by Peter C. Conrad
The enthusiasm for the BCATP that swept the West was tempered with the stresses of the fast development of the air schools and the arrival of thousands of aircrew. This enthusiasm and the ominous realization of what the huge air training facilities meant was reflected in the Rivers, Manitoba, newspaper, The Gazette, when it reprinted an article from The Winnipeg Tribune on January 30, 1941:
“The Empire Training Scheme, perhaps Canada’s biggest single effort in the war, provides special opportunities and imposes specially heavy responsibilities upon the West, since so many of the training schools are located here. Because of their very nature these schools have been placed far away from the major urban centres, and are, for the most part, situated in sparsely populated communities.
“At Rivers, for example, the number of officers and men at the air navigation school far exceeds the population of the nearby town. At Carberry, the number of British RAF men at the service flying training school already about equals the entire population and will shortly outnumber it heavily—roughly 1,100 to 760. The people of Rivers and Carberry are doing a real job to provide hospitality for the RAF and RCAF alike. But their facilities are limited and they need help.
“The various auxiliary services are doing a great job. For example, the YMCA maintains full-time secretaries at Rivers, Carberry, and Brandon, in addition to providing much equipment and facilities.
“A serious responsibility lies [on] the West to do its very utmost in acting as host to these thousands of young men who are being trained to fight our battle, and whom, for the most part, we never see because they are stationed at isolated points.”1
Too Many Jobs!
The huge construction projects at new airports called for labourers and tradesmen in numbers not thought possible in the Prairies before the war. Labour shortages first affected the construction sites then struck every area of production, affecting the service industries and even the annual harvests everywhere.
High employment quickly became noted in the press as the construction continued. On November 20,1940, Virden’s Empire-Advance published a report about the local construction: “The Bird Construction Company Ltd. has the contract and under the direction of Mr. Sutherland, their representative here, work is progressing as fast as delivery of material will permit.” The report continued: “Cement is being poured for the substantial foundations on which the larger hangars will be erected. Lumber is arriving at the rate of three or more carloads a day and very soon a larger number of workmen can be employed. There does not appear to be any scarcity of men. A trip to the airport Monday morning found about fifty men working and a hundred more on the ground looking for jobs.”2 It was not long before the extra hundred men had employment.
The following year, The Weyburn Review reported: “High speed was the great factor in construction. … But the speed is determined by the number of men it is possible to hire. There was a day when real tradesmen were plentiful … but if there ever was a surplus it has disappeared. As the months roll by the labour situation gets more and more acute and if we were to have another building campaign on the Prairies like this fall construction companies would find it more difficult to get sufficient help. Delivery of material is also becoming more serious as the days go by.”3
Once the construction was complete, many jobs were created at the schools. A typical report was published in The Neepawa Press: “Number 35 EFTS operated by the Miramichi company, increased its size by one third in July … the civilian operators have employed approximately two hundred men and women from the district.”4
The first members of the Women’s Division arrive at the train station at Claresholm, Alberta on February 23, 1942. (PL 6974)
On Anzac Day, April 25, 1944, the men in blue parade in the small prairie community of Portage la Prairie. (PAM, Gingras, Charles J. 73)
Work is being rushed to construct hangars at the bombing and gunnery school at Mossbank, Saskatchewan. Contractors had to use every piece of equipment they had, including horse-drawn wagons, to move soil. (PL 1669)
More Help Wanted
Employment levels remained high throughout the war years. At the same time, the population of the Prairies was decreasing. The population of Saskatchewan, then the most populated of the Prairie Provinces, dropped by more than 61,000 between 1939 and 1941. The drop of population in Alberta and Manitoba was less dramatic; Manitoba’s population dropped by about 4,500 and Alberta’s only by about 600. The population continued to drop as the war continued.5
The number of people on relief also dropped, partly because of the high number of western Canadian men and women who enlisted and migrated to other provinces. As well, there was an economic recovery in the West in 1938 and crops had been good. As a result, the cost of relief began to fall and continued to decline during the years preceding the war. The Saskatoon Star Phoenix reported in the autumn of 1940 that the costs of relief had dropped substantially: “From the peak year of 1937-38 when Saskatchewan was staggering under its heaviest burden of direct relief and agricultural aid, the province has shown a marked improvement and relief this year… the contributing factors to the improved relief conditions are good crop conditions last year, good crop conditions this year, which resulted in no agricultural aid problem for feed and seed, and increased employment due to war industries and for enlistments.”6 In addition, The Swift Current Sun reported the “average annual wage rate for male farm help in 1941 was $352 compared with $275 in 1940.”7
Back to the Farm
As the fall of 1942 approached, it became clear that there was a shortage of farm labour. Public appeals were made across the Prairies. The Assiniboia Times called on high school students to consider helping in the harvest as their “patriotic duty to assist in harvesting.”8 The Selkirk Record reported that “the Manitoba crop is coming on well and it is vitally important that it should be safely harvested, since this province is anxious to play its full part in producing the food supply so vitally needed for the fighting forces as well as Canada’s civic population.” At the same time, it was “estimated that approximately 250,000 workers have left Canadian farms to join our fighting forces and engaged in war industries. The drain on farm help continues. If Manitoba farm crops are to be harvested, help must be made available.”9
As well, The Rivers Gazette reported, “Many of our young men are in uniform, and while there is a move to get military men released for harvest duties, it may still be quite a job to provide the necessary seasonal help. We recall that the last war, the problem [was] partially solved by groups of men going out from town to nearby farms, and stooking for two or three hours in the evening. A couple of carloads, say ten men, can make quite a change in the appearance of a field in a brief time.”10
When it was obvious that there was an acute shortage of farm labour, the response from the air force was not delayed. The Swift Current Sun, in an article entitled: “Response From The Air Force Has Been Gratifying,” reported: “About 50 English airmen have come to the national selective service office and offered to go on the farms. The majority of the men had only 48-hour leave. The secretary was able to place four of these lads who are on 7-day leave, but expected to place more. No men on short leaves have been placed as yet.”11
Although the service of the airmen remained on a volunteer basis, there was no lack of it. This was the case in Alberta, where The Edmonton Journal reported: “There is no lack of harvest help this year, and the chief worry of employment officials is trying to get all the applicants placed…. We have been sending out about 60 men a day for the past week, and we have more applicants than there are jobs…. The same situation existed in Medicine Hat and Lethbridge … [A] report from Calgary said the employment bureau there was able to fill all orders for help, although there was no apparent surplus of men.”12
Members of the Dauphin service flying training school help with the haying. With the loss of so many local residents to the services and war industries, farmers across the Prairies turned to the local schools to assist with the harvest. (FPA 128138357)
One trainee, Phil Ellison, recalling the help airmen gave to farmers across the West, said, “I think it was good fun. The boys had a hell of a time going out—they had never seen a farm, never seen wheat, and were out stooking, throwing a few bundles, because there were still a lot of threshing outfits at that time.”13
Good Times Again
Economic recovery also came to the service industries in the host communities. With the coming of the new air training schools, some businesses that had closed down during the Depression reopened. Bus and taxi firms, drug stores, shoe repair shops, restaurants, beer parlours, movie houses, hotels, dance halls, clothing stores, laundries, barber shops, and even the churches benefited from the coming of the air training schools. One employee of the transportation company in Moose Jaw, Bill Hemstreet, remembered that the taxi firms in the city recovered to such an extent that they decided:
“To help the ‘War Effort’ … and decided to charge one dollar for a trip to or from the airport … This would take up to a half hour and the drivers could make more money driving within the city. Therefore, there was always a friendly competition between the various drivers to see who could make the round trip the fastest…. When any fellows from Caron missed the bus, we had to get permission from [the] RCMP to go more than twenty miles outside the city. Sometimes we even had a trip to Mossbank.”
The taxi companies in Moose Jaw were not the only business to gain extra revenue from the Air Training Plan. Hemstreet went on to say that “the Moose Jaw Transportation Co. found a bunch of old buses and ran regular service to [the Moose Jaw school and the school] at Caron. The [Moose Jaw] run was quite frequent, as they carried civilian workers back and forth, as well as a steady flow of airmen.”14
The good business that the airmen brought to the local service industries was also remembered in Assiniboia. A retrospective article in The Assiniboia’s Times in 1985 mentioned that the bus that brought airmen and civilians to and from the base “stopped near the Dove Cafe, comer of North Main and Railroad. … The White Dove was run by Greeks and did a great business at this time, serving many grilled cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate as we waited for the bus. Mostly officers stopped here while the trainees patronized the Club Cafe across the street.”15
However, the growth was restricted to recovering to pre-Depression levels and not beyond because of wartime restrictions on materials and the limited supply of labourers.
Ken Melby, an airframe tradesman, remembered that the labour shortage was severe: “In my own case, I worked most of the time at nights, therefore I was free during the days. They were so short of people to work in town, that I worked in a grocery store several hours a day and on my days off. People were scarce. Everybody was in the services that could be.”16
Local businesses had to supply the air schools with essential products. As one airman, who instructed at Dauphin, Manitoba, recalled, “Even farmers were selling fresh products to the stations.”17
Controlling the Growth
Because of the stresses that the war placed on the economy and the uncertainty over how long it would last, the federal government quickly implemented strict controls over the economy. Everything was regulated and restricted in some form, but the war effort in general and not the BCATP had brought about these restrictions.
One case of wartime restrictions reported in the Virden newspaper, The Empire-Advance, was the limits restaurants had to accept on the prices they set: “All menus served and maximum prices for all meals, lunches and refreshments must be filed with the Wartime Prices and Trade Board by any person starting a new restaurant or buying one already in operation. [As well] Prices charged in a new restaurant, which includes hotel dining room, lunch counter or hot dog stand, must be no higher than those charged by competitors in the same class in the same locality. If there are no competitors in the same class the prices will be set by the Services Administration of the Board.”18
One ground crew tradesman, A. S. Edger, recalled, “There was more money, but they froze wages. If we were working for a hundred dollars a month in 1940, [we] worked for a hundred dollars a month until 1945, if you stayed at the same job. There was no chance of a raise unless you were promoted. The same was for cost. The prices were frozen on everything.”19 Phil Ellison remembered that, “there were jobs and things were sure better than they had been before.”20 A flying instructor at Yorkton, Ken Currie, captured the sentiment of the time when he remembered that, “people realized that there was a war on and we had to pull together. You learned to live with less—sugar was rationed, as was gasoline and tires.”21
Here the members of the Women’s Division at dinner in the mess at Claresholm, Alberta. (PL 6977)
A Place to Stay?
The coming of the air training schools also created a housing crisis. On the Prairies, the huge influx of airmen and their families created a need for rental accommodations. At the same time, there was a housing shortage because of the war restraints on building materials. Very few host communities were without a housing shortage during the war. Even though trainees remained on the stations in barracks, permanent staff often lived in the nearby towns and cities.
Ken Currie recalled the housing situation at Yorkton: “Living accommodation came at a premium. You got what you could and hung onto it. We were thankful when people opened their homes to us. This place where we stayed was owned by a widow. It was a big house—she had two rooms upstairs, opposite to each other and we shared the bathroom. In winter time, it was usually quite cold and we cooked with a coal oil stove which we had to keep on to heat the place.”22
One of the only locations to have a very limited housing problem was Saskatoon, the location of Number Four Service Flying Training School and Number Seven Initial Training School. The Saskatoon Star Phoenix reported on September 5, 1940 that, “the opening of the Saskatoon school should have little effect on the rents in this city. It was learned that the central personnel of the school will be required to live in barracks at the airdrome and that the bringing of families to the city or living out of the barracks will not be encouraged.”23
Saskatoon was the exception. Cities as large as Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg experienced difficulties. The Calgary Herald pointed out “Nearly every city in Canada is enjoying what might be described as a war boom. People are moving in; new industries are being started up. And as all this goes on, the housing problem in Canadian cities becomes acute. In many cities of Canada, it is a problem; no more. In Calgary, it is a tragedy. … The situation is generally bad across Canada today, with Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge the worst situated of any Canadian city. At Ottawa, Kingston, and Barrie, rents have been booming upwards, and home construction is being rushed.”24
The city that had one of the most critical housing situations was Winnipeg. In 1941, The Winnipeg Tribune reported, “For several years [the] chief inspector of sanitation and housing has been pointing to a housing situation in Winnipeg which was rapidly growing worse. His report for 1940 reveals a situation which, has now become critical.” The Winnipeg Tribune continued:
“In 1940, states the report, 307 new dwellings were built and 30 were demolished, leaving a net gain of only 277 dwellings. There was also an increase of 116 in the number of suites. But against these very low figures there were no less than 4,658 marriages. Assuming that only three-fourths of these marriages were of city people, the rate of housing increase would, therefore, be only one dwelling or suite for approximately every eight marriages.
“At the end of 1940 there were only 157 vacant dwellings and 180 vacant suites in the city. Of the dwellings, only 139 were judged to be at all fit for human occupation. Of this number, only 33 were of five rooms or less, the type of accommodation most in demand; which means of course, that more families are being forced to crowd together in contravention of our health bylaws.
“On the enforced doubling of families, Mr. Officer has much to say that is right to the point…. We already have in Winnipeg many of the conditions found in the slums of European cities.”25
A. S. Edger remembered the housing problem when he was working at the airport at Winnipeg. “They built the war time houses … but, they had a hell of a time getting material and labor… immediately after the war there was a burst of building, especially in Winnipeg. When I came back to Moose Jaw, it was pretty hard to get a house here too.”26 Phil Ellison, an air gunner, recalled that, “down at Mossbank there was one fella that hauled in some granaries and rented them for twenty-five dollars a month. At that time, it seemed like a big figure.”27
In most cases, communities that hosted an air training facility had severe housing shortages. However, the smaller communities had fewer houses and therefore less space for air personnel. One case was reported by The Estevan Mercury in the summer of 1942 with the opening of the service flying training school in that community: “Plain ordinary hospitality is spurred by downright necessity in the matter of finding housing accommodation for the wives and families who are coming from England to Estevan in the near future. A solution must be reached if these war guests are not to discover they have traded bombs for blizzards.”
The federal government was to help pay for both the building and the supply of services like sewer and water to the new wartime houses:
“An urgent appeal must be made to Ottawa for advice and assistance. It is noted that the City of Sudbury has recently found itself in a similar situation, which is being overcome by a federal government building program in which permanent dwellings are being constructed rather than temporary structures which are prey to wide variations in climate such as are found here. The cost of sewer and water installations is being borne by the government but the responsibility of supervising and renting falls upon the municipality. A proportionate share of the return from renting the houses is to be worked out between the municipality and the government.
“Similar assistance is badly needed in Estevan, but even if it could be obtained there would still be the question of what to do in the meantime. Accommodation will have to be provided somehow for about 25 small families within the next two or three months. It is one of the most difficult wartime assignments Estevan has yet had to undertake. Whoever assists in meeting it, either at personal inconvenience or by the investment of capital, will be performing a genuine service in the national emergency.”28
Airmen trainees at work in the wireless school, Tuxedo, Winnipeg. (FPA 128138350)
These sentiments were echoed across the Prairies. The solution was to either build more houses or to increase the number of suites for rent. A plan reported in The Weyburn Review in the fall of 1942 was “of interest to great many home owners … who have houses which are larger than they need for their own use … a home extension plan, designed to create new housing accommodation by means of loans to owners … is now in operation.”29 This plan provided government loans for work on homes to create new suites for rent.
One account of the housing shortage and the subsequent development of suites in houses said: “There was a big rush to erect the ‘wartime’ houses. Also many houses were divided into apartments, or suites. Some of these were very substandard and there was a steady stream of couples moving into and out of these places every two weeks of the month…. Of course there were a good number of landlords (ladies) who truly tried to supply the best for the tenants, but riding the Depression for so many years and a lot of material now on ration to civilians, many improvements were not easy to come by.”30
Jim Kirk, an instructor at Dauphin, remembered that, “housing was always tight. Usually you got housing through the station by word of mouth. If somebody was leaving or if they knew of a vacant room they would pass word on to their friends.” Kirk recalled one time when “about fifteen personnel were posted off the station to Montreal where they were due for a posting overseas. Word went around that a lot of these chaps had rooms in town and were giving them up. I happened to get a room from one of these chaps that had gone on the postings. We moved in and about ten days later the guy came walking up to me on the station and asked if there was any chance of getting his room back. I asked him, ‘What are you doing back here? I thought you were on a posting.’ He said, ‘We got to Montreal and they didn’t know anything about it.’ The whole thing came up over a rumour of some sort.”31
Another solution that was found in Yorkton, Swift Current, and Claresholm, was to rent out tourist cabins. As fall approached in 1942, the families of the airmen living in the cabins requested that the cabins be winterized so that they could continue living in them through the winter months. Swift Current turned down the request, but The Yorkton Enterprise reported: “As a result of the decision of the Auto Camp Committee of Yorkton and District Board of Trade to winterize the cabins in the camp on Laurier Avenue, accommodation for approximately 15 families will be made possible…. The cost to make the change was small and that the rent coming from the families of airmen now residing in these cabins will soon pay for the necessary outlay.”32 Both Swift Current and Yorkton, like all the major centres in the West, continued to seek help from the federal government for loans to construct needed houses. These loans were approved late in the autumn of 1942. As winter approached, there was a rush of building. Although the housing problem was not completely solved, it was eased considerably.33
Boomtown Springs Up
Another solution to the housing shortage, reported at the remote Dafoe bombing and gunnery school, was a temporary village formed across the road from the station. The Daily Diary reported on August 12, 1942, “Passengers on this aircraft [that had arrived] from Saskatoon were [the] Rental Administrators of Canada, and [the] representative for the Western Provinces on the War Time Prices and Trade Board. These gentlemen paid a visit to ‘Boom Town’ the mushroom village that has sprung up across the road from the Station, and where it has been felt the situation presented a considerable problem to Service personnel who wished to have their families living near the Station. After looking the situation over, [the visitors decided] urgent action is necessary in the matter.”34 No further mention of “Boom Town” was made in the Diary. Another account of the Dafoe bombing and gunnery school’s “boom town” stated: “A small village known locally as ‘Boomtown’ had mushroomed outside the station gates, and the cafe there vied with the station YMCA as the social centre for the station personnel. I think there were about ten business premises of one sort or another in Boomtown.”35
Here is a view of “boom town” at Dafoe, Saskatchewan in 1942.
Airmen who have completed their training wait at Winnipeg’s Canadian Pacific Railway station prior to their departure overseas. (FPA128138349)
Watching the Rents
As was foreseen in the local newspapers at the beginning of the war, rents for accommodation increased, especially in smaller communities, which had fewer houses and rooms to rent to air personnel. The response from the government was rent controls. In Davidson, The Leader reported some examples of the new controls: “A two-room light house-keeping suite renting for $35 was lowered to $27.50; two rooms in the back of a house were lowered from $30 to $20; a four roomed house rent was lowered from $35 to $22.50, and a five-roomed house from $32.50 to $22.50. … [the government agent for rent controls] said he found the landlords were for the most part reasonable and were willing to co-operate as far as they could to avoid a rental spiral.”36 This report of the changes in rental rates across Saskatchewan in 1943 was typical. There was little negative reaction to the rates in the local newspapers.
Although there was a great deal to be gained from the massive air training effort in the western provinces, there was a significant price to pay for it. The host communities had to make significant efforts to house the massive numbers of people who arrived. These efforts were hampered by wartime restrictions and labour shortages. Yet, in the face of the problems that existed, the communities were able to find creative and new solutions to the difficulties that came with the benefits of the Air Training Plan on the Prairies.
Notes for Chapter 12
A Crisis of its Own
1. Rivers, The Gazette, Jan. 30, 1941.
2. Virden, The Empire-Advance, Nov. 20, 1940.
3. Weyburn Review, Dec. 18, 1941.
4. The Neepawa Press, Nov. 5, 1942.
5. Canada, Canada Year Book 1942 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1942), p. 84.
6. Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Sept. 12, 1940.
7. Swift Current Sun, April 28, 1942.
8. The Assiniboia Times, Aug. 19, 1942.
9. The Selkirk Record, July 29, 1943.
10. Rivers, The Gazette, July 17, 1941.
11. Swift Current Sun, Aug. 31, 1943.
12. The Edmonton Journal, Aug 27, 1940.
13. Interview: Phil Ellison with the author, June 7, 1989.
14. Letter: Bill Hemstreet to the author, Nov. 17, 1986.
15. The Assiniboia Times, July 24, 1985.
16. Interview: Ken Melby with author, Dec. 28, 1987.
17. Interview: J. P. Kirk with author, Sept. 29, 1987.
18. Virden, The Empire-Advance, April 25, 1945.
19. Interview: A. S. Edger with author, Aug. 5 1987.
20. Interview: Phil Ellison with the author, June 7, 1989.
21. Interview: Ken Currie with the author, June 8, 1989.
23. Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Sept. 5, 1940.
24. The Calgary Herald, Sept. 25, 1940.
25. The Winnipeg Tribune, June 21, 1941.
26. Interview: A. S. Edger with author, Aug. 5, 1988.
27. Interview: Phil Ellison with the author, June 7, 1989.
28. The Estevan Mercury, Aug. 6, 1942.
29. Weyburn Review, Sept. 3, 1942.
30. Letter: Bill Hemstreet to the author, Nov. 17, 1986.
31. Interview: Jim Kirk with the author, Sept. 29, 1987.
32. Yorkton Enterprise, July 2, 1942; May 7, 1942; Swift Current Sun, Sept. 15, 1942; Letter: Dorothy Minor to the author, Feb. 26, 1987.
33. Swift Current Sun, Oct. 6, 1942.
34. Dafoe, No. 5 B&GS Diary, Aug. 12, 1942.
35. Reflection by the Quills (Wynyard: Quill Historical Society, 1981), p. 685.
36. Davidson Leader, Feb. 10, 1943; Town of Davidson Council Minutes, July 4, 1940.