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Creston Valley Goes to War

Labour Shortages

Soldier of Soil 23Jul1943.jpg

Advertisement for the "Soldiers of the Soil" campaign, July 1943

Farmers Elsewhere 22oct1943.jpg

A reminder, to farm workers, that if their farm labour was coming to an end they were needed elsewhere, October 1943

RCAF no HS 17Sep1943.jpg

Much-relaxed qualification criteria for recruits to the RCAF point to the difficulties of recruiting enough people amid widespread labour shortages, 1943

Food stuffs, rubber, and gasoline were not the only thing rationed – so too was labour. Despite assertions, in the weeks following the declaration of war, that the demands of war would not be allowed to strip agriculture and industry of their needed workforce, it was not long before very real labour shortages were being felt across the country.

In the Creston Valley, this showed up everywhere. The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers was struggling to muster enough members to meet its local defence obligations because so many men were joining the army. The teaching staff at the high school was adequate in September, but the real strain would come when all the students returned to school after the apple harvest was over. Even telegrams to send Christmas greetings were no longer being accepted at the CPR’s telegraph office, because the office didn’t have enough staff to handle them.

Perhaps the strongest example of how the war affected local businesses can be seen in a story published in the Creston Review in May 1941. “An outstanding and unique showing by a general store staff in connection with the various branches of war effort can be assigned Creston Valley Co-operative Association. Within the year, from its staff of a dozen employees, Aubrey Kemp, Irving Ferguson, and Edward Erickson have joined up for overseas service. ... Percy Argyle, in charge of the store’s flour and feed department, has two sons, Edward and Sidney, in training at the coast. Dorothy Sinclair Smith and Dorothy Wightman, of the grocery sales force, each have a brother in the troops. The two ladies are on the executive of the newly organised Bundles for Britain association, while the former ... headed the Dorothys-in-Canada effort in Creston.”

With a quarter of its staff in uniform, and a third of those who remained preoccupied with war matters, it would not be surprising if the Co-op store struggled to provide its usual level of service.

Nowhere was the labour shortage more strongly felt than in local agriculture. When Ralph Rentz was killed in action in January 1944, the announcement of his death in the local paper specifically stated that, prior to the war, “aided in the operation of his father’s fruit ranch.” Further digging reveals that Ralph was one of a very large family, but the only adult son still at home – two older brothers were living in the US, and younger brother Bobby would only have been about fourteen when his brother died. Orchard surveys for the Rentz property, near 24th Avenue South along Erickson Road, show it in good condition up until 1940. After that, it is merely fair – quite likely the result of the loss of capable help.

Many of the young men who enlisted were farm workers – either full time, on their own farms or their parents’, or as part of the crucial seasonal workforce that harvested the crops. By 1943, the shortage was acute. All men between the ages of 16 and 70 were required to register so they could be called on for the labour force at any time. Farmers were asked to estimate their labour requirements as early as January, and a committee was established to come up with a plan to meet those needs because “we are at war, and for the farmer to produce short of what his extreme and combined efforts will allow, would be a betrayal to our fighting men.” 

Nate Leveque got the unenviable job of heading up the Creston Valley placement office, matching available workers to the farmers that needed them. He received no outside support in this task; in April 1943, for example, the BC Emergency Labour Service made it clear that farm labour was scarce everywhere and that local committees would have to “develop every local labour resource.” 

In the Creston Valley, that comprised the high school students, who, as they have done before and since, were released from school until the harvest was complete. It consisted of local business owners and their staffs, who closed their businesses in order to help. “The only businesses left open under the land invasion scheme,” reported the Review in October 1943, were the garages, cafes, and the drugstore.” It even included Doukhobor and Japanese labourers brought in from internment camps and communities elsewhere in the Kootenays, though not without considerable opposition from those who feared possible sabotage. 

The labour problems were exacerbated by the fact that everyone was competing for the same limited pool of potential workers. “Soldiers of the Soil” campaigns urged anyone with a few hours to spare to help the farmers. No sooner was the harvest nearing its end than ads started appearing, reminding farmers and farm workers that they were needed elsewhere. Regulations allowed farmers to hire soldiers, but at wage rates, considerably higher than the piecework paid to other farm workers, that clearly hoped to discourage the practice – because the armed forces themselves were struggling to recruit enough people. Women were being recruited for all sorts of jobs that they had been considered unfit for only a few years – or even months – before, and, for the first time, were also being recruited into the armed services to free up men for more active duty.