History of Canadian Military Pensions

Canada in 1915 had more to deal with than just an overseas war and the costs that came with it. World War I became distinct compared to past wars for the high rates of survival of soldiers who fought in it. Their return home put a new pressure on the state to support those who had given up their health and wellness in service of their country. When Prime Minister Robert Borden made a promise in 1917 to Canadians about to fight for Vimy Ridge that “You need have no fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to your country”, it would prove to be a contentious and difficult one to keep[1].


Canada, a young country with a small population and primitive social institutions, was ill-equipped to deal with the Great War’s veterans. Previously distributed pensions focused mainly on officers who served their lives in military service, rather than common foot soldiers. In 1885, a private who was completely unable to work was only receiving 60 cents per day, while officers were receiving up to $1000 a year for minor injuries[2]. World War I, though catastrophic in terms of casualties, was also the most “regenerative”, meaning that more wounded soldiers were surviving and returning home rather than dying on the battlefield[3]. With the influx of returning soldiers, many of whom were injured physically or mentally and unable to return to their former occupations, it was evident that Canada’s military charities and simplistic pension plans would no longer be enough.

Following British tradition, the Canadian Patriotic Fund was set up in 1914. A private charity, it provided for wounded soldiers and their families, but it was a short term solution. The Military Hospitals Commission and the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment provided hospitals, sanatoria, and vocational training for the returning wounded (although vocational training was only for minors and disabled veterans)[4]. In 1919, the Pension Act formally established the Board of Pension Commissioners, solidifying in Canadian legislation the network of welfare that would continue through the 20th and 21st centuries[5]. The Board had total control over pensions administered to the disabled and families of the dead, tabulated in a series of twenty classes that dictated percentages of disabilities which addressed both Canadian and Imperial soldiers[6]. Headed by Major John Lancelot Todd, the Board was to compensate disability, not potential lost income, and it was to be impartial, based on science rather than compassion[7]. It would also not factor in previous income—an unskilled labourer and an engineer would receive the same pension for the same injury[8].

Since Todd’s Board was established on the basis that emotions should not dictate pensions given, veterans went through rigorous processes that compared past doctors notes and current physical standings, as well as various checks into any misconduct or pre-war disabilities. Most pensioners only received 25% and under disability qualifications[9]. This stringent approach stemmed from the fear that a more generous pension plan would result in dependency, and as Todd believed, “no man, because he has fought, has a right to be supported in effortless idleness”[10].

Around 100 000 widows, parents and other dependents were also eligible for pension. Fearing that opportunistic women were looking for handouts by marrying disabled soldiers, stipulations were enforced to discourage this practice. Women who married veterans after they had been disabled would not be eligible and once a soldier’s wife remarried, she forfeited her former husband’s pension, the maximum amount being $900[11]. Children were pensioned at $180 for the first child, $144 for the second child, and $120 for any subsequent children[12].

Entitlement, and who ‘deserved’ pensions was a central theme to welfare through the 1910s and 1920s. As the Board’s administration of pensions proved to be a pittance for most, veterans organized in groups like the Great War Veterans’ Association to fight for what they believed was owed them by the country they had “wallowed in the mud of Flanders” for[13]. As the Great Depression hit the world and work and incomes dwindled, veterans felt bitterly that the Board and the government had forgotten their sacrifices. Veteran protests and their organizations helped to force social change, although only for a minority of the population. The Pension Board, now headed by Lieutenant-Colonel John Thompson, was even more reluctant to continue pensions as government spending kept increasing.

The 1920s saw further shifts in the Board. The government hoped that it would not be needed for much longer as WWI veterans settled back into civilian life, and shrank the Board from 1300 employees to a few commissioners, medical staff and some clerks[14]. At this point, about 90 000 pensions were being administered to Canadians and Imperials. The clause that provided pensions for conditions aggravated by military service were also excised, so that injuries suffered exclusively in wartime were the only ones still eligible for pension. The new standards angered many veterans in what they saw as blatant disrespect, and in 1922 the GWVA charged the Board with “contemptible and cold-blooded conspiracy to deprive ex-Service men of rights previously granted by Parliament”[15]. An investigation, led by Lieutenant-Colonel J.L. Ralston, was ordered[16]. The committee travelled across Canada, speaking to veterans and hearing their grievances. At the end of it, Ralston realized that the Board was too isolated from the actual problems veterans faced, and recommended an appeals board.

The Senate passed approval on the Pensions Appeal Board, but did little to fund it. Veteran groups merged to create the Canadian Legion, and headed by Sir Arthur Currie from 1929, the Legion continued to fight the ineffectiveness of both the Board of Pension Commissioners and the Appeal Board. Currie, by 1930 suffering illnesses of his own, wrote that he “was ashamed that eleven years after the war it is necessary not only to plead but to fight for justice”[17].

The complaints were heard. The Board was relegated to decisions only on the most routine cases, while a travelling tribunal would decide others on a more detailed, personal level. Debt of up to $11.3 million for veterans still struggling to pay off loans was also forgiven and between 1932 and 1933, 14 368 veterans were given unemployment assistance[18]. The Legion was temporarily satisfied. In 1932, the Pension Board and the travelling tribunal were combined to form the Canadian Pension Commission. Together with the Veterans’ Bureau and the Pension Appeal Court, this structure remained, for the most part, until the 1980s[19].

While the Pension Board was often reviled for its unsympathetic nature, it can be said that it prevented Canada from being tied down with pensions. Compared to the USA, which by 1932 was paying upwards of $250 million to WWI pensioners, Canada was doing well by paying only $42 million to its comparable number of pensioners[20]. Veterans almost invariably had the support of the population on their side, and the entitlement they felt owed for their service was acquiesced often by reforms to the Board.

The pension burden leading into the Second World War was still a large issue. In 1941, an order was passed that promised rehabilitation to any who served in the armed forces, rather than simply minors or disabled veterans, as had been practiced in the First World War[21]. The Department of Pensions and National Health would now administer pensions to all veterans of the CEF and Imperial forces.

The different iterations of the Pension Board varied in success throughout the twentieth century. First World War veterans often felt as though they had been cheated, and that their country owed them for the lives, physical abilities and mental wellness they sacrificed. Regardless of how either the government or veterans felt about pensions and their effectiveness, the pension system established following WWI provided the basis for Canada’s welfare system in years to come.



[1] Canadian Forces Advisory Council. “The Origins and Evolution of Veteran’s Benefits in Canada 1914-2004”. Veteran’s Affairs Canada (2004): 3.

[2] Morton, Desmond. “Resisting the Pension Evil: Bureaucracy, Democracy, and Canada’s Board of Pension Commissioners, 1916–33.” The Canadian Historical Review 68 (1987): 200

[3] Morton, Desmond. Fight or Pay: Soldiers’ Families in the Great War. Vancouver: UBC Press. 2004. 142

[4] Canadian Forces Advisory Council, 4

[5] Ibid, 4

[6] Ibid, 4

[7] Morton, “Resisting the Pension Evil”, 203

[8] Biggar, J. L. “The Pensionability of the Disabled Soldier.” The Canadian Medical Association Journal 9 (1919): 30

[9] Morton, “Resisting the Pension Evil”, 205

[10] Ibid, 205

[11]  Morton, Fight or Pay, 229

[12]  Ibid, 229

[13] Campbell, Lara. “‘We Who Have Wallowed in the Mud of Flanders’: First World War Veterans, Unemployment, and the Development of Social Welfare in Canada, 1929-1939.” Journal of the CHA 11 (2000): 129

[14]  Morton, “Resisting the Pension Evil”,  212

[15] Morton, Fight or Pay, 233

[16] Ibid, 233

[17] Morton, Fight or Pay, 235

[18] Campbell, “‘We Who Have Wallowed in the Mud of Flanders’”, 134

[19] Morton, Fight or Pay, 237

[20] Morton, “Resisting the Pension Evil”, 223

[21] Canadian Forces Advisory Council, 9