Wartime Internment Camps in BC

Posted by Daniel on Sep 13, 2009

Advertisements appeared in the weekend newspapers welcoming applications to a new $10 million endowment fund created last year by the federal government. The Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund will support projects intended to commemorate the internment of more than 8,000 so-called "enemy aliens" during World War One.

When the war began in August 1914, Canadians had to decide what to do with the half-million people of enemy origin living among them. Many were residents of long standing, many were not. Initially the public was not much concerned with these “enemy aliens”; that is, people living in Canada who had been born in one of the enemy countries, mainly Germany and Austria-Hungary (including what is now Ukraine) but also a few thousand from Turkey and Bulgaria. After all, it was conventional wisdom that the war would be over by Christmas. When it wasn’t, when fighting dragged on and casualties began to mount, the public attitude toward the alien hardened and the government decided to create a network of camps where more than 8,500 people, including some women and children, were interned. The government was not concerned solely with the loyalty of its "alien" population; it also feared civil unrest among the large numbers of immigrant workers who had been left unemployed by the pre-war recession.

Of the two dozen camps, eight were located in British Columbia. There were camps at Nanaimo, Vernon, Mara Lake, Revelstoke, Field, Monashee, Edgewood and Fernie. Some were simple residential camps; at others the internees were set to work as cheap labour on land and road clearing, in mines and on rail construction.

As the war progressed and the Canadian economy faced a manpower shortage, some internees were parolled on work leave or released outright. At the same time, the need for combat soldiers made the government less willing to tie up manpower in guarding the camps. As a result they began to close. By the end of 1916, half the BC camps had closed; the others emptied by war's end, except for Vernon which remained open until early in 1920.

The Recognition Fund was established to remind Canadians of this sorry episode in our history.