Ships and sailors have been associated with Canada since the time of European contact. The vast forests of pre-Confederation Canada initially provided lumber to build French and British vessels, but by the early 19th century a small home-grown shipbuilding industry expanded rapidly, turning out a steady supply of sturdy wooden vessels. By 1878, only 11 years after Confederation, Canada was the fourth largest ship-owning nation in the world, with a merchant fleet of 7,200 vessels. Then, as European-built, iron-hulled sailing ships replaced wooden square-riggers, Canadian shipbuilders could no longer compete. By 1895, they were essentially out of business.
First World War
When the First World War began in August 1914, Canada’s merchant fleet was a mere shadow of its former self. While there were few Canadian merchant ships, there were still hundreds of Canadian merchant seamen, and they helped man the ships of Britain and other Allied nations carrying essential war supplies to Europe in convoys that sailed across the North Atlantic, mainly from Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia.
At least 570 Canadian merchant mariners died during the war, the vast majority from German U-boat attacks.
Second World War
On August 26, 1939, two weeks before the Second World War began, the government confiscated Canada’s 38 commercial ocean-going vessels and placed them under the control of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).
Additionally, the Great Lakes fleet of 133 lakers was later called up and transferred to ocean convoy duties. Ship construction also started. By the end of the war, Canadian shipyards had produced 403 cargo ships, a significant number of which were Canadian-flagged.
Battle of the Atlantic
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and hardest battle ever fought at sea. During six protracted years, more people, ships and materiél were lost than in all the naval campaigns of the previous 500 years combined. It was arguably the most decisive campaign of the conflict and lasted for the entire duration of the war in Europe, from September 1939 to May 1945. In 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill dubbed it “The Battle of the Atlantic.” In his opinion, it was “the dominating factor all through the war.” Writing after the conflict, Churchill noted, “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”
The British instituted the convoy system on the outbreak of the war, with Halifax as the main assembly point for eastbound convoys of ships carrying food, raw materials and weapons to Britain. Initially, ships had to be capable of making a speed of nine knots to sail in convoy, but as older and slower ships were pressed into service, slow convoys began in August 1940, using Sydney, as their departure point. Ships capable of 15 knots or better sailed independently. Typically, a 40-ship convoy would be 10 columns wide with four ships in each column. A flagship sailed at the head, carrying the convoy commodore, while naval escort vessels patrolled the flanks.
More than 1,600 Canadian and Newfoundland men and women of the approximately 12,000 that served in the Merchant Navy lost their lives due to enemy action; a higher rate than in any of the Canadian armed services. In a North Atlantic winter, frigid waters brought death quickly, usually within five minutes, making the chances of survival one in 100. Yet, despite the dangers, merchant mariners, even those who survived sinkings, kept going back to do their duty, with only a thin plate of steel separating them from all eternity.
One of the major challenges facing the Merchant Navy was finding enough sailors, as the pre-war Canadian fleet comprised only about 1,450 merchant sailors. The Merchant Navy turned to shipping companies that operated on inland or coastal waterways, but also accepted men rejected earlier by the Navy or other services for being under- or over-age, or not meeting medical standards.
The cost of the war was high. Fifty-nine Canadian-registered merchant ships were sunk by enemy or probable enemy action. But Canadian merchant vessels made 25,343 voyages from North America to Britain, carrying nearly 165 million tonnes of military and civilian supplies.
By the end of the war, Canadian merchant sailors had sailed all the world’s oceans, through storms, surface raiders and submarines to deliver essential supplies. The Atlantic however, was the most important. In the opinion of Canadian Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, who commanded the Canadian Northwest Atlantic theatre during the war, “The Battle of the Atlantic was not won by any navy or air force, it was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of the British and Allied Merchant Navy.”
Wartime Minister of Transport J.E. Michaud had declared that “merchant seamen virtually form the fourth arm of the fighting services.” Yet, writing shortly before the end of the war about government benefits for retired merchant seamen, Michaud's replacement, Lionel Chevrier, noted, “Such benefits should not be of the nature which would encourage Seamen to leave the industry at the end of the war to seek employment in other fields as the services of many skilled Seamen will be required if Canada is to maintain a Merchant Marine after the war.” As a result, the Canadian government initially denied merchant mariners the status of war veterans and the attendant benefits, including pensions, that veteran status would give them.
Ironically, the Canadian merchant fleet—once again the fourth largest in the world—did not last very long. The Liberal government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent sold it off at rock-bottom prices. By the time the Korean War began in 1950, there were few Canadian merchant vessels left to support the United Nations’ effort. Twelve Canadian-flagged ships did sail into the war zone; fortunately, without casualties.
Canadian Seaman’s Union
The government’s refusal to accord merchant seamen the status of veterans and provide them with benefits, was followed in the early 1950s by its attempt to break-up the Canadian Seaman’s Union (CSU) by force. The CSU had opposed the sell-off of ships and initiated a world-wide strike. This action tied up 60 percent of world shipping when thousands of longshoremen, or dock workers around the globe expressed solidarity with Canadian seamen and refused to load or unload cargo vessels. It became the largest international strike of the 20th century.
In reaction, the government and ship owners attempted to discredit the union by labelling its members Communists (some were), at a time when the Cold War was beginning. With the government’s support, shipping companies and anti-Communist labour leaders asked American mobster Hal Banks and his Seafarer’s International Union (SIU) to come to Canada to break up the CSU.
This action resulted in one of the most vicious episodes of labour unrest in Canadian history. Through a combination of intimidation, blackmail and secret agreements with shipping companies, Banks and his henchmen quickly destroyed the CSU. But by 1959 his bullying tactics had gone too far and turned his former allies against him. Consequently, the SIU was suspended from the Canadian Labour Congress, while a 1962-63 government inquiry discovered a history of gangsterism in the SIU and placed in it trusteeship.
But by then it was too late. A combination of union confrontations, rising costs and offshore competition led to the merchant marine's demise. Despite the fact that Canada is bordered on three sides by oceans and has the longest coastline in the world, today not a single ocean-going merchant vessel flies the Canadian flag.
In 1992, after a lengthy, hard-fought battle, former merchant mariners were finally granted official status as veterans, eligible to receive disability pensions, allowances and health care benefits available to Armed Forces’ veterans. Sadly, thousands of merchant seamen had already died by then. Additionally, nothing was done to compensate the living for the loss of benefits since 1945.
In 1998, after four Merchant Navy veterans participated in a hunger strike on Parliament Hill, the government relented, and in 2000 began awarding cash payments under the Merchant Navy Special Benefit, for compensation owed since the end of the war 55 years earlier. In a final act of recognition, in 2003 Parliament declared 3 September annually as Merchant Navy Veterans’ Day.
The federal department of Veterans Affairs estimates that in 2016 there were about 1,800 surviving Merchant Navy veterans.