Most Canadians are probably still unaware of how active a theatre of war this country was between 1939 and 1945. Not only were we an arsenal and breadbasket for our allies, home to the war-sustaining convoy ports of Halifax and Sydney, and privy to secrets like the development of the atomic bomb, hundreds of Canadians died in East Coast U-boat attacks, while in B.C. there was a short-lived but real fear of Japanese assault. In short, we had secrets to keep and a censorship regime designed to do so. It was effectively voluntary: the government had weapons—threats of fines, imprisonment and closure—but its formally powerless Press Censorship Branch merely pointed out which proposed stories ran risks. A bold publication could have taken its chances and possibly, Bourrie argues, caused the entire system to crash.
But that possibility was always remote. The single most striking conclusion Bourrie comes to about the wartime relationship between censors and press is this: the censors—drawn from the ranks of the pre-war working media—were more resolute in their defence of press freedom than the often meekly obsequious press itself. Then as now, competitiveness drove media activity more than any other factor. With all papers under the same restraints, most news outlets, most of the time, were happy to combine complacency with patriotism, and not rock the boat.
In one notable case of far-sighted decency, it was the censors who fought off demands, by cabinet ministers and mainstream B.C. newspapers, for the closure of the Japanese-Canadian weekly New Canadian and the jailing of its editor. Tommy Shoyama kept his paper going through the war, until he was finally allowed to join the army in 1945. Later he became one of the most prominent Canadian public servants ever, a key figure in designing Saskatchewan’s pioneering medicare system and a federal deputy minister of finance. Censors as the good guys? Only in Canada.