A different kind of war

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Is this what it was like during the Second World War?

The comparison has been made more than once, and on April 1 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used wartime language in his morning press conference.

He spoke of the “fight” against the COVID-19 pandemic, and about the “call to duty” to which every Canadian must answer.

Trudeau said the goal is to “defeat” the coronavirus.

He alluded to Canada’s war against Nazi Germany, and said the nation hasn’t “seen this type of civic mobilization since the Second World War.”

Of the measures the federal government has outlined to keep the economy alive, Trudeau said, “This is the largest economic program in Canada’s history.”

The prime minister is correct, but mostly about public spending. Other comparisons to the war on Nazi Germany – either by him or others – don’t quite measure up.

In that war, 1.1 million Canadians served in the armed forces. Yet our population was only 11.2 million in 1939 and 12 million when the war ended in 1945. Federal spending was equally impressive. Up until the First World War, federal spending in Canada was no more than five per cent of GDP. It surged to 17 per cent in 1917 during the war, falling in the 1920s and during the Great Depression.


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But federal spending was ramped up with the start of the Second World War and by 1943 peaked at 44 per cent of GDP. Between 1939 and 1950, Canada spent $21.8 billion on its military. By 1949, federal spending had dropped to 11 per cent of GDP.

Federal spending on a per capita basis, as measured in 2014 dollars, rose from $1,150 in 1939 to $7,025 in 1945. Of interest is that per capita spending was $8,180 in 2015. It’s much higher now.

Defeating COVID-19 has led to job losses because of the need to minimize human contact. An estimated 44 per cent of households have reported losing a job. And while the unemployment rate in 2019 was 5.5 per cent, some economists expect it to surge past 11 per cent this month.

Canada recorded a jobless rate of 12 per cent in 1939. But a wartime economy required an extraordinary number of workers; the jobless rate was as low as 1.4 per cent in 1944.

One aspect that’s similar to the Second World War is leadership and co-operation. There was a lot of that 75 and 80 years ago, and it seems to be the same today. Political bickering remains but is remarkably subdued.

Wartime comparisons will continue, and we are in a fight. But this is a different kind of war. Let’s just hope it doesn’t last as long.

– Peter Epp

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