“He Will Again Be Able to Make Himself Self-Sustaining”[1]: Canadian Ex-Officers’ Return to Civilian Life

Brittany Dunn 

With the end of the First World War in November 1918 and demobilization following soon after, hundreds of thousands of servicemen returned to Canada and civilian life. Veterans approached their relationships with the government as they applied for state assistance in various ways, but ex-officers typically wanted to avoid dependence on the state, feeling it compromised their status as self-sufficient providers.

Ex-officers were often in a better position than other veterans because of their pre-war social status and class backgrounds. Many officers were drawn from the middle and upper classes and thus usually returned home to more financially stable lives after the war.[2] Yet many of these men still applied for, and some received, pensions from the Canadian government. In their applications to the Board of Pension Commissioners – renamed the Canadian Pension Commission (CPC) in 1933 – they often presented themselves as breadwinners who reluctantly turned to the state for aid.

The image of the independent provider was an important ideal to many men, both before and after the war, and so they sought to prove that they could care for themselves without state aid.[3] This construction of the hard-working, self-reliant man was also endorsed by the government in its policies for veteran re-establishment (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment distributed posters such as this one between 1917 and 1919. They were likely created to assure the public of the state’s benevolence towards its veterans. This poster in particular emphasizes regaining independence through retraining and eventual employment. Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment. Victory Over Wounds, The Soldier’s Return. Library and Archives Canada. 1914-1918. MIKAN 3667233.

The purpose of veterans’ programmes, such as pensions and re-training, was to enable disabled veterans to re-enter the job market so they could become independent and self-supporting.[4] This principle was made clear to soldiers and their families during and after the war through official communications, such as a Military Hospitals Commission poster entitled “What Every Disabled Soldier Should Know,” which listed twenty-six facts emphasizing a strong work ethic and perseverance in re-training and finding work (see Figure 2). Ex-servicemen were strongly encouraged to either return to their pre-war occupations or, if eligible, complete the re-training programme and find new employment. Today, the Canadian government continues to run veterans’ programmes focused on education, re-training and employment to help ex-servicemen and women return to civilian life.[5]

Figure 2. Military Hospitals  Commission. What Every Disabled Soldier Should Know. 21 March 1917. Canadian War Museum. CWM 19900076-847.

Since asking for government aid ran counter to achieving self-reliance, ex-officers framed their pension applications in language which portrayed them as men who were striving to be as independent as possible and which emphasized assistance as a last resort. Lieutenant George Adams’s case illustrates the use of the language of self-reliance in dealing with the CPC. Lieutenant Adams was 36 when he enlisted in September 1916, initially serving with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. He received his commission in July 1917, then served with the 15th and 5th Battalions as well as the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade. He was wounded twice during his service, being partially buried by a shell in November 1917 at Passchendaele and then wounded in the buttocks by shrapnel and bullets in August 1918. He was discharged in May 1919, but did not apply for a pension until 1939, claiming disability due to arthritis, a gunshot wound and nerve deafness.

Lieutenant Adams told the CPC that he had not applied earlier because he “never thought of doing so until [his] condition ha[d] become so that he is considerably handicapped.” He had temporarily retired to rest but was unable to find work again. He lived on his savings until they ran out. He then began to sell his clothes before finally becoming dependent on City Relief. By detailing his desperate state, Lieutenant Adams hoped to show that he was only turning to the state because it was absolutely necessary.

While appealing to the government for help, Lieutenant Adams always made sure to emphasize his desire to be employed and that state assistance was only a temporary measure. In August 1940, he was granted a veterans’ allowance (a source of welfare for veterans over 60 or who could not support themselves legislated in 1930). Lieutenant Adams’s insistence on returning to self-sufficiency clearly ingratiated his case to the CPC: “This would appear to be a case where the granting of an allowance would be of great benefit, and perhaps assist a man in keeping a better grip on himself so that should conditions improve, he will again be able to make himself self-sustaining.” He was also awarded a 25 percent pension for arthritis in January 1941. When Lieutenant Adams finally found employment in 1943, he returned his allowance cheque of the previous month to the CPC, again highlighting his thorough devotion to achieving economic independence.[6]

Lieutenant Adams’s favourable treatment by the CPC was likely due to the way he presented himself as striving to meet the ideal of the independent provider. He persistently sought employment and attempted to avoid dependence on the state as much as he possibly could. Using the language of self-sufficiency alone did not guarantee veterans a pension, however. Veterans also had to establish attributability, which meant their post-war disability had to be caused by an injury or illness originating from active service in order to receive a pension. The ability to prove that one’s disability was directly related to their wartime service was an essential component in successful pension applications.[7]

While experiences were of course diverse and varied, many ex-officers emphasized independence in their interactions with the CPC as Lieutenant Adams did. These men sought to prove that they were capable of supporting themselves without government aid. However, if they were unable to meet this ideal, they emphasized their work ethic and reluctance to depend on the state for help to appeal to the government’s, and often their own, expectations. 


Brittany Dunn is a PhD candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Book Review Editor for the Canadian Military History journal. Supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, her research examines the ways in which soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force reacted to the mass death that surrounded them and mourned for their fellow combatants.

The research for this blog post was conducted at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) in Waterloo, ON, which was made possible by the generous funding of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Follow the LCMSDS on Twitter or “Like” its Facebook page. You can also visit canadianmilitaryhistory.ca for more details about the Centre’s work.

[1] Canadian Pension Commission 232405, Reel 142, Veterans Affairs Canada Pension Files, Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies Archives.

[2] Desmond Morton, When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War (Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1993), 98–9, 278.

[3] Cynthia R. Comacchio, The Infinite Bonds of Family: Domesticity in Canada, 1850-1940 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 37, 47, 77, 82.

[4] Robert England, Discharged: A Commentary on Civil Re-establishment of Veterans in Canada, 3rd ed. (Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1944), 136, 146, 248.

[5] Veterans Affairs Canada, Transition to Civilian Life, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/services/transition.

[6] George F. Adams, 232405, Reel 142, Veterans Affairs Canada Pension Files, Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies Archives.

[7] For the process of establishing attributability, see Eric Story, ed., “Deconstructing the Canadian Veterans Community of the Great War,” Active History, 23 January 2018. For a detailed explanation of the term and how it was applied in pension decisions, see Desmond Morton and Glenn Wright, Winning the Second Battle: Canadian Veterans and the Return to Civilian Life, 1915–1930 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 56–7.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War. We continue to seek contributions – contact Nathan Smith at nsmith241@gmail.com.

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