A century later, Canada before the First World War seems a world apart

John Ward / The Canadian Press
June 27, 2014 04:15 AM

People pose for a photo at Grand Beach on Lake Winnipeg, circa 1914. From a century away, the Canada of 1914 seems to exist in another world. It was the world of Anne Shirley and Green Gables, of Stephen Leacock's "Sunshine Sketches" - quieter, more rustic, more bucolic. The country was much smaller, with a population of about 7.5 million. Just under half the population was urban. Only four cities, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver held more than 100,000 people. THE CANADIAN PRESS/National Archives of Canada, Foote coll.

OTTAWA - From a century away, the Canada of 1914 seems to exist in another world.

It was the world of Anne Shirley and Green Gables, of Stephen Leacock's "Sunshine Sketches" — quieter, more rustic, more bucolic.

The country was much smaller, with a population of about 7.5 million. Just under half the population was urban. Only four cities, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver held more than 100,000 people.

Most of the population was of French, British and Irish descent, although recent immigration waves had brought in substantial numbers of Germans and Ukrainians, among others. Legislation severely restricted Asian immigration.

Much of Canada consisted of small towns and villages, many with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.

More people were involved in agriculture than in any other industry. Other major employers included manufacturing, mining, lumbering and fishing.

It was a country where horsepower generally meant horses, period. Farms relied on 2.6 million horses to pull the plows and harvesters and to haul produce to markets or the local grain elevator. These were not the sleek riding horses of today. They were heavy draught horses, Belgians and Percherons and Clydesdales.

The cities, too, were full of horses towing carts and wagons and buggies and landaus. Automobiles were spreading, but they were often prone to mechanical failure.

When the First World War broke out, the army would need thousands of horses to haul artillery, pull supply wagons and carry the cavalrymen.

Electricity — much of it generated by falling water at places like Niagara Falls — was beginning to illuminate large cities, but many smaller towns and outlying villages and farms lit kerosene lanterns as night fell.

The country was tied together by rails, not highways.

In 1912, British auto writer Thomas Wilby and American-born mechanic Jack Haney became the first people to drive a car from Halifax to Vancouver. They didn't actually drive the whole way because in places, there were no roads. The stretch between Sault Ste. Marie and Winnipeg, for example, was covered either by ship or on a rail car.

It took the pair 49 days to make the journey in their Reo Special. On their best day, they covered 298 kilometres. On their worst, they made 19 kilometres.

The Trans-Canada Highway wouldn't be completed for another 45 years.

Instead, the railways ferried people and goods across the country. They were powered by smoky, coal-burning steam locomotives. There were the fast, intercity express trains and the slower locals, the milk runs that actually stopped along the way to pick up cans of fresh milk from farms along the way.

It was a rare community that didn't have a railway station.

Aviation was essentially non-existent, except as a novelty. The planes of the day were basically flimsy, motorized kites flown by self-taught daredevils who often built their own aircraft.

By the end of the war, however — under the forced draught of military needs — planes evolved into deadly serious machines, able to carry machine-guns and bombs at 200 kilometres an hour.

Telephones were becoming more commonplace, although there were only 300,000 in use in 1914. Most communication relied on letters or telegrams, The latter delivered by teenage boys on bicycles.

There were no commercial radio stations. The first would open in Montreal after the war. Movies were in their infancy, but were growing in popularity. Entertainment included music halls and play houses and concert halls.

Social life often revolved around churches, with pot-luck suppers and socials and teas.

At home, people played cards and checkers and chess. They read Robert Service and Leacock and Montgomery. Gramophones and sheet music carried the hits of the time, including Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "By the Beautiful Sea," by Harry Carroll and Harold Atteridge.

Outdoors, there were summer swimming holes and winter rinks on frozen ponds and rivers.

Hockey was big even then. In March 1914, the Toronto Blueshirts, predecessors to the Maple Leafs, defeated the Montreal Canadiens in a two-game series to win the Stanley Cup. The second game, in Toronto, was the first Stanley Cup match played on artificial ice.

In April, James Duffy of Hamilton, Ont., won the Boston Marathon in 2:25:01. The modern record is 2:03.02.

In December, Toronto Argonauts defeated U of Toronto, 14-2 to win the their first Grey Cup.

So-called modern conveniences did not exist. Food was kept cool in ice boxes, which were loaded with blocks of ice home-delivered by the iceman. Dishes and clothes were washed by hand. Coal deliveries kept home furnaces burning.

For all that the world of 1914 seems less harassed than 2014, it was also a much harsher place. Antibiotics did not exist; an abcessed tooth could be fatal. There was a vaccine against smallpox, but diseases such as measles, chicken pox, mumps and rubella were considered normal childhood events.

Tuberculosis was an ever-present threat, especially in crowded city tenements. Vaccines against whooping cough, polio and diphtheria were years away.

In 1911, life expectancy at birth was 50 for men and 53 for women. Today, it's 79 and 83 respectively. Medicine, public health and sanitation were far behind today's norms. Workers toiled in hard, dangerous conditions. Factories and locomotives belched smoke and fumes.

Water purification with chlorine was just beginning. A typhoid outbreak caused by sewage contaminating the city water supply occurred in Ottawa in 1911. It killed 83 people and a second outbreak killed 91 people in 1912.

Milk often went unpasteurized. Refrigeration was spotty. Food safety regulations were cursory or non-existent. In winter, fresh vegetables and fruit were often simply unavailable, leaving diets unbalanced and unhealthy.

But for most, 1914 was a good year. The crops were doing well, although the grain harvest would be down due to western drought. But there was a bumper crop of potatoes in the East.

Politically, things were quiet. Sir Robert Borden's Conservatives had replaced Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Liberals in the 1911 federal election, which was fought over a Liberal plan for freer trade with the United States.

The big news story of the year before the outbreak of war was the tragic sinking of the Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Ireland. The big steamer sank in the wee hours of May 29 after being rammed by a collier in fog in the St. Lawrence near Rimouski. More than 1,000 people died, including 134 children.

The war that loomed would be far deadlier for Canada, which would lose almost 60,000 men in 1,560 days.


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