Most general histories of Canada in the Second World War emphasize the themes of nation building and the war as a "national experience". Certainly, the war transformed Canada from a country that still saw itself as a colony, into a confident and united nation with international attitudes and responsibilities. At the same time, the nation was attempting to maintain its unity in the face of divisive pressures for and against compulsory overseas service.
Canada's military contribution was much more diverse in the Second World War than in the First World War. This contribution began at home. A cross-country infrastructure was required to operate the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Canadians performed in naval, military and air operations on North American coasts, against German U-boats in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and in the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian island chain. Overseas, the Canadian contribution, and the loss of most Canadian military lives, occurred in three major campaigns: at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from the first to the last day of the war; on land in the military campaigns from 1943 to 1945 to free Italy and North-West Europe from Germany; and in the air with the bombing campaign against German cities, in which Canadians played an ever-increasing part.
The war changed Canada; the country shifted from a still largely agrarian and small-town society mired in the Great Depression, to an industrial nation producing aircraft, ships, weapons, vehicles, raw materials and food, not only for the Canadian war effort but also to sustain Canada's allies, especially Britain. Such changes required the regulation of the economy and labour, and the introduction of large numbers of women into the workforce. These requirements, and the provisions made for returning veterans, laid the basis for social legislation affecting the health and welfare of all Canadians in the post-war world.
Not all Canadians viewed the war in the same light. For many English-speaking Canadians, the struggle was one to save Britain from annihilation. By 1939 however, more than half the population was not of British origin and these citizens saw a variety of war aims to be achieved. Citizens with closer ties to the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) or occupied countries -- particularly those of Japanese, Italian and Ukrainian descent -- had little in common with a supposed national experience. Many of these citizens had their homes, businesses and assets seized, and many were placed in internment camps or relocated from their homes.
The literature relating to the political, military, economic and social aspects of Canada's participation in the Second World War is considerable and still growing rapidly. Only a fraction is listed here. The reader is directed to the Bibliographies and Guides in the General References section for more detail on individual subjects.
Most new historical interpretation takes the form of journal articles and theses. This pathfinder includes a number of each, along with recent books and a selection of older works that have stood the test of time.
The authors have included the English edition of works if they are available in both French and English. Items marked with an asterisk (*) are known to be available in French. Most titles included in this guide are held by Library and Archives Canada, and many are available for interlibrary loan, both within Canada and abroad.