Finding the Maple Leaf Empire

In his new book about Canadians in Britain during the two World Wars, Jonathan Vance coins the phrase “Maple Leaf Empire” to describe the network of people, places, and organizations that was created as Canadian troops flowed into wartime Britain.  Although most of the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was British-born, for the subsequent contingents and the troops Canada sent in the Second World War Britain was a foreign country.  Their arrival was not unlike the better-known case of Americans in Britain, who were said to be “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” (Vance’s book reprints as an appendix a “Gunner’s Guide to Great Britain” issued to Canadian artillerymen in 1943, which is full of requests not to show off, flash money, or complain too loudly about conditions in Britain).

A huge infrastructure grew up around the troops, including the department of Overseas Military Forces, Maple Leaf and Canadian Khaki Clubs, hospitals, convalescent homes, and Red Cross and YMCA canteens.  The Maple Leaf Empire colonized whole towns in Britain, and when the war ended some of its inhabitants decided to stay where they were.  About 21,000 Canadian soldiers from the First World War chose to be discharged in Britain rather than return to Canada.  Others returned to Canada and then moved back to Britain.  Among the best known of them were Beverley Baxter, who edited the Sunday Express in the 1920s; Alfred Critchley, who made a fortune in cement and greyhound racing before going into parliament; and Garfield Weston, who expanded his family’s baking business by selling British-style biscuits and then expanded the firm into Britain itself.  The most famous emigrant from Canada was probably newspaper baron Max later Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, who moved in 1910 and eventually became Minister of Supply in the Second World War.

The emigrants also contributed to preserving Canada’s own heritage, including its military history.  During the First World War, Beaverbrook managed the Canadian War Records Office and commissioned a large collection of war art commemorating the Canadian experience.  Both the Records Office’s documents and the art ended up at the Canadian War Museum, where they can be viewed through the museum’s Military History Research Centre.  Today, the Beaverbrook Foundation is a major supporter of the Vimy Foundation, a non-profit which promotes knowledge of Canada’s First World War history. Returning to Canada after the Second World War, Weston endowed the W. Garfield Weston Foundation which, along with his family, has contributed to a variety of Canadian cultural causes.  Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum features a Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall, a Reta Lila Weston Room, and most recently a Weston Family Wing.

Further Reading: Jonathan F. Vance, Maple Leaf Empire. Canada,  Britain and Two World Wars (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2012)

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