In 1939 Canada entered the Second World War. Early in 1940 the federal Liberal government drew up the National Mobilization Act (NRMA) provided enlistment of troops for home defence ONLY. Over one million men and women joined the various forces to lend their strength to help fight the conflicts that threatened democracy.
Throughout the country many men volunteered for service. Some of these troops were considered “active service” (AS) men, which meant that they would serve their time in the military in either the European or the later Pacific theatre of war.
Others were considered “home defence” (HD) troops which meant that they stayed at home to preserve the security of the nation. As the war progressed and the threat of Japanese invasion via the west coast became real, many of these home defence soldiers were sent to British Columbia. Far from home, many of these young men in their late teens and early twenties were stationed in small and isolated villages that lacked many of the things they were used to having. Bored in what could be considered frontier towns, some of the men were unhappy. In the northern part of the province, the HD troops experienced weather conditions they were unfamiliar with in camps that were often ill-prepared for such harsh conditions.
By 1941 recruitment of soldiers to go overseas progressed slowly. Not enough men wanted to fight the good fight. Whether because of memories of the horrors told from the veterans of the WWI, or for the fear of battle itself, or, as in the many French Canadians who felt no connection to support what they viewed as an English fight, the government held a plebiscite* to release then Prime Minister Mackenzie King from his promise of no conscription*.
With the attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the imminent threat of attack on North America became real, and required more troops.
In April of 1942 the government held the conscription vote. In Quebec almost 73% of its voting citizens answered with a resounding “no” to conscription while in the rest of the country 80% supported the cause. Bill 80 was passed, allowing the government to conscript if necessary. This threat loomed over the HD men across the country who had signed up not to go overseas but stay at home.
Thousands of HD men waited. When Japan entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, HD men in the small hamlets sprinkled throughout BC became even more leery of the possibility of being forced into mandatory overseas duty. Demonstrations began to erupt with small acts of defiance by the troops but in the small village of Terrace, between 1500 - 3000 (the numbers are inconsistently reported but most recent academic articles suggest the number was more likely 1500) men took their unease one step further, erupting into Canada’s only war time mutiny.
* Plebiscite: vote
* Conscription: forced overseas military serviceDid You Know?
Conscription and its controversy was nothing new to Canada. During World War One the issue faced much the same split among Canadians with a strong division against the French and English?
Terrace is considered a northern community despite the fact it is geographically located halfway up the province. Being within an hour of the coast, it is also at times, quite wet with precipitation. Chronically cold and damp, especially during the fall and winter months its climate can be quite demoralizing. The soldiers housing was inadequate for these conditions and the men, many of them from lesser northern climates, suffered through the environment. For the soldiers who were stationed in Terrace for up to a year, the weather became a source of contention.
November 1944 was particularly trying with rain, snow, sleet and hail, all mixing back and forth with varying and unpredictable temperatures. According to historical weather data for much of November 1944, the temperatures ranged from 10C to just below freezing and eighteen days of rain. Wet and cold weather would have gnawed away at the spirits of the men.Did You Know?
Terrace BC sits on the edge of what is considered a northern rainforest. Neighbouring Prince Rupert is often considered among the wettest cities on the planet.
In 1944 getting to Terrace, British Columbia took over three days by train to get to from central Canada where many of the troops came from. It took up to three days to get to or from Vancouver as well, through travel by train or ferry system along the coast and from Prince Rupert. (It still takes two days to drive from Vancouver to Terrace.) Limited by road and air access and amenities like reliable and accessible telephone service for example, Terrace felt like a place very far away from the rest of the country.
Terrace was also quite small in 1940 when the army first arrived. With a population of roughly 350 people in 1941, there were few amenities. Getting to neighbouring towns (like Prince Rupert or Hazelton) within a day’s journey provided little relief for the troops who were used to larger cities and closer places of size and services to visit. Despite the fact that Prince Rupert was a larger community of 6,714 people in 1941 (according to the BC Municipal Census), it was still hard to get to and provided little change from Terrace. When the troops received a two week leave it was inadequate time for them get back and forth to their home communities for a real rest so many of then stayed in the village that offered them little to do.
Lack of services and recreation
When the first soldiers arrived their accommodations were not even set permanently set up for them. Many men lived in tents, unsuited to the climate. Something as simple as a hot shower was often not accessible.
Terrace had a population of roughly 350 people in 1940 so recreational services other than those offered in larger urban centres were non-existent other than the outdoor hobbies of fishing and hiking mountainous terrain. Until the drill hall was built there was no place for movies to be shown. Restaurants and bars were only set up for the small town, so accommodating thousands of soldiers was next to impossible. Couple that with lack of dance halls and young women to dance with, Terrace was not a fun place for young men on their down time from service. It was considered a pretty bleak place by those who did not enjoy exploring the natural surroundings of lakes, river and mountains.
Army rations have never been luxurious by any standard, but during rationing times in a community set up far away from supply stations, food was often late to arrive and when it did, was often short-changed or spoiled. Young men have healthy appetites and what was offered in Terrace seemed never enough. Some of the men who were lucky enough to find odd jobs helping the townspeople of the area took partial payment for their services through additional food.Did You Know?
During one episode not enough food, the white beans that were left molded and soured causing an outbreak of diarrhea among the soldiers which in turn over-loaded the plumbing and wreaking havoc with both the toilets and the showers for the sick men.
The Terrace Mutiny
Nov 24-30, 1944
The November 23rd announcement by radio from Prime Minister King that 16,000 HD men would be sent overseas did not rest well with thousands of men. Demonstration parades took place all over BC in places like Vernon, Nanaimo, Prince George and Terrace. But as though a perfect storm of circumstances the, unease in Terrace evolved into a full blown mutiny with soldiers going to extremes of behaviour over the course of the week that could have resulted in some serious consequences not only for themselves, but for the townspeople of Terrace.
When the news reached Terrace about King’s conscription announcement, most of the senior officers were in Vancouver at a military conference* for Pacific Command.
Early in the revolt, taking advantage of few officers and lax guarding of armaments, the mutineers broke into weapons caches and took control of rifles, ammunition, Bren guns and grenades. This brazen act fueled the fear of the rebellion turning violent. The few officers who remained in Terrace were instructed not to incite any possible violence by confronting the soldiers. People in the town were also encouraged not to shout any insults at the armed men as they paraded though the streets.
For seven days between 1500 and 3000 armed and non compliant men paraded through the streets of Terrace waving banners with slogans that read Down With Conscription and Zombies Strike Back and refusing orders. Warning letters were posted in the camps and the men were repeatedly told to stop their actions.Did You Know?
The term zombie was applied to men who refused to serve overseas. Considered unpatriotic or “half dead” to the cause, it was a slang term assigned to home defence troops as an insult.
The armoured train from Prince Rupert idled out of town shuttling officers in and out of the community in hopes of having them come to a peaceful solution. Rumours of airplanes packed with bombs to end the conflict arose and at one point a plane circled the area, shooting tracer bullets at men who marched towards to airport where higher ranking men were returning to the town from a Vancouver conference.
As the days progressed some of the officers were able to convince some of the soldiers (many of whom felt intimidated to join the rebellion) to lay down their weapons with the promise of returning to their home province without serious consequences or being sent overseas.
By November 30th, most of those who had mutinied had been packed up on trains and relocated out of Terrace. Other than a few fist fights no real violence occurred during what could have been a serious outbreak of armed conflict within the tiny village.
*Conference is a military term for a meeting of senior personnel to discuss urgent and important matters.Did You Know?
The Terrace Mutiny is considered by many historians to be the largest war-time mutiny on Canadian soil. (BC Encyclopedia)
Photo credit and reference: Library and Archives Canada MIKAN no. 2242850 Accession no.1989-565 item 027
William Lyon Mackenzie King
Canada’s Prime Minister during World War Two. Liberal. Had promised no conscription but under mounting pressure from various groups (his service generals, families of men serving in overseas duty, people supportive of the cause) he decided to hold a vote to release him from that promise. In partnership with his government ministers on November 23, 1944 he announced 16,000 HD troops would be sent overseas.
Photo credit and reference: Library and Archives Canada MIKAN no. 4517993 Accession no. 1972-294 Box 05454
J. L. Ralston
James Layton Ralston was a decorated veteran of World War I from Nova Scotia. He rose through the ranks to Lieutenant-Colonel while in the army. After the war he continued with his life in the military, attaining the rank of Colonel in 1924. Trained as a lawyer, before the war, Ralston entered politics as a Liberal and was appointed to serve as Minister of National Defence under Prime Minister Mackenzie King. He was a strong supporter of conscription and resigned over King’s reluctance to to fully enter into something Ralston adamantly felt was necessary. On November 1, 1944, King accepted his resignation and replace him with McNaughton.
Photo credit and reference: Library and Archives Canada MIKAN no. 3357572 LAC C-026552
A. G. L. McNaughton
Andrew George Latta McNaughton was born and raised in Saskatchewan. Like his predecessor, Ralston, McNaughton was a veteran of the First World War who rose through the ranks to Lieutenant-Colonel. Wounded twice, he was considered an expert in artillery technology and invented a target detection technique that pre-dated radar. During the Depression and Interwar years, McNaughton became the General Chief of Staff within the artillery unit of the Canadian Corps. He was also credited as one of the people who created relief camps for men to keep them from starving during the depression. With the outbreak of World War Two, McNaughton was once again active with his expertise in weaponry techniques. Despite being in favour of a strictly volunteer army, McNaughton was pressured to change his stance after the Conscription Crisis of 1944 when he was the replacement for Ralston as Minister of National Defence.
Photo credit and reference: Library and Archives Canada MIKAN no. 3219830 Arthur Roy LAC PA-047695
Major-General George R. Pearkes
George Randolph Pearkes was born in England but emigrated to Red Deer, Alberta in 1906 with his brother. Pearkes soon joined the North-West Mounted Police in the Yukon and served until WWI. At the Battle of Passchendaele, he was an acting major and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his “most conspicuous bravery and skillful handling of the troops.” By war’s end, Pearkes had also been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross.
Pearkes became a career officer in the army and during the interwar years continued his various appointments throughout Ontario and the Prairies as well as furthering his military education and the Imperial Defence College in the United Kingdom.
During WWII, Pearkes was given command of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, part of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division where he served overseas until 1942 when he returned to Canada as the General Officer Commanding in Chief of Pacific Command. This appointment saw Pearkes help with the planning and of Operation Greenlight, the retaking of the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese in 1943.
In 1944, Pearkes was sent on a tour of British Columbia with the difficult task of trying to recruit more soldiers to volunteer to go overseas. While he toured the various military camps he became aware of the conditions and morale of the soldiers and suggested conscription was not a good idea. A highly respected leader, Pearkes was acutely sensitive to his soldiers needs. While he tried to supress the mutiny in Terrace, he was highly critical of the policy. Having to take much of the public fallout for the mutiny, Pearkes retired from the army in 1945, partially disillusioned with an institution he held dear.
Pearkes entered into politics and was elected as a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament in Nanaimo, British Columbia, where re was re-elected several times before being appointed as Minister of National Defence from 1957 to 1960. Pearkes left federal politics soon after but was quickly appointed as Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia where he served until 1968.Did You Know?
Pearkes was the man who suggested to Prime Minister Diefenbaker to cancel the Arvro Arrow program, one of Canada’s costliest and potentially successful aviation programs in 1958?
The Fusiliers du St. Laurent
A unit of soldiers from Quebec who were thought to be the instigators of the mutiny owing to their French lineage. Their camp was located below Terrace Mountain, and above the Skeena River. (link to map) They were sent to Terrace with the understanding they would not be sent overseas.
The Prince Albert Volunteers
A unit of soldiers mostly from the Prairies they served as volunteers who also came to Terrace feeling they would not be sent to fight outside of Canada for active duty. Their encampment was on the south side of town along Hall Street, in between Keith and Haugland Avenues.
The Prince Edward Island Highlanders
Largely with Atlantic Canadian roots, by World War Two, this unit was a mix of troops from all over the country. As home defence soldiers they had been placed in both the Maritimes and later to British Columbia when the Japanese threat emerged. This unit’s battalion was situated at Riverside Park, along the Skeena River by the railway tracks.
The village of Terrace and her townspeople: Terrace was a small community of around 500 people at the time the army moved in. Mostly loggers, they were unaccustomed to having so many troops in town. Most of the people were faithful to the King and the notion of fighting for democracy if called upon. Many of their brothers, sons and husbands who were similar ages to the troops stationed there, were overseas fighting so many frowned upon their mutinous rebellion. Cautioned by their mayor not to encourage or argue with the soldiers while they paraded through the village, most kept quiet to avoid confrontations that could have accelerated any already tense situation.
Before the mutiny many of the locals had been friendly to the soldiers by offering them odd jobs around their homes and farms and supplementing their meagre rations. While some children were told to avoid the zombies, most were fascinated by the troops and followed them around town when they were performing exercises.
After the mutiny three courts of inquiry were held to determine suitable punishments for those who participated in the mutiny. While the tribunals attempted to assign roles of ring-leaders and participants and apply consequences, once the men had dispersed to other parts of the country as well as a few heading overseas to fight, it was difficult to prove anything without the availability of witnesses.
Many of the men simply went AWOL, hopping off the trains that took them away from Terrace. With others out of Canada, serving in the active duties of the war, it became an impossible task to have them testify in person at the courts. Documents from the inquiries name several men but it is difficult to find evidence of any real punishment like court marshalling or prison time.
The army’s presence in Terrace forever altered to the tiny village allowing it to grow into a thriving town considered the hub of the northwest of the province. Amenities like a hospital and airport attracted both families and business. Construction of the highway through to Prince Rupert during the war years further opened the region that allowed for continued growth. While many of the buildings constructed hastily for the army lasted for decades beyond their imagined use, few remain today. The legacy of the Terrace Mutiny lurks in the shadows of the cultural landscape and history of the town, perhaps one day placing it on the stage for notable war-time events.