Victoria’s economy in the pre-war years was one of great flux. While Canada’s economy had grown steadily for ten years until 1911 (The Klondike Gold Rush being a major factor in the West) the bubble had burst in Victoria by 1912. The start of the war in August 1914 saw little positive economic change in Victoria. Potential labourers enlisted and construction projects were put on hold as war materials and manpower were needed elsewhere, and the real estate market did not rebound as the town lost citizens instead of gaining them. All of this contributed to an extended economic depression and uncertain future for Victorians during the war.
The Victoria Branch manager of the British Columbia Electric Railway Company (BCERC) wrote in his annual report for the year ending 30 June 1915 that it had “been by far the most serious in the history of the Company. All conditions have been abnormal.” The BCERC’s 1914 experience exemplifies the difficult economic conditions faced by businesses through the first year of the Great War. Instead of boosting the local economy, the war forced many non-enlisted persons to create their own business opportunities, and the BCERC saw this result in the sudden rise of competitive jitneys in the city. These gasoline vehicles had freer range of the city with increased paving operations and threatened the Company’s scheduled light rail systems. The BCERC’s net revenue for 1915 was $158,892.55 less than 1914 because of these serious economic factors.
The BCERC estimated in 1916 that 12,000 men had already enlisted from the region and had gone to the Front and numerous others were forced to leave when construction works closed, causing dramatic loss of earnings for their Railway department from $606,604.00 (June 1914) to $416,329.00 two years later.
Work on the largest local construction project of the decade was also affected by the economic depression. Vancouver Island Power Company’s construction for a new hydroelectric plant at Jordan River began in 1909 but the plans were only partially completed by 1913 when construction was halted due to economic constrains. Even during the depression, Victoria was growing so rapidly that by the time the first installation was completed in early 1912, the demand for electricity was such that a second installation was begun in 1914. The plant delivered 29,591,400 kilowatt hours of power to Victoria in the 1914-1915 fiscal year.
Despite the economic downturn, Yarrows Limited shipyards provided one area of consistent growth in Victoria’s industrial sector. Scotsman Alfred Yarrow expanded his already successful shipbuilding empire to North America when he purchased the BC Marine Railway Company’s Esquimalt site in 1913. He chose the site for its proximity to the Naval Dockyard and with the hope that the Dominion Government would soon build a new graving dock. The business was highly successful during the war and employed over 800 men with military repair contracts and high explosives fabrication.
Not all industry on Vancouver Island was so fortunate. The coal companies around Nanaimo experienced significant labour unrest in 1913 and 1914 as miners struck and rioted in the town of Extension. The Commissioner’s Report for the claims of injury and property destruction heard 380 claims (many by the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver on behalf of Chinese workers) against the striking coal miners totalling $323,985.12. The Commissioner, J.B. Gregory, after making thorough investigations into all claims, only awarded $56,878.60, finding many Chinese claims to be doubled by the Benevolent Societies in China and the Consulate in Vancouver, and that some claims had been falsified or exaggerated. The Commissioner also refused to provide for pain and suffering from physical wounds of the 1913 riots or the 1914 strikes “as that does not seem to come within the scope of this commission.” Nonetheless, two men were shot and one family’s house was destroyed by a bomb with the father seriously injured. So serious were the riots and strikes from 1913-1915 that the Victoria Militia unit was dispatched to deal with the miners. The coal industry would collapse after the war.
For some local businesses, retail and entertainment primarily, having hundreds of soldiers assembling in the city and surrounding areas provided an opportunity for increased business. Soldiers participated in athletics competitions and shows, travelled long distances on the BCERC trams, and frequented local theatres and restaurants.
By Ben Fast
 British Columbia Archives (hereafter BCA), British Columbia Electric Railway Company records 1867-1967, MS-1321 Box 1, File 4, Report of Local Manager, 1915.
 BCA, British Columbia Electric Railway Company records 1867-1967, MS-1321, Box 1, File 4, p. 33, Report of Engineering Department year ending 30 Jun 1915.
 BCA, British Columbia Electric Railway Company records 1867-1967, MS-1321, Box 1, File 5, p. 7, Report of Local Manager, 1916.
 BCA, British Columbia Electric Railway Company records 1867-1967, MS-1321, Box 1, File 4, p. 11, Report of Engineering Department year ending 30 Jun 1915.
 BCA, British Columbia Electric Railway Company records 1867-1967, MS-1321, Box 6, File 25, p. 3, Charles A. Lee, Jordan River Development, 1915.
 BCA, British Columbia Electric Railway Company records 1867-1967, MS-1321, Box 1, File 4, p. 13, Report of Engineering Department year ending 30 Jun 1915.
 Esquimalt Municipal Archives, Yarrows Limited Fonds.
 BCA, Commission on Riots on Vancouver Island (1916), GR-0518, Box 5, File 111, Commissioner’s report, 1916.