Canada entered the Second World War without any centralized information service in place. Over the course of the next six war years the government developed a series of increasingly sophisticated bureaucratic responses to the problem of providing information to the public in order both to inform it and encourage it in the prosecution of the war effort, while at the same not engaging in blatant propaganda. Some of the problems encountered were organizational, for the Canadian government was in the throes of an enormous expansion of its operations and personnel; others were political, such as the turf wars amongst the various agencies of government; while others had international implications, including the need not to antagonize the United States with propaganda prior to its entry into the war in December 1941.
The first central information agency, the Bureau of Public Information, was created only on 8 December 1939, four months after the war began. Initially, it worked with the Chief Censor. Only in July 1940, when it was attached to the Department of National War Services, did the Bureau move towards a direct involvement with coordinating and supplying information to the Canadian media through press releases and illustrated material from its own staff and the Departments of National Defence and Munitions and Supply.
Although the Bureau was set up in December 1939, a photographic branch was not established until May 1940. It initially used free-lance photographers, but with growing demand, two highly regarded industrial photographers, Nicholas Morant and Harry Rowed, were hired in January 1941. By that time over 3,000 negatives were already in the Bureau's library, and it considered its operations to be a success. In a short first year report, it said that "Until the photographic branch of Public Information was organized, few Canadian war effort photographs were appearing in the Canadian daily papers that did not have their own cameramen; none in the Canadian weekly newspapers and only rarely in publications published outside of Canada. That condition has been changed completely by this service." Over 1,500 prints were distributed weekly to meet an ever increasing demand.
The Bureau did not go from strength to strength. Perceived and real problems with information dissemination led to a report which resulted in the creation in September 1942 of the Wartime Information Board (WIB), under the direction of the Prime Minister. The Board was to "coordinate the existing public information services of the government and supervise the release from government sources of Canadian war news and information in and to any country outside of Canada; and to provide means and facilities for the distribution, both within and without Canada, of Canadian war news and information." It established foreign offices, undertook surveys, gave guided tours to foreign visitors, gathered and analysed Canadian news, conducted opinion polls, provided press information -- in fact, it served as a central organization for understanding what was happening in Canada and for reflecting this back to both Canadians and those in other countries. In January 1943 John Grierson, the Commissioner of the National Film Board (NFB), replaced Thomas Vining as General Manager of the Board, and at about the same time the photographic operations of the WIB were placed directly in the NFB. From this point forward the WIB photographers and their work effectively became one with that of the NFB.
The Wartime Information Board's photographers looked closely at the way in which the war affected life and economic activities in Canada. Through their work, and through the distribution of this work, a common documentary portrayal of Canada developed in many of the news and magazine media. It is, however, difficult to determine the extent to which this photography produced a common outlook amongst Canadians as to their identity and perception of the world around them.
During the course of the Second World War photographers, whether they were with the Bureau, the WIB, or the NFB, produced at least 25,000 photographs from across Canada relating to all parts of the war effort. They were organized in a number of series, all beginning with the letters 'WR', probably referring to 'War Records'. Thus 'WRM' probably means War Records -- Manufacturing. There is evidence that, in fact, at least some of the organization of these series and captioning of individual photographs was done after the war.
The photographs were kept by the National Film Board and used after the war, for many were sufficiently general in subject matter that they had continuing value. But as time passed this value diminished and they were transferred to the National Archives of Canada in the 1970s. They have been available at the Archives since their acquisition, but have not been widely used. This project, for the first time, makes a large number of these important and revealing records easily available to the Canadian and world-wide public.
Art and Photography section
Canadian Archives Branch.