Canada Turns Against Its German Citizens

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Dating back to the early 1700s, the first German immigrants began to arrive in Canada. They would settle across the country over the coming centuries, integrating themselves into communities and helping the country prosper.

The descendants of German immigrants have changed the country in many ways. Some notable Canadians of German-descent include k.d. Lang, Randy Bachman, Jack Layton, Rob Niedermayer, Donald Sutherland, and even future prime minister John Diefenbaker.

Over 2,000 Germans would settle in Nova Scotia between 1750 and 1752, and 10,000 fought for Canada and Britain between 1776 and 1783, with 2,400 settled in the country. Between 1874 and 1911, 152,000 German-speaking settlers came to Western Canada, establishing 100 German settlements. Until 1820, the majority of German immigrants came from the United States, but after that things began to change, and German immigrants came from Europe directly. The Canadian Homestead Act of 1872 opened the country to many from eastern Europe and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1914, 400,000 Canadians were of German descent and half of those had been born in Canada. In Saskatchewan, 14 per cent of the population was German.

Despite their huge contributions to Canada through the years, as soon as war was declared, all of that was forgotten as anti-German hysteria swept the country.

The night that Canada entered the First World War, anger towards Germans in Canada began. In Vancouver, the German Consulate had been surrounded by a crowd and attacked. The article would say quote:

“The big double headed eagle above the door of the German consulate office in the Power building here were torn from their supports this afternoon by an angry crowd of men, which invaded the consulate offices with threats of destruction. Having destroyed the insignia of arms and trampled on it the crowd left in a peaceable manner after breaking the glass and defacing the signs on the consulate doors.”

At Westboro on Aug. 9, 1914, a group of Germans were flying the German flag when several residents walked over and hauled it down. The next day, another flag was back up and citizens once again tore the flag down and burned it on the spot. On the third day, another flag was up again, and a larger group of citizens marched towards the property to tear it down and tempers were described as enraged. One of the men on the property took the flag down before they reached it and the Germans were told under no uncertain terms would the German flag be allowed to be displayed in the future.

Various orchestras would refuse to play German music of any sort, and public schools removed German language instruction from classrooms. Songs by German composers were removed from schools as well, and some dog shows would not allow Dachshunds to compete.

When the United States invaded Iraq and France did not join their coalition, government cafeterias in Washington renamed French Fries and French Toast as Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast. We all laughed in Canada, but the same thing happened here. In Winnipeg, residents began to refer to hamburgers as nips, to distance the food from its German word.

Even German professors were fired at various universities, and some returning veterans would attack Germans, or people they suspected of being German. During harvest times, there were rumours that Austrian farm labourers were going to set fire to the prairie grain crop to hurt the war effort. Letters to Members of Parliament stated that there were German-Americans who were massing at the American border, ready to invade as soon as they were told to do so. One German professor in Western Ontario who volunteered to speak at recruiting rallies for Canada was rejected on the belief that he may be a spy. In Fernie, British Columbia, miners chose to go on strike rather than work alongside Germans, who had been in the country for years and just wanted a better life for their family. That was a situation not only found in Fernie, but elsewhere. In Nanaimo, miners refused to work if the company employed any Austrians or Germans and the company complied, firing all the miners with German or Austro-Hungarian roots.

On May 14, 1915, the Royal Alexandria Canadian Pacific Hotel dismissed all its employees of alien nationality, which included several waiters, chefs and the assistant head waiter.

Arrests would also pile up with many Germans being arrested over the first years of the war. Those arrests were often just of people who were confused, had poor English, or were living their lives and someone had just suspected them of being an enemy spy, especially at the start of the war.

On Aug. 26, 1914, one German man named Charles Knapp was arrested in Vancouver. He had been arrested after trying to send a telegraph message, which authorities said was in code, and when asked it was stated he gave no reasonable explanation, and he was turned over to immigration authorities.

On Nov. 13, 1914, a German man was arrested in Moose Jaw while he was walking along the Canadian National Railway track. He stated he was Russian, but the article says that he could not understand a Russian interpreter and he was sent to Regina.

On Aug. 19, a German man was arrested in Brighton, Ontario and detained at Kingston because he had pictures of bridges. When questioned, he said he had been living in Canada for three years and his work was as a travelling photographer and he took post card views.

In Pembroke, Ontario, a Lutheran minister was condemned publicly for addressing his congregation in German. Everyone ignored the fact that his oldest son was currently serving in the trenches of France for Canada.

There were even worries about Germans working at places where soldiers would spend money. In one letter to the editor of the Vancouver Daily World on Aug. 23, 1917, H.F.G. Parkes states quote:

“If there are enemy aliens in charge of our moving picture houses it is time, we did something to stop it. Returned soldiers frequent these places and they do not like to think that the money they pay for their amusement may be sent out of the country, perhaps to help the enemy they are fighting.”

He would add at the end, quote:

“I would not leave a single German or Austrian at large in the country if I had my way.”

The Calgary Herald would publish an article on Sept. 2, 1914 about the supposed German spy network. It would state quote:

“It is an easy matter to be suspicious about the idle foreigner who persists in hanging around where he is not wanted, but one is not so likely to suspect the apparently honest, hard-working foreigner who takes your meal order in the dining room, drives your car for you, or handles your baggage on train or boat.”

All of this ignored the fact that many of the sons of German families now fought for Canada in Europe. Roughly 10,000 naturalized Ukrainians served for Canada as well, including Filip Konowal, who would be awarded the Victoria Cross. More on him later.

All these accusations were groundless. Many of the German and Astro-Hungarian families who came to Canada, often decades ago, did so to escape persecution from the governments that Canada was now at war with.

Even individuals who were not German were accused of being German spies. On Oct. 28, 1914, an unidentified man was taking pictures of the East Block of Parliament Hill when messengers with the Privy Council saw him and notified authorities. The individual was taken before Colonel Percy Sherwood before it was determined that he was a civil servant, doing his job.

One of the most noticeable instances of ant-German hysteria came in the literal renaming of an entire community. Prior to the First World War, Berlin was a moderate-sized town in Ontario, and it was home to a large number of Mennonites and German Canadians. Roughly 75 per cent of the population were of German descent, and many called it the German Capital of Canada, and on Aug. 13, 1897, a bronze bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I was placed in Victoria Park.

The Duke of Connaught would visit the community in May of 1914, three months before war was declared, praising the German residents of the community, stating quote:

“It is of great interest to me that many of the citizens of Berlin are of German descent. I well know the admirable qualities, the thoroughness, the tenacity, and the loyalty of the great Teutonic Race, to which I am closely related. I am sure that these inherited qualities will go far in the making of good Canadians and loyal citizens of the British Empire”

Within a few months, that sentiment would change.

On Aug. 22, 1914, only three weeks after Canada entered the war, three young men went to Victoria Park and took the bust of Kaiser Wilhelm, and promptly threw it into the lake from a bridge. It was promptly retrieved by residents of the community. On Feb. 15, 1916, the bust of Kaiser Wilhelm had found its way into the backroom of the German Club, but it would not be there much longer. In the evening, roughly 50 members of the 118th Battalion entered the hall and carried the bust of the Kaiser away. Where the bust ended up, no one really knows.

The bust was the main objective but while in the Club, soldiers smashed a piano, chairs, tables, and windows. Amazingly, the members who trashed the club received no punishment, but the club itself was blamed for causing an increase in passions due to not being patriotic enough in the community. By June, there was talk of renaming the community with Kitchener serving as the front runner. Lord Kitchener was an icon of the war by that point but had recently died when his ship was hit by a sea-mine in the waters near Scotland. Several other names were put forward including Canadia, Brief, Imperial City, Georgia, Cameo, Huronto, Ontario and Ontario City, which would have made the community Ontario City, Ontario.

On June 23, 1916, the Windsor Star would report, quote:

“A large number of manufacturers and businessmen, interviewed yesterday, favor the selection of the name Kitchener for this city, it looked upon as an exceptional opportunity to perpetuate the name of the late war secretary.”

On Sept. 1, 1916, it became official as newspapers reported the result of a referendum when a few hundred citizens chose Kitchener as the name of the community. The Ottawa Journal would report, quote:

“The post office name of Berlin, Ontario has been changed to Kitchener. This automatically follows the proclamation by the Lt. Governor of Ontario that the name of the municipality had been changed to Kitchener.”

Kitchener was not the only place to wipe its German name away. In Western Canada, towns and villages named Prussia, Bremen and Kaiser were also renamed.

The Canadian government quickly began to move towards dealing with what it saw as enemy aliens in the country. On Aug. 7, the government proclaimed that due to the state of war existing, any person who assisted the enemy in the country would be apprehended and incarcerated. That same day, the government closed all German consulates in Canada and all employees of the consulates were ordered to leave Canada within 48 hours.

On Aug. 15, the government then banned any German or Austro-Hungarian reservists from leaving the country. At the same time, it would guarantee that German-Canadians would have their freedom in the country and there would be no unwarranted arrests or harassment.

The Vancouver Province would report, quote:

“Advice from Ottawa state that the Dominion authorities have decided not to interfere with Germans and Austro-Hungarians resident in this country as long as they preserve a neutral stance.”

One week later, the War Measures Act and soon that promise would be broken, but more on that later. Under the act, 80,000 German Canadians registered, handed over their firearms and promised to not to try and leave Canada.

One of the worst aspects of this anti-German hysteria was the internment of individuals deemed to be enemy aliens by the government. The first German Canadians would be sent to the internment camps on Nov. 5, 1914. A total of 8,579 of these so-called enemy aliens were interned behind barbed wire in 24 camps around the country, while thousands of others had to register with government authorities and follow strict rules during the war years. Of the those who were put into internment camps, only 3,138 were classified as prisoners of war, everyone else were civilians. The largest camp was in Petawawa, Ontario, on land that had been taken from German immigrant farmers. This was not just something the government looked at, but it was supported by the citizens as well. In a proposal put forward to the citizens of South Vancouver and North Vancouver, readers of The Vancouver Sun, agreed that all enemy aliens in the community should be confined until the end of the war. In Vancouver, the harassment of Germans was particularly bad early on. The Rotary Club announced it would take up the matter regarding kicking Germans out, as did the Board of Trade. German photographers in Stanley Park were banned, a number of merchants also put up signs announcing that they will not trade with Germans. At a German bakery, all the customers stopped coming so they were forced to sell everything to their two employees, and several German floral shops were closed for good.

Mary Manko, who was born in Canada to Ukrainian parents, suddenly found herself and her family under suspicion by the government. She would state quote:

“When Ottawa imprisoned my family, I was six-years-old. I did not do anything wrong. My parents came to Canada in search of liberty. They were invited here. They worked hard, helped build the country with their blood, toil and tears.”

Mary and her family would be interned at the Spirit Lake camp, surrounded by 400 kilometres of forest. In that camp, 1,200 people, including 60 women and children were kept under armed guard for two years.

Nicola Sakaliuk, who was Ukrainian, was also interned at the camp. Of that experience, she would say, quote:

“At first, they told us we could work or not work, as we saw fit. But these conditions only lasted one month or two. Then, if you refused to work, they put you on dry bread and water. And if you did not work, they stopped feeding you. I was convinced that they didn’t have the right to act like this.”

Along with having their property confiscated, most of which was not returned after they were released, internees were subjected to hard labour on various projects. These projects included clearing bush, building roads, and even building a portion of the golf course at Banff National Park.

Conditions were bad enough that on May 16, prisoners at the Kapuskasing camp near Cochrane, Ontario, would riot. A total of 1,200 prisoners rioted over he conditions they were forced to work in, leaving one person killed and 13 wounded, including four Austrians. Ignoring the reasons for the riot, the Montreal Gazette instead reported quote:

“The report said that the prisoners, who refused to go to work, became very menacing and the solders had to take extreme measures.”

Most internees would be released by 1916 due to labour shortages due to so many men being called up to the front to fight. One such camp to close was the Brandon Internment Camp, which closed in July of 1916. At the camp there were 95 German prisoners. The Germans would be sent to Morrissey, British Columbia, and 25 other prisoners were put to work on the Canadian Northern Railway line. By this point, the number interned at the camp had decreased from 1,240 a year previously to 218. By the end of the internment of those deemed to be enemy aliens, 107 had died, including six who were shot trying to escape. Others died from infectious diseases, injuries related to work and suicide. Most were buried in unmarked graves.

The anti-German sentiment would impact immigration and the number of Germans who wanted to stay in the country. Between 1911 and 1921, the number of Canadians of German ethnic origin declined by 108,000.

In February of 1916, Parliament met to discuss the issue of enemy aliens. E.M. Macdonald, a Liberal from Nova Scotia, stated that Canadians believed that in the east, there was a large number of disloyal aliens who were in touch with Canada’s enemies. He also stated that he believed some had enlisted with the Canadian Army.

The federal government would kick things up a notch in 1917 when it passed the Wartime Elections Act. While it gave the right to vote to female relatives of men serving overseas, it also stripped the vote from Canadians who had immigrated from countries like Germany. The law, put in place by the Unionist Government of Sir Robert Borden, was meant to bring in voters who would likely vote for the Unionist Party, while also removing the vote from those who would vote Liberal. Anyone who came to Canada from an enemy nation after March 1902 lost the vote, except if they had a son, grandson or brother serving in the Canadian Army.

Even with the loss of the vote, newspapers spread stories about the worry that those who had existed in Canada before 1900 would organize. The Edmonton Journal would report that there were 75,000 Austro-Germans in the province, and 10,000 still had the vote. It would state quote:

“This forms a nucleus for a very active propaganda among the element for those 10,000 Austro-Germans have votes in the coming election. And these people are avowedly hostile to the Union government to conscription and any other form of human endeavor calculated to keep Canada at the front in the Great War.”

On April 21, 1918, 3,000 soldiers marched in Vancouver and demonstrated against the use of enemy aliens for essential war work at a soldier’s pay. The article would state quote:

“Why should there be further drain upon the manhood of young Canadians, it was asked, while enemy and friendly aliens prospered on the sacrifices of the soldiers in France.”

They also asked that all enemy aliens be conscripted into the army and if they refused, they would be deported to their native country.

For the veterans who fought in France, there was a great deal of anger towards Germans and Astro-Hungarians. On Aug. 2, 1918, the Great War Veterans Association, which would morph into the Legion years later, passed a resolution that demanded the internment of all enemy aliens not engaged in work of national importance, restricting travel to within five kilometres of their property, heavy taxation on families that were deemed enemy aliens, suppression of all enemy alien books and newspapers, the complete dismissal of Germans and Astro-Hungarians who were employed with the government. In regard to the newspapers, Comrade Macneil of Saskatchewan was quoted as saying, quote:

“These papers are used by people who are disloyal. We have protested repeatedly to the Government but have received only evasive answers.”

Anti-German sentiment was even found on Parliament Hill. After Parliament suffered a terrible fire in 1916, the redesign included a memorial to Vimy Ridge on the west wall of Parliament. On that memorial, there are two faces. One is of a masked German spy and the other is Kaiser Wilhelm, which was described as showing the Kaiser and his secret hand, which the men at Vimy Ridge helped to overthrow. That fire was also blamed on German spies. Later, it would be found that the fire likely started because a staff member or Member of Parliament had left a cigar burning in a trash can.

On Feb. 5, the day after the fire, Charles Stroney, who was in Ottawa as a pianist with singer Madame Edvina, was arrested and suspected of being a Belgian. Colonel Sherwood of the Dominion Police would state quote:

“We have no definite charge to make against him, but the man was at Ottawa and was heading for the United States when taken off a train. He will have to give an account of himself. He is not the only one.”

The article would state further, quote:

“Stroney, who speaks with a decided German accent, was indignant over his arrest.”

Two days later, Stroney would be released.

Of course, when two ships collided in Halifax harbour in 1917, triggering the biggest man-made explosion in human history to that point, killing 2000 and injuring 7,000, accusations flew that the Germans were behind it.

Accusations, that once again, proved to be untrue.

Within days, on the instructions of military authorities, the Halifax police force began to arrest German residents of Halifax. Several were under arrest by Dec. 10, only three days after the explosion, despite no evidence of any German involvement. The Edmonton Journal would report, quote:

“No information has been given out as to the reasons for the arrests, and the authorities refuse to say if it was done through any evidence they had secured in regard to the explosion.”

One day later Dec. 11, 20 German residents had been arrested upon a military order.

Filip Konowal

I end each episode by looking at a soldier who fought for Canada during the First World War, and today I am looking at the only Eastern European born person to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Filip Konowal.

Born in Kutkivtsi, in what is now the Ukraine, right on the border with Austria-Hungary on March 25, 1887, Filip would work alongside his father as a mason. After marrying his wife Hanna and having a daughter, Marichka, Filip decided to join the Imperial Russian Army, where he served as an instructor in hand-to-hand combat. After his time in the army was done, he worked as a timberman in Siberia, and then took a job with a Canadian company in 1913. Gradually making his way east from Vancouver working as a timberman, he would lose his job in 1914 and spent the next year working odd jobs. On July 12, 1915, he enlisted with the 77th Canadian Infantry Battalion and left for Europe in June of 1916. In England, Filip was transferred to the 47th British Columbia Battalion, and promoted to acting corporal. In April 1917, he would take part in Vimy Ridge, and from Aug. 22 to 24, 1917, he fought at the Battle of Hill 70. It was there he would be awarded the Victoria Cross, personally presented to him by King George V. Due to his actions, he was also promoted to sergeant.

According to the London Gazette, which published a story on Nov. 23, 1917, Filip’s section had to mop up cellars, craters, and machine-gun emplacements. There was too much resistance and in one cellar he would bayonet three Germans, and then attack seven more in a crater by himself, killing them all. He then rushed a machine-gun nest, killing the crew and taking the gun. The following day, he then killed men in another machine gun nest, and destroyed the gun. In all, by himself, he killed 16 men in two days and was severely wounded in the process.

After the war, on July 19, 1919, he was out with a friend in Hull, Quebec for dinner. They left early to look at some bicycles owned by William Artich, an Astro-Hungarian bootlegger and salesman. An argument between his friend and Artich erupted, and his friend was severely beaten. Artich then turned to Filip but using his hand-to-hand combat training, he was able to defend himself and he killed Artich with a single stab wound to the chest. He did not flee the scene and reportedly when police arrived, he said “I’ve killed 52 of them, this makes the 53rd.”

Veterans soon rallied behind him and paid for his bail in October. The trial would be delayed three times until it went forward in 1921. At the trial, medical experts stated that Filip was suffering from several medical problems due to his war injuries. A gunshot wound to his head was increasing pressure on his brain and experts stated that it was making him mentally unstable. The jury agreed and he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He then spent the next seven years in an institution. When he was released in 1928, his condition was much better.

He would eventually work at the House of Commons as a caretaker. One day Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King saw the colours of his Victoria Cross ribbon while Filip was working. King then arranged to have Filip gain al lifetime job in King’s personal office.

Filip would pass away in Hull, Quebec in 1959 at the age of 70.

Information comes from Nate Hendley,, Ottawa Journal,, Wikipedia, CBC, Canadian Encyclopedia, Library and Archives Canada, Canada’s History, Submerged Identities: German Canadian Immigrants, Macleans, Ethnic Minorities During Two World Wars, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Victoria Daily Times,

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