The end of wartime unityWorld War I had a mixed impact on the western Canadian economy. As Britain lost access to European grain, the price and demand for Canadian wheat rose dramatically. Farmers were encouraged to increase wheat production as their contribution to the war effort. To do this many farmers abandoned the practice of summer fallowing, which had helped to conserve moisture in the past. As a result of farm labour shortages they also began to burn off stubble in the fall rather than ploughing it under, a measure that saved labour but robbed the soil of potential nutrients. Increased dependence on a single crop, coupled with farming practices that were hard on the environment were to leave the prairie economy vulnerable to both the weather and swings in the price of wheat.
World War I gave rise to a Canadian armaments industry, but very few military contracts were awarded to western Canadian firms. In one six-month period the Militia department spent $4.8-million on outfitting the expeditionary force. None of this was spent in Alberta or Saskatchewan and only $25,000 in Manitoba. By the war’s end, only $7-million of the federal Munitions Board’s $1-billion budget had been spent in the three Prairie Provinces. In contrast $58-million was spent in British Columbia.
Prices for most manufactured goods rose dramatically during the war, even as the Prairies were hit with a series of poor harvests. Central government measures intended to bolster the war effort tended to hit the West hardest. A ban on the canning of fruit and vegetables was meant to conserve tin, but it meant that fruit was almost unavailable in the West. To prevent hoarding the government placed limits on the amount of sugar and flour that families could store in their homes —but these limits failed to recognize the reality of life on a remote rural farm, where stores were distant. Manitobans also found themselves obliged to use a less efficient, more expensive, and harder to get form of coal to heat their homes.
These were, however, minor indignities. Prairie farmers were far more discouraged by the Union government’s unwillingness to reduce the import tariff on agricultural implements. At a time when farm labourers were getting harder to find and were asking for higher wages, farmers believed the government ought to be taking steps to reduce the cost of agricultural implements. The only relief came in the form of a drop in the tariff on tractors, an expensive implement that few western farmers were using. Westerners associated both the Liberal and Conservative parties with central Canadian economic interests and therefore had been long attracted by the concept of non-partisan government. They had hoped that the Union government would serve as such a coalition. The government’s failure to reduce the tariffs, coupled with what westerners viewed as only half-hearted efforts to conscript wealth for the war effort laid the ground for a political revolt that would give rise to new regional political parties at the federal and provincial level. At the same time Canadian workers would revolt against rising costs and harsh working conditions to establish new unions and new, labour-based political parties. As the war ended, the West was to become the centre of new conflicts, and wartime nationally unity would give way to new allegiances based on region and class.