100 Years Ago Today: Canada enacts the War Measures Act


Kapuskasing Internment Camp during the First World War

On August 22, 1914 Canada enacted the War Measures Act and tens of thousands of immigrants became “enemy aliens” in the eyes of their newly adopted homeland. Although these “enemy aliens” were classified as having German or Austro-Hungarian origins many of them were recent Ukrainian immigrants. Thousands of citizens, including women and children, would spend the war in one of 24 internment camps while an estimated 80,000 who did not were forced to report regularly to authorities.

I recently obtained a letter written by a Constable in the Royal North-West Mounted Police, stationed in Blairmore Alberta in early 1917.  The letter to his mother touches on a number of subjects and included a statement that implied that rounding up enemy aliens was a profitable venture:

“We had a fairly busy week last week with the alien enemies for failing to report or moving without permission, they get fined $15 to $25 a time & costs so we get so much for a case & pool the money & divide up at the end of the month so make a little extra that way”.

A large number of these camps were located in Canada’s hinterland with a large concentration in Alberta and south-eastern British Columbia. However the five images I’m featuring here, all mounted on card, are of the Kapuskasing internment camp in northern Ontario. Construction of the camp began on December 14, 1914 and it was the final camp to close when it shut its doors on February 24, 1920.

The internees were not only forced to work but also to clear the land and construct the camp itself. The camp was built next to the National Transcontinental Railway and not far from an abandoned surveyors’ camp at MacPherson Station. By the end of 1915 over 1200 prisoners were interred at the camp and working to clear 1282 acres of timbered land set aside by the Federal Government as an experimental farm. In the spring of 1916 a serious riot erupted at the camp leaving one dead and eleven seriously injured.

A May 30, 1917 article in the Pembroke Standard recorded the arrival of 400 prisoners of war from Fort Henry:

“The four hundred alien enemies who were transferred from Fort Henry are now safely installed in the new quarters. Kapuskasing Camp is the largest of any of the Canadian detentions camps and is said to be like a band of steel, escape being the next thing to an impossibility. The camp is located on the National Transcontinental line, beyond McPherson, but the train service is for those carrying proper credentials only. As to anyone riding the bumpers that is also impossible and as to anyone walking away there is no place to go, as there are no settlements east, west, north or south for many miles, and a man would have little chance of getting to a far-away settlement. The camp has its schools, stores, home and its own churches, which fact shows the gigantic nature of it.”

For more information I recommend this article on the We Will Remember website and the book In Fear of the Barbed Wire Fence (14.4MB PDF from the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association website) by Lubomyr Luciuk (from which the above newspaper clipping was quoted). There are also a number of recent Newspaper articles on this subject:

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