Censorship During World Wars I and II

Film censorship is a provincial matter in Canada, except in times of war. The British government managed censorship of military matters until 1915 when Canada passed the War Measures Act. Among other things, the Act allowed for a federal Chief Censor, also known as the Chief Press Censor.

As the title implies, the primary goal of the Chief Press Censor was to ensure newspapers did not print information that might be useful to the enemy, such as troop movements and ship departures. A secondary goal was to keep morale up, by ensuring newspapers printed only positive (or fabricated) stories about the war effort and England. In some respects news in Canada was more heavily censored than news in England. Wounded soldiers in bloody, lice infested uniforms, and first hand reports from the front, were common in England but rare in Canada, and the press cooperated with the military in ensuring Canadians were sheltered from the realities of trench warfare.

The War Measures Act did not extend federal censorship powers to films until 1917, but the provincial censors cooperated informally prior to that. There was widespread support for maintaining a positive image of the war and a negative image of the enemy. Items such as intense battle scenes were routinely cut from American films.

Once the United States entered the war, most American films were ideal for propaganda purposes, but some were cut or banned for suggesting the enemy was powerful. One film, The Last Zeppelin Raid (aka The Zeppelin’s Last Raid), concerning a mutiny on an airship, was banned because it humanized enemy soldiers by showing they had a conscience.

During World War II, federal censorship was a government bureaucracy under the tight control of the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, and his justice ministers. Post World War I revelations about the extent of censorship during that conflict left both the press and the populace less comfortable with censorship.  Over a dozen newspapers were banned or shut down for their opposition to the war.

Press censors in British Columbia, who like most censors had a journalism background, fought hard to defend a Japanese paper. The RCMP shut down three Japanese language papers, leaving only the English language New Canadian serving the Japanese community. With the assistance of the censors, the New Canadian bought Japanese type from one of the closed papers, and became a bilingual paper. Censors worked closely with newspaper staff to help them meet deadlines and publish despite the many restrictions on Japanese businesses, and frequently defended the paper against racist government officials.

Radio had to be censored too. For the duration of the war, radio stations were prohibited from playing listener requests, or passing on items such as dedications and birthday greetings. The government was concerned that requests and announcements could be used to pass on secret messages.

The main concern of provincial film censors was American newsreels. Prior to American involvement in the war, these sometimes contained material from German military film units. In 1940, the provincial film censors were formally recognized as press censors. Although the United States was divided on support for the war, major film studios, many with Jewish executives, were firmly on the side of US intervention and as a result there was minimal requirement to censor Hollywood films.

The War Measures Act was replaced by the more limited Emergency Measures Act in 1988. Under that act, the government may make “such orders or regulations as the Governor in Council believes, on reasonable grounds, are necessary or advisable for dealing with the emergency.” The only thing not permitted under this clause is conscription. In theory, we could once again see federal film censorship, but in the last hundred years our notions of war and society have changed enough that I think it unlikely.

For more information, check out my sources for this piece: Propaganda and Censorship During Canada’s Great War, by Jeffrey A. Keshen, and The Fog of War: Censorship of Canada’s Media in World War Two, by Mark Bourrie.

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