The fate of the enemy alienHistorians often speak of World War I as the time when Canada truly became a nation. By this they mean that the war was a nation-wide struggle that gave birth to a national consciousness. During the course of the war however, some Canadian residents were defined as being outside the Canadian family. One of the most extreme examples of this came with the internment of over 8,000 recent immigrants. These were people who had been invited to come to Canada, but now found themselves branded as enemy aliens when Canada declared war on their homeland.
In the 1890s and early 1900s the Canadian government actively recruited immigrants from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to immigration minister Clifford Sifton, peasants in their sheepskin coats along with their sturdy wives would break the plains. Ukrainians and Poles came to Canada in large measure because they felt oppressed within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They often took the dirtiest and most dangerous of jobs, and when times were hard, as they were in 1913, they were the first to be fired.
When war broke out in 1914, their problems increased. Those immigrants from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire who had not become Canadian citizens were now officially enemy aliens, subject to both official and unofficial discrimination.
Nykyta Budka, a leading Ukrainian Catholic bishop only increased their problems when he urged immigrants to return to Europe to help their “old Fatherland in any way we can.” Budka’s comments were made before Canada entered the war, were swiftly retracted, and were criticized by many within the Ukrainian community. Despite this many Canadians took them as evidence that immigrants from Ukraine were not to be trusted. Flushed with patriotism Manitobans, demanded that employers fire any “foreign” workers. Local restaurants even went so far as to rename the lowly hamburger, with its connotations of the German city of Hamburg, as a nip.
Two weeks after the declaration of war in August 1914, the government introduced the War Measures Act, which drastically curtailed many existing civil liberties—for example, suspicion of planning or taking part in certain illegal activities could led to a person’s detention. War Measures Act regulations required enemy aliens to register and regularly report to the federal government. Their movement within Canada was restricted and violation of the regulations could lead to internment without trial.
Anyone who had not taken out citizenship and was a citizen of a country at war with Canada was considered an enemy alien. There were 120,000 of them in Canada. About 80,000 registered and 8,600 were interned. Approximately 6,000 of them were Ukrainian immigrants, most of whom had settled in western Canada. Over a thousand Ukrainians were interned in the Brandon Winter Fair Arena. Aside from the two one-hour marches each day, there was little they could do with their time. A few were hired to help with such tasks as cooking and cleaning, but there was nothing many could do to earn money to support their families. The experience bred anger and disillusionment, as one Brandon internee asked plaintively in a letter of protest “Who levelled the mountains from seas to sea? Who built the railroads and cultivated this wasteland where formerly only the wind howled?” Many of the younger internees made several attempts to escape—one, who had broken his ankle after jumping from a second-floor window, managed to get within nine miles of the United States border before he was captured. In 1915 a mass escape ended in tragedy when an eighteen-year old died from gun shot wounds he received as he jumped through a window.
Fred Langdon Davis, the Member of Parliament for Neepawa, was one of the few politicians to defend the interned men. In a speech he said, “If we treat such men as men and brothers, we will make Canadians of them; if we treat them in any other fashion, we will make of them an alien element in Canada.” By 1916 most of the interned men across Canada had been paroled—they were costly to keep locked up and some government officials had recognized that they did not constitute a risk to the country. It was not until 1920 however, that the last interned enemy alien was released. Many of the interned men, deeply embittered by their treatment in Canada, chose to return to Europe while others were simply deported.
As the war dragged on, the Canadian government placed further restrictions on the civil liberties of many immigrant groups. By the end of the war it was not legal for them to hold meetings or publish papers in their own language, travel freely or vote in an election. As the war’s critics noted, a war to defend democracy was running the risk of turning into a war against democracy at home.