POW and Internment Camps in Alberta: WWII

On September 1, 1939, the Second World War began and Canadians responded with more than one million of its men and women enlisting in the military. Many were sent overseas, and stories of the courageousness of Canadians on the battlefront emerged. This war is known for uniting the country and forging its own national identity, but a lesser known aspect from this period takes place at home. In a significant reaction to the war, internment camps were established and Canada detained citizens of its own country, discriminating against members of German, Japanese and Italian communities. In addition, Canada had an active part in accepting German prisoners of war who were captured in active duty. This blog post will look at the establishment of prisoner of war and internment camps in Alberta, and briefly at the people who were detained, and the life they experienced.

View of guard towers at the POW camp in Medicine Hat, c.1948 (Image courtesy of Esplanade Archives, 0590.0017).

Alberta had four main camps for prisoners of war and internees, located at Seebe (in Kananaskis), Wainwright, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. A number of other camps were established across the province that were used as detention centres, work camps or specific labour projects.

Camp

Type of internees

Dates of operation

Camp No. 130, Seebe (also known as Kananaskis Camp)

Many internees

September 1939 to June 1946

Camp No. 132, Medicine Hat

Enemy Merchant Seamen and PoWs from Europe and North Africa

January 1943 to April 1946

Camp No. 133, Ozada and Lethbridge

Mainly PoWs of many ranks

May 1942 to autumn 1946

Camp No. 135, Wainwright Officers and other ranks

December 1944 to June 1946

Information from Library and Archives Canada.

Wainwright, Alberta,1944 (Glenbow Archives NA-4018-8).

The first camp to be established was the temporary camp Ozada, located between Banff and Calgary; this camp was used while the Lethbridge and Medicine Hat camps were being built. Once completed, these were two of the largest internment camps in North America, each having the capacity to hold 12,500 prisoners. The camps at Lethbridge and Medicine Hat were built at a cost of $2.3 million each and were considered “comfortable.” At a size that measured 143 acres, each site had two recreational halls, six education centres, six workshops, six mess halls, and 36 dormitories. One German Sergeant-Major wrote home, stating his approval, that “the camp is brand new, well-planned and thoroughly constructed.”

At the Seebe camp, there were prisoner’s huts, a store, dining hall, recreation hall, sports field, hospital, jailhouse and mail censor office. In addition, there was an officer’s mess hall, headquarters, guards quarters and drill yard. One structure is still in existence at the former camp, known as the Colonel’s Cabin. Constructed in 1936, and originally used as a Kananaskis Forest Experimental Station, the cabin was used as the Commandant’s quarters during the war. It is one of the few remaining buildings in the province associated with World War II internment camps. The cabin was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1982 to recognize the building’s representation of this period in Alberta’s history.

The Colonel’s Cabin, near Seebe, Kananaskis (Historic Resources Management Branch, October 2003).

Internment Camps

Overseas and on the Homefront, Canadians worked together to defeat a common enemy, but at the same time, Canada was also identifying and imprisoning its own “enemy aliens.” This included Germans, Japanese, Italians and conscientious objectors, regardless of Canadian citizenship. With the war came increasing hostility toward these minority groups and many were ostracized for their ethnicity or religion and treated with outright suspicion. With the War Measures Act reinstated in 1939, it allowed the Canadian government to detain anyone suspected of spying, undermining authority, threatening public safety or for having fascist sympathies. Germans and Japanese civilians made up the majority of the camps internee population.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December of 1941, Canada’s resentment of its Japanese citizens increased and approximately 21,000 Japanese were expelled from British Columbia, many of whom were born in Canada. Men who were able to work were sent to labour camps, while women, children and seniors were removed from their homes and sent to settlements in other parts of Canada. This decision, prompted by the British Columbia Security Commission along with cooperation from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, caused families to be broken up, their property auctioned off and possessions sold for a fraction of their worth.

Guard tower, Internment Camp 130 Kananaskis, Alberta (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3514978).

Of the Japanese who were expelled from British Columbia, 2,664 Japanese people resettled in Alberta. The war had caused a shortage of manual labour in the province and Alberta’s sugar beet farmers were in need of workers. They requested that Japanese workers be sent to southern Alberta to assist with their crops. This provided the farmers with a source of cheap labour and, to the Japanese, it was preferable to an internment camp. However, the workers were poorly paid and housed in confined spaces, such as shacks and chicken coops.

Shortly after Italy declared allegiance with Fascist Germany, the repercussions were almost immediate. Like many immigrants to Canada in the late nineteenth century, Italians had already experienced discrimination, but with Italy’s entry to the war, alongside the axis, anti-Italian sentiment in Canada worsened. Italians became “enemy aliens” and many lost their jobs, were physically attacked, and harassed. There were instances of Italian Canadian store owners having their businesses boycotted or even their windows smashed. Approximately 31,000 Italian men, women and children were registered as “enemy aliens” in Canada. In Alberta, forty eight Italians from western Canada were interned at Seebe in June of 1940.

Other groups who were detained for refusing war service are known as conscientious objectors and included Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1941, the federal government offered conscientious objectors the option of “alternative service” and work camps were established in Jasper and Banff. Those who signed up to work were despised, and even harassed by fellow workers, and those who refused were sent to internment camps.

POW camps

During the Second World War, Britain was unable to hold all of its captured German prisoners, prompting Canada to step in. Between 1940 and 1946, there were a total of 37,934 German prisoners of war in twenty five internment camps across Canada. Alberta first started to receive German prisoners of war in 1942 and all four of its camps detained POWs.

Some of the typical routines that the prisoners experienced was daily prisoner counts, weekly inspections of their living quarters, chores and parole walks. At the Wainwright camp, POWs worked together to improve the sites landscaping by gardening, laying sod, planting shrubs and sowing grass seed. Some prisoners were also contracted out to farmers and other industries to help alleviate the labour shortage. Approximately 1,200 prisoners were working as labourers out of camp by 1944.

Prisoners had a variety of recreational activities to occupy their time, including sports (soccer was reportedly a favourite), board games, theatre and music. Libraries were also an important aspect of camp life. By the end of the war, the Lethbridge camp library had 26,000 books and 19,000 textbooks. Prisoners could also busy themselves with crafting projects such as art and woodworking, examples of which can be found in many Alberta museums. Some prisoners have reportedly stated that they had an enjoyable time while staying in the camps. There are former German POWs who returned to Canada after the war to visit and others immigrated to make Canada their new home.

Prisoner’s hockey team Camp 132, Medicine Hat, February 1946 (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3403292).

Alberta was certainly not immune to the effects of the Second World War. This period is a dark aspect of Alberta’s wartime history that is commonly forgotten today. Although Canada’s POW and internment camps were considerably better than camps that were found in other parts of the world during the war, they still uprooted people from their homes and countries, divided families and highlighted that discrimination was present in all parts of Canada. Many of the former prisoner of war and internment camp sites or towns now have some sort of commemoration in an attempt to continue to educate new generations about this part of Alberta’s history.

Written By: Erin Hoar

Sources and further reading:

Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Colonel’s Cabin.” Accessed March 15, 2017.

Byfield, Ted, ed. Alberta in the 20th Century: The War that United the Province 1939-1945. Vol. 8. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 2000.

The Camp Wainwright Story. Accessed March 30, 2017.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Japanese Internment: Banished and Beyond Tears.” Accessed March 28, 2017.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Prisoner of War Camps in Canada.” Accessed March 27, 2017.

Designation file #Des. 101, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.

Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens: Memories of World War II.” Accessed March 27, 2017.

Library and Archives Canada. “Thematic Guides – Internment Camps in Canada during the First and Second World Wars.” Accessed March 29, 2017.

O’Hagan, Michael. “POWs in Canada.” Accessed March 27, 2017.

Tingley, Ken, ed. For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War. Edmonton: Provincial Museum of Alberta, 1995.

6 comments

  1. Dear Erin,
    Two of my uncles spent part of the war in camps as conscientious objectors – one said that he enjoyed his time in the camp very much – he was used to hard work and he enjoyed the fellowship he had with other like-minded men.

    (I would have posted on the page but it wanted a password that I don’t know)

    Carolee Pollock, PhD
    Assistant Professor, History, Department of Humanities
    MacEwan University
    Room 752C
    E: pollockc@macewan.ca
    T: 780-633-3641
    Toll-free: 1-888-497-4622 (ext. 3641)
    MacEwan.ca

  2. Just to be clear, Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3 after Hitler had invaded Poland on the 1st. Canada did not declare war on Germany until September 10. Given that the invasion that triggered the declarations of war happened on the 1st, it is possible to say that it was the day that war began (but perhaps not “the war”).

  3. Dear Erin,

    Thanks a lot for this article! My grandmother’s brother who served with the Wehrmacht in Normandy was a POW in the Lethbridge and Medicine Hat camps, It’s been many years since he first told me about it and I am confusing the sequence now; first he was in the larger of the two camps, then in the smaller, more outlying; you’ll probably be able to identify which one he meant. He was treated very well there, and always spoke highly of the Canadians. What intrigues me now is to read that these camps were closed by 1946; my relative always spoke about three winters he had spent there; he’d arrived – in the US, I think – on board the ‘Queen Mary’ in 1944, and he left in 1947 for England.

    Kind regards,

    Tilo

  4. Yes, I do remember the POW Camp in The Hat. I viewed the Camp from Steele Street as a Pre-Schooler. My Aunt and Uncle employed Henry (a German) on their farm (in the Dunmore area).
    Many years later I worked with Kenrod McLeod (a Reg Force(Army)(Capt) who was a Discip at the Camp.

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