Camps – Internment and POW
On 19 June 1940, Italy declared war on Canada. Under the War Measures Act, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) began monitoring Italian-Canadians, restricting their actions and imprisoning those deemed to be a threat to the nation. Approximately 700 Italian-Canadians, most from Ontario and Quebec, were interned during the war. Those Italians in Alberta and across the country who were not naturalized British citizens (Canada did not have separate citizenship until 1947) were forced to register with, and report to, the Mounted Police each month. These individuals were issued special identification cards and they were no longer allowed to travel freely.
Despite being at war with Germany, German-Canadian citizens did not suffer as much discrimination as their Japanese and Italian counterparts. Japan’s attack against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) on 7 December 1941 resulted in an immediate backlash against Japanese-Canadians, many of whom resided in fishing communities along the coastal regions of British Columbia. Those considered suspicious were immediately arrested and detained by the police.
In February 1942, all persons of Japanese origin within 160 kilometres (100 miles) of the coast was ordered removed from their homes. Japanese-Canadians and Japanese nationals were issued identification cards and were required to report weekly to the RCMP. Males aged 18 to 45 were sent to work camps while women, children, and the elderly were evacuated. They were allowed to take only what they could carry. The rest of their property, including homes and cars, was confiscated. In April 1942, many men were transferred to southern Alberta’s sugarbeet fields, where some would be reunited with their families. On the sugarbeet fields, men, women, and children each assumed various responsibilities and worked gruelling shifts.
Most individuals of Japanese descent were relocated to work camps situated throughout the interior of British Columbia, the Rocky Mountains, and areas of northern Ontario and Quebec. Here they were assigned to cutting wood, building roads and hiking paths, and building other infrastructure. Others were assigned to sugar beet farms scattered across southern Alberta, one solution to Alberta’s and Canada’s wartime farm labour shortage. Regardless of the location to which these individuals were sent, they were forced to complete hard, back-breaking labour. They were provided with shelter, but it was inadequate given the climate. Food and clothing were scarce, making the internees' existence all the more miserable. Laws prohibiting their movement were not repealed until 1949, when the last of the work and internment camps were closed.
The Alberta government argued against plans for the settlement of Japanese-Canadians in the province. The City of Lethbridge passed bylaws banning Japanese women from working as domestics and allowed bar and liquor store owners to prohibit all Japanese from entering their establishments. Calgary followed Lethbridge’s lead and both communities lobbied the Alberta government to order the removal of persons of Japanese descent from the province. Edmonton’s City Council voted on a motion that would have banned Japanese-Canadians displaced from the west coast from settling in the city. Ultimately, however, Council allowed these individuals to live in Edmonton, much to the dismay of many Edmontonians. It was not until 1949, years after the end of the Second World War, that all of the internment camps were closed and the restrictions on Japanese-Canadians lifted.
Canada established Prisoner of War Camps, or POW camps, for the internment of enemy combatants. Internment camps were initially under the control of the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada. The Department of National Defence assumed control of these facilities in January 1943.
The first prisoners to arrive in Canada were a small number of German seamen captured by the British Navy in 1939. These individuals were housed at a camp located near Seebe, Alberta, in the Kananaskis Country. During the summer of 1940, Canada assumed responsibility for 7,000 prisoners. An additional 7,000 German POWs arrived the following year, including 4,000 who took part in the north African campaign. Canada would eventually house nearly 38,000 POWs. The first large contingent of prisoners destined for Alberta arrived in May 1942 and was temporarily assigned to a camp at Ozada, situated in the rolling foothills between Banff and Calgary. The POW camps in Alberta were the largest of their kind in North America.
Most POWs were repatriated to their respective homelands in 1946. Leading up to the transfer of prisoners back to Germany, Italy, and other countries in 1946, all POWs underwent formal psychological and educational assessments to determine their level of support for Nazism and Hitler. Those classified as “Black” were strong supporters of Hitler and his policies; “Grey” indicated indifference; and “White” meant the individual harboured strong anti-Nazi sentiments. Prisoners classified as Whites were repatriated first, followed by Greys and, finally, Blacks. The last thing the Allies wanted to do was return large numbers of hard-core supporters of the Nazi cause to Germany shortly after the end of the war, thereby providing these individuals with opportunities to regroup and agitate for a continuance of Hitler’s vision for a greater Germany.
It is important to understand that Nazi Germany was a police state overseen by a ruthless dictator supported by extremists. Service in the German military was mandatory, regardless of whether one supported Hitler. Opposition was not tolerated; those who spoke out against the regime or the war were severely punished or killed. As such, many POWs were happy to serve out the remainder of the war within the relatively safe confines of a prison camp in Canada far from the fighting. Some of those who had always opposed Hitler and Nazism applied to stay in Canada; others returned here when permitted by immigration officials in Canada and Germany.
For more information on POW camps in Alberta, see John Joseph Kelly's article, "Der Deutsche Kriegsgefangener auf Alberta: Alberta and the Keeping of German Prisoners of War, 1939–1947".
Alberta Online Encyclopedia. Alberta Internments. (accessed September 2007).
David Carter, POW Behind Canadian Barbed Wire: Alien, Refugee, and Prisoner of War Camps in Canada 1914–1946 (Elkwater: Eagle Butte Press, 1998).