By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
The Free Press (Fernie, B.C.)
Dec. 14, 1994
Victoria Kucera says she doesn’t remember much about the prisoners.
She remembers passing the barbed-wire enclosed camp on her way to school in Morrissey. She remembers soldiers playing bugles. And she remembers seeing military men guarding prisoners as they chopped wood. Beyond these images, the memories are fuzzy.
“We didn’t see that much of them (the prisoners),” the 85-year-old Kucera says from across a table in her home at Fernie’s Trinity Lodge. “In fact, we weren’t that interested.”
After all, she was a little girl at the time, and memories can fade after 80 years.
What Kucera remembers was an internment camp at Morrissey during World War One. It was part of a nationwide camp system set up by the federal government to house “enemy aliens” — both prisoners of war and immigrants from countries such as Germany and Austria, with which Canada was at war at the time.
Very little information about the Morrissey camp remains. Most of the people directly involved in the camps as prisoners or guards are dead. And according to one researcher, the bulk of the federal government’s records on the camp system were destroyed by the National Archives after World War Two.
But a few critical documents remain, and with these and the memories of people like Kucera, the story of the Morrissey camp can be pieced together.
After Great Britain entered the First World War in 1914, the Canadian government passed the War Measures Act, which mandated the registration and, in some cases, internment of aliens of “enemy nationality.”
A 1921 federal government document entitled Internment Operations states that, under the terms of the act, 8,579 male “enemy aliens” were interned between 1914 and 1920 at 26 camps between Nanaimo and Halifax. Camp locations included Morrissey, Vernon, Revelstoke, Field, Banff and Lethbridge.
The document, written by internment operations director Major-General Sir William Otter, states the number of actual prisoners of war (those “captured ‘in arms’ or belonging to enemy ‘reserves,’”) was 3,138 — the rest were civilians, mostly of German and Austro-Hungarian origin.
“It is also suspected that the tendency of municipalities to ‘unload’ their indigent was the cause of the confinement of not a few,” Otter wrote.
There were 81 women and 156 children interned in the camps, according to Otter’s report. But by most accounts, many of those interned had become nationalized or were landed immigrants. Why, then, were they rounded up and imprisoned?
Simon Fraser University history professor Allen Seager says that the internment program stemmed from the prevailing public fear of Canada’s war enemies at the time.
“Anyone who came from enemy-alien territory was branded as such,” Seager explained in an interview Dec. 2. “The Dominion government said immigrants of enemy-alien nationality were being protected (through internment) from the wrath of other citizens.”
For example, trade unions voted to exclude members of enemy nationality from their ranks, Seager said. And once these men were rendered unemployable, they became a source of cheap labor.
“To some degree, Morrissey and the other camps were make-work projects,” Seager said.
Clippings from the Free Press support Seager’s claims and paint a fascinating picture of events leading up to and during the internment.
• Free Press, Friday, June 11, 1915:
“Tuesday—English-speaking miners of Coal Creek demand of mine officials that all alien enemies be discharged from the mines and refuse to resume work with Austrians and Germans. Demands reiterated at public meeting in Fernie. Authorities at Victoria notified.
“Wednesday—Miners do not work. Provincial police acting on instructions order unmarried Germans and Austrians and married men without families here to report with blankets and belongings for internment. Conservative Association try to have Morrissey Mines made an internment camp. 108 men interned in skating rink under 30 armed guards. Miners decide to return to work provisionally, demanding internment of all Germans and Austrians, naturalized or not.”
Beginning in June 1915, prisoners were housed in the old Fernie skating rink, down the hill from the Leroux mansion near the river. Their valuables were seized.
Otter wrote, “As many of those interned were residents of Canada and possessed real estate, securities, etc., such have been turned over to the ‘Custodian of Enemy Alien Properties’ for the future decision of the Government.”
Although there was clearly pressure from many quarters for internment, some questioned the wisdom of such a decision.
• excerpt from the Canadian Mining Journal, published in the Free Press, Friday, June 25, 1915:
“A man may be a good citizen even though he be not naturalized. There are many decent, industrious men of German nationality in Canada who are a credit to the Dominion and who have earned the right to live and work here during war as during peace …
“Is it fair that these men who are striving to live as becomes decent citizens should be made to suffer because others of the same nationality have been unwise enough to openly approve of the mad policy of the kaiser and his brood? … That is why we venture to suggest that the alien enemies have rights which should not be lost sight of.”
Despite such protests, the internment effort continued and escalated.
• Free Press, Friday, July 16, 1915:
“Mayor Uphill received a wire from the coast yesterday that habeas corpus proceedings (unlawfull confinement) in connection with the internment here had been dismissed, an order in council having given the affair the necessary legal status.”
“Dancing and card playing is the main amusement at the internment camp. The Colonel is very popular with the prisoners owing to his removing the ban placed on the tango.”
By October 1915, the prisoners had been transferred either to camps at Lethbridge, Banff or the new camp at Morrissey staffed by soldiers from the 107th Regiment of the Canadian Army. According to the Free Press, the prisoners were housed in the Windsor and Alexandria hotels.
Nearly all of Morrissey’s property was owned by the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company, and because the mines had closed six years earlier, the buildings could be rented cheaply. There were between 250 and 300 prisoners at the camp on a regular basis.
Otter’s document tells little about conditions at the Morrissey camp in particular. But ironically, some evidence of the day-to-day life of the camp has survived through the mischief of local children like Victoria Kucera.
“When the camps closed, us kids used to go in and take stuff,” Kucera said. “There were papers everywhere.”
Kucera found and saved a military log book detailing names of officers in command, parade times, and even the schedule for showers.
Some excerpts from that log:
• Nov. 9, 1915:
“The three privates parading each day at retreat for main guard duty will in future do so without rifles but with bayonets. The sentry on No. 4 post on latrine will be posted in the passage of internment prison, top of kitchen stairs.”
• a later entry:
“All ranks are reminded that it is a court-martial offence punishable on conviction with a long term of imprisonment to carry written or verbal communications from any prisoner of war at their request to any person, place or post office.”
• Dec. 6, 1915:
“No civilians are allowed in Barrack quarters without an order from the orderly room and then only under proper escorts.”
Although the YMCA helped out with social and religious events and a school was established at the Morrissey camp, internees’ mail was censored and escape attempts were met with gunfire. One escapee was captured by “the Elko guard” in 1918, but not before he was shot in the leg.
Prisoners were obliged to take part, for low pay, in road-building, land-clearing and railway construction.
Otter reports 107 internees died in the camps, mostly due to tuberculosis and pneumonia.
• Free Press, Friday, Oct. 18, 1918:
“The demobilization of the Morrissey Internment Camp was actually begun last Sunday, when two carloads containing sixty odd internees under strong armed guard passed through the city attached to the eastbound passenger, bound for northern points, where they will be put to work on the railroads. On Tuesday evening a special train carrying the remaining two hundred passed through here eastward bound, the destination being an isolated camp in the wilds of Northern Ontario.”
“The demobilization will be quite a financial loss to this city, as practically all the supplies were furnished by local merchants, and in addition, the pay of the guards averaged between $4,000 and $4,500 per month.”
By all accounts, nothing beyond building foundations remains of the Morrissey camp today. A cemetery near the former townsite contains the graves of half a dozen internees who died while in the camp. There are reports that one or several of the bodies were exhumed in the late 1950s and returned to Europe or Ontario, but this could not be confirmed by press time.
Dr. Albert Koehler is national vice-president of the German-Canadian Congress, a non-political group which works to keep German culture alive in Canada.
In a 1992 Vancouver speech to a conference on injustice, Koehler said, “Gross injustice has been done to the majority of the interned. No doubt, to avoid injustice of that magnitude, we all have to be more aware of what a war measures act means and what it can do to us. At any time, everybody should be treated as innocent unless proven guilty.”
In a Free Press interview Dec. 2 of this year, Koehler said the German-Canadian community has no plans to request compensation from the Canadian government, but it would be open to an apology.
“The policy is that if there is any redress, that should be given to (interned immigrants from) other countries,” Koehler said. “But should the government do anything for other groups, the German-Canadian Congress would ask for nothing else than an official apology.”
But for the past ten years, a Ukrainian-Canadian community activist has been seeking an apology and restitution for wrongs done to his community during the internment operations.
Lubomyr Luciuk, director of research for the Ukrainian-Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says that more than 5,000 of the “Austro-Hungarian” internees were actually of Ukrainian origin. Ukrainians had no sympathy with the war aims of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and therefore could not be considered enemy aliens, he says. In addition, many of the Ukrainian-Canadians were interned despite having lived in Canada for years.
According to Luciuk’s report, A Time for Atonement, $32,000 of the Ukrainian-Canadians’ assets (valued today at $1.5 million) were not returned. Last month, on Remembrance Day, the Ukrainian-Canadian Civil Liberties Association sent written requests to every MP and senator asking that the federal government publicly acknowledge responsibility for its actions.
“We’ve said, ‘Let the prime minister rise in the House of Commons and remind Canadians on behalf of the government of what happened,’” Luciuk said in an interview Dec. 1.
The association also asks that the government use the funds confiscated from Ukrainian Canadians to develop a major interpretive centre detailing the camps near the site of the Castle Mountain internment camp in Banff National Park and to place historical markers at all 26 internment camp sites and in the House of Commons.
For many, the Morrissey internment camp, much like the camps used to intern Japanese-Canadians during World War Two, is a symbol of a dark part of Canada’s past.
As Luciuk writes, “The meaningful and honourable redress now called for will help ensure that Canadians are never again subjected to such a mass violation of their human rights and civil liberties. Although what happened can never be undone, a time for atonement has surely come.”
The Free Press would like to extend special thanks to Ella Verkerk and Bill Quail of the Fernie and District Historical Society for their assistance in researching this article.