Barbed Wire

The forgotten story of a Canadian gulag

Written by Thomas Walkom

The Toronto Star
7 November 1990

Barbed Wire

On Dec. 14, 1914, four months after the beginning of World War I, 12 Canadian soldiers and 56 prisoners arrived at a desolate railroad siding in Northern Ontario called Kapuskasing. The temperature was 60 degrees below zero; there were no buildings, no town, nothing except trees and frozen muskeg swamp.

The prisoners were called prisoners of war, but they were not - at least, not in the normal sense. Rather they were immigrants who had the misfortune to have been born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a country with which Canada was at war.

Over the next six years, they were joined by hundreds more. Some had originally come from what is now Ukraine. Some were Poles, some Turks and Bulgarians.

More than a few were political prisoners - leftists, Communists, Socialists - arrested by a government fearful that the Russian Revolution might be replayed in Canada.

Some of the Kapuskasing prisoners would go mad from isolation; many would end up crippled from being forced to labor in sub-arctic cold; some would be bayoneted for refusing to work.

The concentration camp which took form in Kapuskasing that cold winter began in an outburst of war hysteria and racism. By 1920, when it closed, it had become a part of an elaborate mechanism for repressing political dissent.

Canada's wartime internment of so-called enemy aliens is now seen as shameful. This week, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized on behalf of the federal government for interning Italian Canadians in World War II.

Ottawa has already compensated Japanese Canadians who were interned during that same war. It now seems to be the accepted wisdom that internment was wrong, that it was racist, that it was an aberration.

Wrong and racist it may have been. But the lesson of Kapuskasing is that this was not an aberration. The forced-labor camps of 1914 were set up partly to meet a perceived economic need - in this case, the development of Northern Ontario.

And in the end, they became a catch-basin for political dissent, holding-tanks for so-called labor agitators.

Much of the history of the Kapuskasing camp is set out in a 1921 academic article by the late Watson Kirkconnell. Kirkconnell was not particularly sympathetic to internees; he refers to them as "ignorant, sullen, inert," possessing "thick heads."

But he does explain why they were there. The Ontario and federal governments wanted to settle the swath of clay and swamp 600 miles north of Toronto. But they could not get cheap labor to clear the land.

So the federal agriculture department approached the newly established department of Internment Operations. And the Kapuskasing labor camp was set up.

Inmates were housed in barracks behind two fences of barbed wire and paid 25 cents a day to work under armed guard.

By 1917, they had cleared enough land to allow the Ontario government to begin settling colonists.

However, by then, industrial Canada was suffering a labor shortage. Most Kapuskasing internees were paroled and sent to labor in Southern Ontario steel mills.

Punishment was harsh for those who tried to leave their new jobs. One group of ex-prisoners went on strike. They were jailed.

By May 1917, writes Kirkconnell, only 60 "halt, maimed and blind" prisoners were left in the camp.

German-born internees, and some captured German soldiers, were sent to the camp, where they struck successfully for higher pay.

Finally, in 1918, the Kapuskasing camp began to fill up again, this time with foreign-born socialists.

By now, there was no attempt to limit internment to those born in countries Canada happened to be at war with. Russians, Finns, Poles, Ukrainians were all liable to be rounded up - if they were deemed too left-wing.

In November, 1918, the war was over. But the concentration camp at Kapuskasing went on.

Thirty-three leaders of the 1919 Winnipeg general strike were sent to Kapuskasing, stripped of their Canadian citizenship and deported.

Finally, in February, 1920, Ottawa shut down the camp. Its buildings were demolished, the remaining internees deported and all traces removed. A newly elected government at Queen's Park was no longer interested in colonizing the region. Until the pulp and paper industry took hold, Kapuskasing would languish.

And everyone would forget.

But now it is time to remember Canada's gulag. The Kapuskasing camp was set up because a citizenry, blinded by the passions of war, gave its government too much leeway.

It is now 76 years later. Canada has another government and appears headed for another war. There are lessons from Kapuskasing.

Barbed Wire

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Barbed Wire

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Copyright © 1994 Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Copyright © 1994 Lubomyr Luciuk

We acknowledge the help in the preparation of this document by Amanda Anderson

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Originally Composed: Tuesday December 3rd 1996.
Date last modified: Thursday October 30th 1997.