Kapuskasing Internment Camp Plaque

Kapuskasing Internment Camp Plaque

Kapuskasing, Ontario

At 2 p.m. on July 2, 1996, an Ontario Heritage Foundation provincial plaque commemorating the Kapuskasing Internment Camp was unveiled in the park outside the Ron Morel Memorial Museum, Macpherson Street at Hwy 11, Kapuskasing. The marker reads in English and French:

1914 - 1920

When the First World War began, Canada established internment camps to detain persons viewed as security risks. Prejudice and wartime paranoia led to the needless internment of several thousand recent immigrants. The majority were Ukrainians whose homeland was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of the largest camps was built across the river from here at a remote railway siding. Despite harsh conditions, some 1,300 internees constructed buildings and cleared hundreds of acres of spruce forest for a government experimental farm. In 1917 most were paroled to help relieve wartime labour shortages. Thereafter the camp held prisoners of war and political radicals, including leaders of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

Some of the people present at the unveiling ceremony were Dr. Walter Peredery, the representative from the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association; Mr. Patrick Julig, a member of the Ontario Heritage Foundation board of directors; and Mr. and Mrs. Kapuskasing Rip Ballantyne.

Historical Background

In the early years of the twentieth century, Canada recruited large numbers of people from eastern European countries to settle the Prairies and to build up its labour force. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Canadians' attitude towards immigrants from countries under German or Austro-Hungarian rule suddenly changed. They were now regarded as potential enemy sympathizers rather than valuable contributors to Canada's economic development. The government's solution to this perceived threat to domestic security was to establish, under the War Measures Act, a series of internment camps across the country to detain enemy aliens and prisoners of war for the duration of hostilities. Of the twenty-four camps in Canada, six were in Ontario: at Fort Henry in Kingston; at the militia camp in Petawawa; at Stanley Barracks on the CNE grounds in Toronto; at the local armories in Niagara Falls and Sault Ste. Marie; and Kapuskasing, in a camp carved out of the bush by the prisoners themselves. The Kapuskasing camp was one of the largest and longest operating of the camps.

In 1914, more than 170,000 persons of Ukrainian background were living in Canada. They constituted the largest eastern European immigrant community in the country. The majority lived in the West. Some were homesteaders but most worked as farm hands or were labourers in the mines and railway camps. Significant numbers of Ukrainians also worked in the resource industries and factories of central Canada. Most of Canada's Ukrainians had immigrated from the western Ukrainian territories of Galicia and Bukovyna which were then under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the eyes of Canadian authorities, these Ukrainians were Austrians - citizens of an enemy country who presented a potential threat to national security. This narrow legal interpretation of their status ignored the fact that most Ukrainians had come to Canada to escape the oppression of the Hapsburg regime and showed no inclination to return and fight in the Austrian army. More than 80,000 civilians, the majority of them Ukrainians, were registered by the authorities as "enemy aliens". Registrants were required to report regularly to local police stations and had various restrictions placed on their activities. Canada also detained 8,579 persons in internment camps between 1914 and 1920. Of this total, 3,138 were classified as prisoners of war in the official war records. The other 5,441 were civilians, the majority of them young single Ukrainian men.

Many factors contributed to the internment of "enemy aliens". The government's fear of alien intrigue was a legitimate concern for a state at war; however, in this instance, it was exaggerated due to an inability to realistically evaluate internal threats to security. Indeed, wartime paranoia affected not just the government but the Canadian public, as well, which, in turn, generated political pressure upon the government to act decisively. The war raised the patriotism of the anglophone majority in Canada to a fever pitch. The positive expression of this fervour was support for Britain and the Empire; its negative manifestation was prejudice against anyone who was not part of this dominant culture. To these factors must be added the temporary reversal of economic factors which had formerly made immigrants desirable. Canada was suffering through a recession which decreased the demand for labour. Recent immigrants were often the first to be laid off. Local officials sometimes sent unemployed "aliens" to internment camps rather than have them added to their welfare rolls.

Internees were classified as prisoners of war, not criminals, and, under the terms of the Hague Convention (1907), were entitled to the same standard of food, clothing and shelter as privates in the Canadian army. For the work they were required to do in the camps (repairing buildings, cutting wood, clearing land, etc.), they received a soldiers' working pay of $0.25 a day (i.e., what soldiers earned for work other than military duties). The Ukrainian community, at large, did not forget its interned member. It organized programs to relieve the bleakness and monotony of camp life, arranged visits by Ukrainian clergy, and provided Christmas presents, holiday food and entertainment for the internees.

The internment camp at Kapuskasing served two purposes for the government: it confined persons who supposedly posed a security risk, and it used their labour to clear forest for an experimental farm and develop new territory for future settlement. Kapuskasing is located in the Great Lakes drainage basin that was discovered during construction of the National Transcontinental Railway (later Canadian National). Authorities hoped to open the Clay Belt for settlement but it was first necessary to develop and test hardy food crops that might grow in such a harsh climate. A site for a federal experimental farm was provided by the Ontario government on a tract of 1,282 acres that lay west of the Kapuskasing River and south of the newly-built railway line. There was no human habitation at Kapuskasing at that time, merely an abandoned suveyors' camp at a railway siding known as Macpherson Station. The name, Kapuskasing, was not adopted until 1917.

On December 14, 1914, 12 military personnel and 56 internees arrived at Macpherson Station. They confronted a solid phalanx of spruce forest in which they were expected to establish living quarters. A second contingent of internees arrived two weeks later. Their numbers grew steadily; by the end of 1915, the camp held 1,259 prisoners and 256 soldiers. Except for small numbers of Turks, Bulgarians, Magyars and genuine Austrians, the internees were Ukrainian. By late February 1915, these men, under the direction of camp commandant, Major F.F. Clarke, built six bunk-houses, soldiers' barracks and various other buildings. Despite deep snow, sub-zero temperatures, and "heads bruised by falling trees and hands and feet chopped and frozen", they also cleared 100 acres, cut 800 cords of pulpwood and 400,000 feet of saw logs. The internees naturally resented their incarceration and, consequently, exerted themselves as little as possible. Nevertheless, much was accomplished. By the summer of 1915, they had "slashed and stumped roads around and across a block of land six miles long by two wide, and also slashed a broad clearing of some 600 acres on the farm property".

In the spring of 1916, a serious riot erupted at Kapuskasing. It was ignited by several prisoners transferred from the Petawawa internment camp where they had refused to work after being forced to do so during religious holidays. They continued their resistance at Kapuskasing and were soon joined by most of the established inmates. The dispute culminated in a confrontation in which guards used firearms and bayonets on the prisoners, seriously wounding a dozen.

That summer, much of northern Ontario was swept by raging forest fires. The towns of Cochrane and Matheson were wiped out and many lives lost. On July 29 the entire population of the Kapuskasing camp - guards and inmates - fought the flames threatening the camp. They succeeded, with no loss of life, and were able to transport food and clothing to destitute survivors at Cochrane long before relief from southern Ontario could arrive.

By the spring of 1917, so much of Canada's workforce had entered the armed forces that industry and agriculture were severely short of labour. As a result, all able-bodied internees were paroled from the internment camps to work in factories, railway camps and mines. Parole conditions included travel restrictions and required parolees to carry identity cards and report regularly to local authorities. Those assigned to railway labour in northern Ontario experienced conditions as hard as in the camps. Some 1,300 prisoners were paroled from Kapuskasing that spring. Approximately 60 men remained in camp for health or security reasons. They were soon joined by 400 prisoners of war transferred from the Fort Henry internment station. To hold these more dangerous inmates, high barbed-wire fences were erected around the camp and a stricter regime was instituted. Soon the camp's population again rose to over 1,200 prisoners. The majority now were German prisoners of war, mostly sailors and merchant seamen taken from German ships in the Caribbean.

The 1917 Russian revolution provoked a "Red Scare" characterized by official paranoia about Bolsheviks conspiring to overthrow the rule of law in Canada. Along with other socialists, leaders of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike were interned at Kapuskasing before being deported.

This second phase of the Kapuskasing camp was initially marked by unrest and confrontation. In the fall of 1917, the prisoners went on strike and refused to work for three months. After that, the camp entered "a weary period of hard work and interminable waiting". The strain of monotony and confinement intensified after the Armistice was declared in November 1918. Troops and prisoners alike cursed the slowness of deliberations at the Congress of Versailles. In the summer of 1919, it was decided to move the internees from all the camps but a lack of available steamship accommodation to transport them to Europe made the process agonizingly slow. Only three camps remained in operation at this point. Kapuskasing was the last to close, on February 24, 1920. The camp buildings were subsequently sold by tender and torn down. The only physical reminder of the Kapuskasing internment camp is a small cemetery containing the graves of thirty-two prisoners that is situated across from the town's public cemetery.

It is generally agreed that the 1914-1920 internment of enemy aliens from eastern European countries was an over-reaction prompted more by public paranoia and prejudice than by any real threat to national security. At the time of writing, few survivors of the camps are still alive. Yet the children and grandchildren of those who were imprisoned during the war years have not forgotten the suffering of their forebears. The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association is seeking formal acknowledgement from the Canadian government that "a wrong was done to citizens of Ukrainian and other East European origins" during the 1914-1920 internment operations.

Information provided by Ontario Heritage Foundation

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