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Enemy Aliens

Warning - The sharp ears of Enemy Agents The speed with which German forces conquered much of Europe during 1939 and 1940, coupled with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, caused all Canadians to think the worst. Who was next? Where would the next blow land?

Albertans and Canadians alike panicked and suspicion about “fifth column” activity became rampant during these early years of the war. Recent arrivals from Axis-dominated countries, those with accents or foreign (non-British) sounding names, and Japanese-Canadians immediately became suspect of supporting or collaborating with the enemy. Terms such as fifth column (saboteur), Quisling (traitor), and enemy alien (citizens of countries with which Canada was at war), became part of the national lexicon. In addition to people of German, Italian, or Japanese ancestry, most people from eastern European countries—Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechs, and others—were wrongly labelled as possible saboteurs or Nazi sympathizers. The vast majority of new Canadians from Eastern Europe were eager to join the Allied war effort to defeat Germany and expel the Nazis from their mother countries.

In response to this growing level of anxiety, the Alberta government formed the Veteran’s Volunteer Reserve (VVR) in the spring of 1940. The vast majority of the VVR’s members were veterans of the First World War—veterans of British descent, fiercely loyal to Canada, Britain, and the monarchy. Their main task was to assist authorities by reporting any and all subversive activity. It is worth noting that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the military were less than enthusiastic about the formation of this group, fearing it would attract many overzealous individuals, and it did. Soon after formation of the VVR, some chapters called for the imprisonment of all individuals who were not naturalized British citizens (Canadian citizenship was not enacted until 1 January 1947). The Wetaskiwin chapter of the VVR went so far as to designate families and individuals as either L (loyal) or D (doubtful or disloyal). Some areas of the province—the Crowsnest Pass and southeastern and east-central Alberta—were deemed “hotbeds” of subversive activity, based on the composition of their population.

The story of the German-Canadian pharmacist Paul Abele of Edmonton serves to underline the degree of hysteria surrounding the issue of apparent fifth column activity in Alberta during this tumultuous period. Abele was accused of spying for Hitler’s Third Reich and of being in possession of funds to further these activities. He was also suspected of developing plans to blow up Edmonton’s High Level Bridge. Abele was arrested in the summer of 1940 and interned at Kananaskis and later at Petawawa in Ontario. The accusations against Abel were never proven, yet all of his property was confiscated and he was separated from his family until 1943, when he was permitted to return to Edmonton.

Bits of careless talkAs in the case of Paul Abele, much of the concern voiced by citizens, government, and the press during the Second World War proved to be unfounded. As the war progressed, Albertans realized that most of the people they suspected of wrongdoing were strongly supportive of Canada’s war effort. Most had sought new lives in Canada to escape the very tyranny Canada was trying to stamp out in defeating Hitler’s Third Reich. It was not long before people began to notice that many of the volunteers signing up had non-Anglo names such Kutyn, Wukusich, Schmidt, and Mynarski.

Japanese Internment

Alberta’s Japanese population was miniscule prior to the war. Most Japanese had worked hard to gain acceptance among the general populace and to overcome the racial barriers and stereotypical views of the day. Eager to demonstrate their loyalty, many young Japanese men signed up for military service in 1939 and 1940. Attitudes towards Japanese-Canadians changed dramatically with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the occupation of Hong Kong and the westernmost Aleutian Islands of Alaska.

Most Japanese who ended up in Alberta during the war were relocated from British Columbia’s west coast. Men between the ages of 18 and 45 were sent to work camps in the BC interior, Alberta’s mountain parks, or other locations across the Prairies and Ontario. Those who refused to work in the camps were sent to special prisons; no such facilities were constructed in Alberta. Women, children, and the elderly were relocated to separate camps and communities across the country. In all cases, their property was confiscated and sold at auction at drastically reduced prices, leaving many with nothing to show for years of hard work.

Don't help the Enemy! Those Japanese who were willing to settle in farming communities, such as Taber, Lethbridge, and Picture Butte in southern Alberta, were assigned to local farmers to assist with the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of crops. These individuals faced harsh treatment from the locals—namely discriminatory comments and actions. Racial slurs and derogatory remarks were commonplace in the local newspapers. Even second generation Japanese-Canadians, including those with sons in the military, were treated poorly. Such sentiments did not fade from everyday life for many years after the war.


Collins, Robert. “As the war became real, Albertans hurled themselves into the cause,” in Alberta in the 20th Century: The War That United the Province: 1939–1945, ed. Ted Byfield. Edmonton: United Western Communications Limited, 2000.

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