By Sue Bryant,
When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, many Canadian men enlisted because they had a romantic notion of war — many thought that they would travel to the battlefront, defend their country and its way of life, and return home by Christmas as celebrated heroes.
By December 1917, men and women on the battlefront and the home front knew a different reality. December 25 fell on a drizzly, sleet-filled Tuesday, and marked the fourth Christmas since the Great War had begun.
That month of December brought significant changes to the social landscape of Canada, and they were felt on both the national and local level.
A federal election was held on Dec. 17, and the two new candidates vying for the New Westminster riding based their campaigns around the war raging in Europe.
One of the candidates, Reverend Duncan Archibald McRae, initially threw his hat in the ring as a Liberal but later separated from the party to run as an Independent due to his strong support for conscription — an issue that was not part of the Liberal Party’s platform.
McRae’s son had volunteered for the U.S. Navy, and many of his parishioners were overseas. He was a staunch defender of conscription, which had been made compulsory in August after much debate across the nation.
The year of 1917 had been especially bloody; Canadian soldiers had laid down their lives at the Battles of Ypres, Passchendaele, and Vimy Ridge and many others. The Military Service Act was enacted in an effort to supplement heavy casualties and dwindling volunteer numbers.
To drum up support for conscription, Prime Minister Robert Borden extended the vote to overseas soldiers and nurses, and, for the first time, some women on the home front were provided the right to vote. If a woman had a husband, father, brother or son in the military, they could cast their ballot.
The female voters were almost all white, middle-class women, but the Wartime Elections Act of 1917 also extended the right to vote to black women who were related to servicemen.
Around 950 eligible voters cast their ballot across the municipality, and White Rock resident Edith Mary Hughes had the distinction of being the first woman in Surrey to vote.
McRae lost the election to Unionist William G. McQuarrie, who won with 60 per cent of the vote, and Sir Robert Borden was re-elected as Prime Minister. The Surrey Gazette wryly noted, “Not a single spoiled ballot proves that the ladies know how to use their newly formed franchise.”
McRae suffered a far more profound loss that day; his son was killed in a training exercise off the coast of California. The younger McRae’s name is memorialized on the Cloverdale Cenotaph to this day.
Halifax Explosion sends reverberations through Surrey community
Despite the contentious political climate and the difficulty of having loved ones far from home at war, one didn’t have to look far to see the spirit of the community still shining brightly.
On Dec. 6, 1917, the tragic Halifax Explosion had occurred. A fully loaded munition ship bound for the war theatre had collided with another ship in a tight harbour, resulting in the largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb. Several thousand people were killed or wounded and the city was completely devastated.
Across the country in Surrey, community and church groups banded together to raise funds to help the City of Halifax. The children of Surrey Centre Christ Church contributed $5 to the fund and the schoolchildren of White Rock went without their usual Christmas celebrations to donate funds in honour of the Halifax children who were affected. Surrey Council voted to send $200 – not a small sum at the time – to help their neighbours on the east coast. The local Red Cross sent socks, shirts and pyjamas.
It was the first year of Prohibition, which had come into effect in October and local Christmas celebrations were small and subdued. Many families enjoyed a meal of goose or turkey with vegetables grown in their gardens. Small homemade presents were exchanged.
With a new government elected and much uncertainty in the war, the Christmas of 1917 may have not been as merry or even as happy as years previous. But it was full of joy and quiet appreciation for the important things in life: a strong example in the resilience, fortitude and strength that is often shown in challenging times.
Sue Bryant is an oral historian and a member of the Surrey Historical Society. She is also a digital photo restoration artist, genealogist and a volunteer at the Surrey Museum and Surrey Archives.