Throughout the First World War, Canadians who had moved to Canada prior to the war from Austria, Hungary, Ukraine and Germany found their lives severely limited and changed due to war hysteria.
For a few, they not only lost rights such as the ability to vote, but they found their freedom gone as they were placed in internment camps.
I covered the Anti-German hysteria last season, so I won’t go too far into that now, but we are going to talk more about the internment camps themselves this episode.
When the War Measures Act was passed by the federal government on Aug. 22, 1914, it would give the federal Cabinet sweeping powers to suspend the civil liberties of thousands of Canadians. It could do this without having to get approval from Parliament to impose new laws.
The government also passed the Proclamation Respecting Immigrants of German or Austro-Hungary Nationality. This new law allowed for the detention of Canadians from either of those two countries, if there were grounds to believe they were engaging in espionage or acts of a hostile nature.
Before long, anyone who had come to Canada after 1902 was deemed an enemy alien. The majority could still go about their lives, but they had to check in weekly with police and had to carry papers with them at all times. In all, 80,000 Canadians were deemed enemy aliens.
For some others, nearly all men, they would find themselves prisoners in their own country simply for where they had been born.
A total of 8,579 of these so-called enemy aliens were interned behind barbed wire in 24 camps around the country. Of those, 5,954 were men of Austro-Hungarian origin, or what we would call Ukrainian today. There were also 205 Turks, 99 Bulgarians and 2,009 Germans. Only 81 women and 156 children were in the camps, and they were there voluntarily so that families could stay together.
There were also conscientious objectors, members of outlawed organizations and the homeless at these camps.
The government rationale was that enemy aliens were prisoners of war to whom the laws of war applied. The government stated they were apprehended and held for military reasons and deemed hostile to the welfare of the country.
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. Internees also worked in logging and mining operations and were paid less than half the daily wage that other labourers were paid. Most internees never received their pay on time.
Sir William Otter would be named the Director of Alien Internment in November of 1914. He would be headquartered in Toronto and was given powers to lease premises for internment purposes and to call upon the militia department if troops were necessary to deal with internees.
Otter had made a name for himself during the North West Resistance when he took 300 men to confront Chief Poundmaker and the Cree, despite being told to stay in Battleford. Otter and his men would be routed by the Cree and Assiniboine, and he was forced to retreat from the Battle of Cut Knife.
The first internment camp opened near Montreal on Aug. 13, 1914, with internees staying in the Immigration Hall. By the end of 1914, a dozen camps had been opened from British Columbia to Quebec. The remaining camps would open in 1915, with only two, one in Jasper and one in Eaton, Saskatchewan, opening in 1916 and 1918. The Eaton camp was originally in Munson, Alberta before it moved in 1918.
The Ottawa Journal would write in December 1914 quote:
The largest camp was in Petawawa, Ontario, on land that had been taken from German immigrant farmers. This camp housed 750 German, Austrian and Italian internees, where the internees worked clearing ground, felling timber and building roads.
On Dec. 7, 1914, the Sault Star wrote quote:
“Ontario’s aliens of enemy nationality who are to be interned under the Government regulations will be quartered to a large extent at the central training ground at Petawawa. They will be employed in building roads and clearing brush.”
Each camp had different structures to house the internees. In Beauport, Quebec and Niagara Falls, internees lived in the armoury. In Edgewood, British Columbia, Kapuskasing, Ontario, Revelstoke and Spirit Lake, internees lived in bunk houses. For those who were housed in Munson and Eaton, Alberta, they lived in simple railway cars that were cold in the winter and hot in the summer.
Internment was not just something the government supported. Many citizens supported it 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.
While some families stayed together, that did not make internment any easier.
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.
Nick Sakaliuk, who was Ukrainian, was also interned at the camp. Of that experience, he 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.”
Outside of Brandon, Manitoba, an internment camp was established to house German Canadians, something the Brandon City Council was very happy to support.
The council would write a letter to the federal government stating quote:
“With respect to the registration of Austrians and Germans, there are a large number of these aliens.”
The city would then request that the City of Brandon become a registration centre, and then the location of the internment camp. The City Council would pass a motion unanimously stating quote:
The prisoner of war camp would open in September of 1914 and would continue to operate for nearly two years until July 1916. The internment camp was located between 10th and 11th Streets, in the arena buildings. During the time it operated, about 900 men were imprisoned at one time in the camp, and they would work on area farms. Due to the extreme boredom many suffered in the camp, and the distance from their families, there were several escape attempts.
On June 7, 1915, 15 men attempted to escape, and 19-year-old Andrew Grapko was shot by guards in that attempt. It has also been reported that many men died of injuries at the camp or committed suicide. Today, a plaque is at City Hall honouring the men who spent nearly two years at the camp, whose only crime was the place of their birth.
At the Castle Mountain Internment Camp, near Banff, conditions were harsh and even abusive. These internees, along with working on the aforementioned golf course, also built the road to Lake Louise, several bridges, fire guards and culverts. Most of the internees lived in simple tents behind barbed wire. The tents were far from adequate when the winter came, and the internees had to be relocated to military barracks.
Due to the harsh conditions, which were never corrected or dealt with despite the Directorate of Internment Operations in Ottawa knowing about it, there were many escapes from the camp.
On Aug. 19, 1916, three internees attempted to escape the camp. The guard would call for them to halt in their escape, but they did not obey. The guard then started to fire at the fleeing men. A man named Konowalszuk, who was Austrian, was shot in the thigh. The other internees then stopped their escape attempt. Konowalszuk was carried to the camp hospital and then sent to Calgary for treatment.
Neutral observers who came to the camps noted the conditions and condemned them and Germany and Austro-Hungary charged Canada with violations of the governing of internment of enemy aliens.
Sir William Otter would state that the internees were well looked after. He would do an inspection of the internment camps in Canada in 1915. The Calgary Herald reported quote:
One man housed at the Castle Mountain Camp was George Luka Budak. He was listed as a prisoner of war in official documents but in truth he was held in an internment camp because he held an Austrian passport.
Budak had complained to officers for several weeks about the ill-treatment he was receiving from other prisoners. The guards put him in a cell in the guard room. On one night when he went to his cell, another prisoner heard a noise and called the sergeant of the guard. The guards went to Budak’s cell and found him under his bed. When they pulled him out, they discovered that he had taken a razor and cut his throat but did not cut the larynx. He then took the razor and cut open his abdomen. These cuts were deep enough to cut into his intestines. He would live for another hour in agony until he died.
William Perchaluk had come to Canada between 1911 and 1914 and found himself sent to the Castle Mountain Internment Camp in 1915, where he remained until June 26, 1916. He was put to work in the coal mines despite having breathing problems. While he was given a brief parole in Calgary, he enlisted with the military to escape the coal mines. Two days later, he was ready to leave for France when a former guard from Castle Mountain recognized him and arrested him as an escaped prisoner. He was sent back to the internment camp while wearing his full military uniform.
On Dec. 5, 1916, he committed suicide at the camp.
The American Consul Gebhard Willrich would visit the Spirit Lake camp in Quebec after internee complaints made their way to his office and he came on a fact-finding mission. What he found were hundreds of prisoners living in want and suffering and refusing to work. He would state quote:
“There is no doubt in my mind that at the present moment, the great majority of prisoners at Spirit Lake could safely be returned to their homes and families and that such return would be more profitable to Canada in the end than their retention in camps as unwilling workers and strikers.”
In contrast to the Banff camp, the camp near Lethbridge was noted for having fair conditions. Internees had proper sanitation, they could have hot baths and there were wash houses available to them. Prisoners also had a decent amount of freedom, and they were able to come and go from the camp under supervision, even able to visit bars and theatres. Within the camp, the internees played soccer, lawn tennis and even had a rink to skate on.
That being said, in 1915 the Chicago Tribune reported that one prisoner named Caserai alleged that the guards used torture in the camp, something the camp denied.
Even with the better conditions, there were seven reported escapes from the camp involving 16 prisoners. The largest escape occurred on April 26, 1916, when six German prisoners escaped through a 34-metre tunnel they had built. They had built the tunnel using scrap pieces of tin cans, string and wood. They built digging tools, a wooden mallet, a fake hand gun and even a tunnel ventilating fan. The fan was built by one prisoner who convinced the guards it was just a hobby for the winter months. As dirt was taken out of the tunnel, the prisoners would dispose of it around the dirt foundation of the poultry building.
The escape was not found until morning, by which time all six men had escaped to freedom.
There was a camp located near what is today Kapuskasing, Ontario, which would house 1,300 German, Austrian and Turkish prisoners.
At the camp, prisoners were kept active in construction of buildings, clearing the land for an experimental farm, and harvesting the ample timber in the area. The camp was so isolated that there was little in the way of fences and the only access to the location was via the railroad that had been built through earlier.
For those who worked at the camp, they would often deal with mosquitoes that tormented them in the summer heat, while in the winter they dealt with terrible cold.
The North Bay Nugget would report on June 17, 1915, quote:
“The busy blackfly and the maddening mosquito have been doing business as usual and some of the men have suffered severely. Two men had contracted blood-poisoning through scratching the bites of the insects on their hands.”
In May 1916, the internees started a riot due to the poor conditions they were subjected to.
The government would respond with 300 armed soldiers who came in to put it down.
Of course, even though it was isolated, that didn’t stop some from trying to escape. On Dec. 18, 1917, three Austrians decided to escape from the camp, intending to catch a train to Cochrane, to at least get away from the camp for a few days.
At 2 p.m. on that day, a prisoner slipped across the cleared perimeter into the woods when two guards had their backs turned. Five minutes later, as snow fell, two others took advantage of getting away.
At 3:20 p.m., during regular roll call, it was found that three prisoners were missing. Four guards were dispatched to look for tracks.
At 3:30 p.m., a trail of footprints heading west were found.
At 4:45 p.m., darkness forced some of the searchers to return to the camp, while others continued on in their search for the prisoners.
At 8:10 p.m. searchers once again departed from the camp with lights and retraced steps that they followed until dusk
At 12:30 a.m., the escapees were caught and returned to their cells.
In August of 1917, the prisoners would briefly strike due to the hard schedule they were forced to work, and their isolation from families and their own homes elsewhere in Canada.
On May 5, 1920, the camp was officially cleared and closed, and the buildings were sold to tender and demolished by a Toronto company.
Today, a small cemetery is all that remains of the camp, which is where victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic were buried.
Three men would escape from the Fort Henry internment camp in July 1916. The men had been sent to the shore to fix up a motor boat engine that belonged to the 14th Regiment officers. After fixing the boat, the men were allowed to take it for a trial run on the lake under the supervision of a policeman. They were only given a limited supply of gasoline to keep them from escaping. What was not known was that the internees had procured extra gasoline and hid it on the boat. As they went out into Navy Bay, the policeman told the men they should go back. They stated they had been given special permission for a longer cruise, but the policeman commanded them to return. The internees then seized the man, tied him up and then poured the hidden gasoline into the tank. After landing at a shore on the other side of the lake, they left the policeman in the boat and went out on foot. No trace of the prisoners was found, and it was believed they had escaped to the United States.
Some officials were surprised by the fact many people were put under armed guard. In August 1915, Lt. Colonel Edward Stanton was travelling by car to the military training camp at Petawawa. He saw several men working under armed guard. He stated he was surprised they were under armed guard, and he would bring his concerns to the under-secretary of state of Canada. Stanton was told that economic conditions forced the use of enemy aliens for hard labour work and that the individuals quote:
Some internees would appeal to the highest authorities in Canada. At the Vernon Internment Camp, prisoners sent a petition to the Governor General stating their internment was unjust and they sought to place on the record their personal grievance. They stated the country they had once called their home had instead betrayed them.
Due to the conditions and forced confinement, Vernon internees would voice their displeasure through various fires that were lit. In June of 1915, three fires were lit in the space of only a few days. The camp was under the command of a Major Clarke and there were reports of harsh treatment of prisoners. It was believed the fires were lit as a distraction for escape attempts. Clarke would say of this quote:
“Who on Earth spread that report? I haven’t heard of any such thing.”
The Vancouver Daily World would report that two prisoners were bayoneted at the beginning of June, while another was shot at the Monashee mine for refusing to work. Most of the internees at the camp were put to work building roads, guarded by 16 armed officers. A group also worked at the nearby Monashee Mine.
In September 1916, 12 internees escaped through a tunnel that measured at 100 feet long, which they had built over the course of many months. The 30th BC Horse were sent out to find the internees, but no trace was ever found. The tunnel came out in the property owned by Frank Scherle, a German Canadian who lived nearby. Scherle would be arrested by the city police, and he would be charged with aiding the internees.
Many of the people who were interned had been essentially invited to Canada to settle in the west by the federal government only a decade previous.
The prisoners stated they were law-abiding and just wanted to go about their daily affairs and were of no danger to the country. They would say that Canada was their adopted home and they had left the old ways of their country behind them.
By 1917, many internees were paroled out of the camps due to a shortage of workers to bring in the crops in the Canadian Prairies. Workers would be sent to farms where they were in the custody of local farmers and paid 20 cents an hour, of which 50 cents per day was deducted for room and board. Other internees were put to work on the railway. All the money the internees made through this parole, $329,000 in total, was given to the government. When they were released, only $298,000 was given back.
By the time the last internment camp had closed in mid-1920, 107 internees had died, including six that were shot trying to escape. Most others died from disease, injuries from their work or suicide. Nearly all were buried in unmarked graves.
For a long time, little was said of the internment. Lubomyr Luciuk, the head of the Ukrainian Civil Liberties Association would say he was even told by a minister of the crown that the internment didn’t happen. Parents didn’t talk to their children about it, and it would take decades for any kind of movement to begin to achieve recognition for this dark chapter in Canadian history.
In 1978, work began to make amends for the internment of Canadians during the First World War. Nick Sakaliuk provided a testimony about his experience at the Fort Henry, Petawawa and Kapuskasing camps. Sakaliuk had been in Canada since 1912 when he left Austro-Hungary because he didn’t want to join the army. When the First World War broke out, he was fired by his boss for being from an enemy nation. He couldn’t find work and was destitute. He would arrive at Fort Henry’s camp on Oct. 17, 1914.
It would not be until the late-1980s that a campaign began to fix the historical injustice, led by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
Mary Manko Haskett would help with the campaign, in the honour of her sister who died at the internment camp. It was her belief that contemporary society could not have responsibility for what happened, and an official apology was not required. Instead, she wanted public awareness through historical markers and statues. The UCCLA would take on this effort.
Haskett would be the last survivor of the internment camps to pass away, when she died in the summer of 2007.
On Aug. 4, 1994, Stefa Mielniczuk, a survivor of the Spirit Lake Internment Camp, unveiled a plaque honouring the internees.
In 2008, a $10 million community settlement was provided by the Canadian government to further support commemorative and educational projects about the internment.
During one ceremony in Sault Ste Marie, Mayor John Rowswell would state quote:
“Can you think of these people coming to have a new life in Canada, only to be called an enemy of the state? We can’t forget, but we need to move on.”
On Aug. 22, 2014, the 100th anniversary of the start of internment, at 11 a.m. local time, 100 plaques were unveiled across Canada to honour those who had been interned throughout the country.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, CTV, War Museum, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Great War Project, Galt Museum, First World War Internment in Canada, Sault Star, Ottawa Journal, Vancouver Daily World, North Bay Nugget, Kingston Whig-Standard, National Post,