A Left Jab for the Nazis and a Right Hook for Inflation!
When Canada declared war on Germany in 1939, there were undoubtedly many uncertainties. How long would the war last, who would emerge victorious, and perhaps most importantly, how many lives would it take?
A week before this declaration had even been announced, the Canadian government had begun work to ensure that it's beleaguered citizens would have one less uncertainty in their lives – namely, an unstable economy. It established a Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTB) on September 3rd, 1939 that was to become the primary authority on Canadian economic policy during the war years.
The WPTB was charged with many important tasks, including managing scarce goods, implementing price and wage controls and filing charges against those who failed to comply with its orders. At its busiest point, the WPTB had expanded beyond its headquarters in Ottawa to include more than 100 offices nation-wide, and over 6,000 employees. It was assisted in its operational tasks by a virtual army of citizen volunteers, who were asked to report any local violations of WPTB policies.
The community of Mission was no exception; it opened its first WPTB affiliated ration board in 1943, relying on the assistance of local citizens who were "able to bring an intimate knowledge of local conditions" to the table.1 Nationally, women were the WPTB's soldiers of choice, likely due to the fact that most had not been called off on campaign and, perhaps, the stereotypical and gendered assumption that women performed most of the shopping activities for Canadian households. By 1941, the WPTB was serviced by over 16,000 female volunteers who composed a 'consumer's branch' and reported infractions.2
(Source: Government of Canada. The Fraser Valley Record. June 8, 1944. Pg. 6)
The advertisement above is a prime example of how the Canadian government attempted to win over its civilian population with the creation of the WPTB, the implementation of price controls and, later, the rationing of certain goods. Located in the Fraser Valley Record, a paper serving Mission, BC and surrounding communities, it was intended to convince readers that the Canadian government was on their side, battling the evil inflation monster to provide them with some sense of stability in their lives.
Advertisements like these would have been found in community papers all across Canada. The head of the WPTB and Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada, Donald Gordon, attempted to maintain public support for price controls and rationing throughout the war. He relied extensively on the media to do this, applying different tactics including the idea that those who violated WPTB policies were enemies of the nation and its war effort.3 In one relatively passive 1944 Fraser Valley Record ad, for instance, citizens were told that if they used as much gasoline as they wanted they would put considerable stress on the fuel supply available to serve the needs of troops overseas (including a Canadian navy that required 2,150,000 gallons of fuel every week).4 In another much more blunt ad, those who participated in the illegal hoarding of goods were deemed both criminals and disloyal citizens by the WPTB – a tactic designed to place strong social pressure on people to have them conform to its rules (see image below).
(Source: Wartime Prices and Trade Board. The Fraser Valley Record. April 9, 1942. Pg. 2)
What did Canadians think of the WPTB and its mission to protect them from inflation?
Were dramatic advertisements like the ones featured above from the Canadian government's wartime propaganda campaign really effective?
It appears that, nationally, opinion on WPTB policies wavered throughout the war. Evidence clearly suggests that not all Canadians were selfless, law-abiding citizens who fully supported all aspects of the war effort like the Canadian government seems to have desired. In one 1943 survey, for instance, an average of 25 % of Canadians claimed to 'know someone' who sold or obtained goods illegally through black market sources.5 Manufacturers faced pressure from the government to focus their production on the Canadian war effort, leading to a shortage of some non-essential civilian goods and a surplus of spending money among Canadian consumers.6 One can see a remarkable decline in support for WPTB policies as the war carried on and greater restrictions on the purchase of goods were introduced. While in April of 1943, 80 percent of Canadians supported wage and price controls, five months later – and following the implementation of strict rationing laws – only 69 % declared their approval. At the same time, a mere 45 % said they would accept further restrictions for the sake of the war effort.7
A number of Canadians drew a colourful comparison between the WPTB's authoritarian nature and the German Gestapo, while others complained that the WPTB's policy enforcement and recommendations for punishment were too lax to be a genuine deterrent.8 Throughout the war, WPTB fines for policy infractions amounted to $1,780,000 and led to 253 jail terms. This shows that neither the WPTB's threat of legal action against economic criminals, nor its anti-inflation propaganda campaign were ever entirely able to remove the temptation of wartime profiteering.