them. This widely resulted in the forced detention of ethnic Ukrainians and Germans in concentration camps during the first World War, and the Japanese during the second World War. In both cases, the seizure of all property belonging to detained individuals was common, and although promises were made to hold these in trust until their owners were released, the state typically auctioned off the property of the detained in order to fund their detention in the concentration camps. When these prisoners were finally released, they quickly discovered that the government had sold all of their property, leaving them with little to nothing.

Not only were private individuals directly affected by the War Measures Act, private industry could be and was directed by the Governor in Council towards military applications. Factories that produced tractors and other farm equipment were often ordered to produce military vehicles instead, for example. These orders could not be refused, as pacifist publications, movements, and political parties were all outlawed, tying the hands of business-owners who opposed war on moral grounds. Price-fixing of commodities and consumer goods such as grain, milk, and fuel was enacted during the Second World War, and rationing was common. The wars of the twentieth century were thus the first to feature total mobilization, with society itself restructured and directed towards the war effort.

Repeal and Replacement

The War Measures Act was invoked for the third and final time by Prime Minister Trudeau Sr. in October 1970 during the FLQ-Crisis, the only use of the Act during peacetime. Expiring in spring the next year, the War Measures Act was repealed roughly a decade later after it became widely criticized for the unlimited power it supplied to the government and the flagrant disregard it held for civil liberties. Replaced by the Emergencies Act, the new act provided measures for parliamentary and judiciary oversight, as well as provisions for compensation in return for any expropriated properties, all of which were absent in the War Measures Act. Although an improvement from the overreaching War Measures Act, a repeat of similar violations of civil liberties cannot be precluded entirely.

Looking Forward

Although these pieces of legislation have good intent, it is the responsibility of citizens to hold their elected government officials accountable, through litigation if necessary. If you believe that your rights have been violated in any way, Right Legal can help connect you to a lawyer to obtain legal advice. If you are curious about civil litigation in Edmonton and would like to learn more, additional information is available on our webpage.


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