GWCA Second Lecture – Forgotten Enemies: Great War Interments in Canada

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GWCA Second Lecture – Forgotten Enemies: Great War Interments in Canada by Mary Chaktsiris.

Mary Chaktsiris is affiliated with Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies and her doctoral work focused on the City of Toronto regarding recruitment, conscription, the Toronto Soldier’s Insurance Plan, internment of enemy aliens, and the 1918 Toronto Riots.

Lecture Summary

Please note that these notes are from the lecture and the author has added content from his own experience and perspective.

The issue of internment of enemy aliens is not the first thing Canadian think about when they reflect on their knowledge national issues affecting Canada of the First World War. Other issues, such as the Conscription Crisis of 1917, women’s suffrage, conscientious objectors and the patriotic response to the war in regards to enlistment are more cognizant to Canadians.

As the actions of Canada and its domestic policy was oriented towards unity using the war as a unifying force. A local context, in this case Toronto, gives us a picture of these issues and specifically enemy aliens and their interment. For this one sees this expressed in the surveillance and internment of enemy aliens. The public writing letters to express their suspicions of possible “enemy” espionage or, conversely, writing to express their opinion that an resident alien was a loyal subject or not a threat.

A large part of these perspectives were influenced by op ed pieces in the newspaper and propaganda derived from, as an example, the German Army’s brutalization of Belgians using extreme examples like the crucifixion of a Canadian soldier.

As can be seen from the posters above (via Ontario Government Ministry of Government and Consumer Services) they eschew a certain tone calling into question a person’s loyalty and pride in their country and Empire using several messages to convey a call to action towards recruitment.

The enemy is imagined and portrayed clearly defining who was an enemy and what moral distinctions between “us” against “them” set us apart and defined us as superior morally. One poster is particularly powerful. Below is a dramatic poster envisioning the cruelty of German submarine warfare when it sunk, against Geneva Convention regulations, the hospital ship H.M.H.S. Llandovery Castle on June 27, 1918. Twenty-four people survived the attack and 234 patients, nurses, and doctors died. The German U-Boat captain rammed and machine-gunned the lifeboats in an attempt to get rid of the evidence of this atrocity. One life boat with its occupants survived.

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From these perspective and the actions of the various levels of government, workplaces, and private citizens the reaction to the potential threat of enemy aliens is manifest. Some examples:

  • Personal letters to authorities,
  • Official correspondence,
  • The absence of replies to this correspondence,
  • Workplace harassment unofficial and officially sanctioned.
  • Undertaking papers,
  • Privy Council Orders in Council and laws creating policy and the expression of that policy in regards towards enemy aliens.

Of the people, almost exclusively male, single, lower-income, and unskilled 80,000 people were identified with the requirement of reporting and signing undertaking papers. 8,500 men were interned at various facilities around Canada.

An undertaking required the enemy alien to report regularly to the police and they were not allowed to leave Canada. Enforcement of these undertakings was uneven. There were no clear guidelines from the law and the application of these laws was very subjective.

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Case in point: Sault Ste. Marie man who was under suspicion for buying pigeons. Had lived in Canada 17 years and worked at Algoma Steel for 6 years. But, under the Defence of Realm Act (1914) nobody could keep homing or carrier pigeons without a permit from police.

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Internment camps and receiving stations were located across the country. © Sir William Otter’s Report on Internment Operations, 1914-1920, Ottawa:King’s Printer, 1921

Receiving Stations: Men held until a determination of the status of their internment and then they would be set to Permanent Internment Camp. There was road-building and land-clearing sub-camps. Toronto housed 20 to 40 men. Camp active from 1914 to 1916. Censored letters examined and checked for intelligence and invisible ink. Letters inbound from wives to husbands and to camp bureaucrats asking for financial aid. Families impacted as men could not work.

The internment of enemy aliens reflects the past. As an example, Ukrainians, subjects of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire were considered enemies and after the geo-political shifts after the First World War this group became an ally to Canada. The treatment of these men reflected our fears and prejudices and illustrates that we tend to victimize those who are differnt.

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