Danielle Cuisinier Dionne, Machiniste

Biography

Danielle Cuisinier Dionne was born in Ermenonville, France on 10 May 1921. Her family immigrated to Québec in the early 1930s, but Danielle returned to her homeland at 17. She was attracted by the Popular Front, an alliance of left-wing political movements that governed France between 1936 and 1938. There she joined the young communists, beginning a career of political activism.

Danielle remained in France at the outbreak of war in September 1939 but returned to Montreal after Nazi Germany conquered France in June 1940. She worked a lathe at the Defence Industries Munitions factory in Verdun, Québec. Danielle was also a labour organizer with the Communist Party of Canada and translated for both the company and the union. She later took a similar job as a union representative for merchant mariners.

After the war, Danielle became a journalist and translator at La Victoire, a communist newspaper. She joined the editorial team and married Camille Dionne.

In the 1960s, amid Québec’s Quiet Revolution, Danielle cut ties with Canadian communists. It is possible this had to do with the Marxist-Leninist origins of the Front de libération du Québec, which resorted to terrorism in its pursuit of Québec independence. She allied herself with the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association, a precursor to the Parti Québécois.

Danielle continued her journalism career, publishing with Haïti Progrès out of Brooklyn, New York. She retired to Buckingham, Québec in 1993, but remained active as a pacifist, poet, and local community organizer. She was especially passionate about calling for an end to armaments production, believing that societies could make better use of the money by putting it toward education, health, or the environment. Danielle Cuisinier Dionne passed away on 24 January 2006, aged 85.

War Context

The Canadian Munitions Industry

Before the Second World War, the lone ammunition factory in Canada was the Dominion Arsenal in Quebec City. It produced 750,000 rounds of ammunition per month. By war’s end, Canadian ammunition plants, staffed by over 30,000 workers, produced 72 million artillery shells and mortar bombs and some 4.5 billion rounds of small-arms ammunition.

Danielle Cuisinier Dionne’s war factory, the Defence Industries Limited factory in Verdun, Quebec, produced one-third of Canada’s small-arms ammunition during the war. The factory specialized in manufacturing .303 rifle cartridges. This contribution was crucial since Canadian and British Commonwealth soldiers carried Lee-Enfield rifles, Bren light machine guns, and Vickers medium machine guns that fired this ammunition. The .303 was also the standard cartridge for machine guns in British aircraft like the Spitfire fighter or Halifax bomber. Without this ammunition, British Commonwealth forces in Normandy and around the world would be unable to fight.

In April 1940, the federal government established the Department of Munitions and Supply under C.D. Howe to control munitions production in Canada. The Verdun plant, a reactivated British Munitions factory from the First World War, was owned by the Canadian government. It was managed and operated by employees of Defence Industries Limited. They employed 6,805 workers (52 percent women) at the plant’s height in December 1942. The Canadian government made a big investment at the Verdun munitions factory. The plant got $48 million to modernize and renovate the facility. The investment added forty new buildings (doubling the floor space to 516,000 square feet), railway sidings, and a ballistics testing range.

For the entirety of the Second World War, Canada’s war workers produced 400 warships, 391 merchant vessels, 16,000 military aircraft, 251,000 machine guns, 850,000 military vehicles, and 900,000 rifles. By 1945, Canada was the fourth largest Allied munitions producer, after the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom.

Labour Relations

The outbreak of the Second World War and subsequent awarding of wartime manufacturing contracts helped Canada emerge from the Great Depression. Verdun, Quebec also prospered thanks, in part, to the Defence Industries Limited ammunition factory. Unemployment dropped considerably, and in July 1941 Verdun’s Unemployment Relief Commission suspended all activity.

Verdun didn’t avoid growing pains. The city was already home to many who commuted to nearby Montreal for work. Like other industrial centres, the sudden influx of workers created housing shortages that lasted into the postwar years.

The workers at the Verdun factory never went on strike during the war though they complained that similar workers in Ontario received higher wages. The Canadian government heavily restricted the right to strike in the Canadian war industry. Despite this, workers in the aircraft and auto manufacturing industries held work stoppages between 1943 and 1945.

The wartime boom didn’t last forever. Already between spring 1943 and spring 1944 the Canadian munitions industry began to slow production. Defence Industries Limited laid off 35 percent of its Verdun workforce. In July 1945 the factory closed for good.

Employees were proud to make valuable contributions on the home front. However, victory meant more than the defeat of the Axis powers. It also came with hope for a brighter future. Many Canadians desired government-sponsored social programs to support citizens during economic uncertainty. For instance, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s Liberal government began the Family Allowance, Canada’s first universal welfare program, in 1945.

Additional Resources

NFB Film

Home Front
This short documentary is part of the Canada Carries On series of morale-boosting wartime propaganda films. In Home Front, the various WWII-era social contributions of women are highlighted. From medicine to industrial labour to hospitality, education and domesticity, the service these women provided to their country is lauded.

Home Front, Stanley Hawes, provided by the National Film Board of Canada