Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: Review: Bill Waiser, Park Prisoners: The Untold History of Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915-1946

by Graham MacDonald
Parks Canada, Calgary

Number 35, Spring/Summer 1998

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Bill Waiser, Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915-1946. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1995. Pp. 294, illus. ISBN 1-895618-65-7.

There is a certain irony attached to the central theme explored in this book: those confined in various kinds of special service or prisoner of war camps in Canada between 1915 and 1946, were done so in locations where, under normal circumstances, other more fortunate citizens would be only too pleased to go. Between these years, according to Waiser, ‘more than ten thousand men’ passed time in the camps. Certain scenic western landscapes, set aside as public ‘pleasuring grounds’ in the days when the CPR provided the main east-west link across Canada, were seen by officialdom, for various reasons, as providing the perfect blend of remoteness and access appropriate to the administration of low-key concentration camps funded on small budgets. Park employees, along with being guardians of the wild, were suddenly asked to become guardians of the patriotically suspect, p.o.w’s and the unemployed. The administration of the prisoner of war camps during the First and Second World Wars were split between the Parks Branch and the Military. The project work and accommodations were overseen by the Parks Branch while the security was provided by the Internment Operations Branch or by the Veterans Guard established in 1940. The parks where camps were variously located included Banff, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke, Kootenay, Waterton Lakes, Yoho, Elk Island, Prince Albert and Riding Mountain.

The story of the use of the parks for such seemingly untoward purposes is well told by Waiser, who has not limited himself to the documentary record, but has also chased down informants with something to say, first hand, about life in the camps, or who had access to family memorabilia of a relevant nature. The text is well illustrated with photographs, many coming from the Webster Collection in the old Banff Engineering Office in Calgary.

Unemployed workers at Riding Mountain National Park during the Depression.
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

What kinds of camps came and went in our national parks? Waiser documents four main types. First came the ‘enemy alien’ variety established during Worts War I. The second type grew out of the depression years and were known as unemployment relief camps. The third, somewhat related to the first group, were the alternative service camps established during World War II, aimed at conscientious objectors. The fourth kind were formal prisoner of war camps also dating from the second war. Waiser’s general achievement has been to guide us through the parks where these various kinds of camps were established, reviewing the personalities, social conditions, administrative conflicts, and the work achieved by the internees on public works projects.

There is another general theme of this book. It is about poor people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. One can read it with something of the same feelings of trepidation with which one reviews the final reform of the old English Poor Law system in 1834. Three years after the passage of the 1834 Act, Benjamin Disraeli remarked that the legislation ‘announces to the world that in England poverty is a crime.’ The notion of ‘less-eligibility’ was the great motivating idea of the 1834 Bill, and such thinking still has its advocates today. To receive public relief after 1834,one had to remain below the current definition of poverty. This kind of thinking was rife on the eve of World War I in Canada. Waiser points out how cities were filling up with the central European unemployed who had been enticed to come to Canada, either to take up land or work in the primary resource industries. Now that depression had fallen on the country, they were coming in out of the cold, and the establishment did not relish the prospect. The outbreak of war in August, 1914 found many of these landed immigrants located very solidly between a rock and a hard place. The Aliens Registration Act targeted those working in Canada but who had retained European citizenship, particularly in countries now at war with the nations of the British Empire. The act affected, most notably, those of German, Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian background. Suddenly they were persona non-grata and suspect. In completing the details for the use of the western parks for alien confinement in 1915 it remained only for J. B. Harkin, the Director of National Parks, to get the approval of Senator Sir James Loughheed and R. B. Bennett of Calgary, both members of Borden’s government in Ottawa. Bennett was firm in stating that ‘these men ... must be employed in remote portions of the Park where they will not come in contact with the population of this province.’

Harkin had roads on his mind at that time, believing that this would be the mode of access of the future for his parks and that the automobile would drive tourism demand instead of railways. He was quite correct. In war time, public funds were scarce but a pool of cheap labour was now at hand. Despite the details of the 1907 Hague Convention concerning the employment of prisoners of war, Waiser makes it clear that wages were far below those paid to regular enlisted soldiers.

In describing the events of the years of this policy between 1915 and 1917, the author makes it clear how totally inefficient the entire enterprise was, despite completion of many tangible projects. The psychology of the time as described by Waiser, is of great interest. While it became obvious enough to many park administrators that it was folly to try and prod people who did not believe in their own guilt to work productively under conditions of ‘less eligibility’ (to use the words of the 1834 English Poor Law Reformers), politicians responsible for the public purse, newspaper editorialists, and most citizens who bothered to take an interest in the matter, were still calling for more, rather than less, internment in 1918. The entire mind set would drive a similar policy during the Second World War with respect to conscientious objectors, much to the exasperation of Parks Bureau Director, Roy Gibson. Sweating at the unrealistic logistical problems suddenly imposed upon him in 1941, Gibson, very responsibly, hoped that the value of the work performed by the men would be at least equal to the cost of establishing and running the camps.

The experience of the unemployed with relief camps in the parks during the depression years of the 1930s was somewhat more uplifting from the standpoint of public policy and ethics. The programme was just one of the many experiments which came about in North America in line with ‘new deal’ thinking. Those who went to the camps did so voluntarily. In real dollar terms the ‘royal twenty-centers’, as they called themselves with reference to their daily wages, were making less than the internees of World War I, but in such times of desperation, pride in having work counted for much. The tangible results were also considerable, as regular visitors to Riding Mountain National Park for example, can attest. The park museum and visitor centre, so visible in the Wasagaming Townsite, is just one of the many lasting contributions dating from those years.

World War II produced camps of several kinds. In addition to the conscientious objector camps already mentioned, the parks provided the setting for Japanese evacuees and German prisoners of war. Three work camps in Jasper were established for some of the Japanese evacuees who were put to work on the Jasper-Blue River Highway project in 1942. Waiser’s treatment of the Japanese situation is both sympathetic and revealing; and while many Canadians have a basic awareness of the war time policy with respect to coastal Japanese Canadians, the actual day-to-day experience is not so well understood. The policy of separating men from their families was clearly, in this instance at least, an important driver of organized passive resistance and more systematic disruptions by the internees.

Captured German P.O.W.s at Riding Mountain National Park.
Source: Josef Gabski

Park Prisoners is not an unrelieved tale of woe and misery. For those interested in the vagaries of public administration and the pitfalls of park management, there is much to be learned here. It is a work of social history foremost, and among the trials and tribulations of the individuals concerned there is woven much good humour and personal observation which allow the stories to come alive. There is indeed, something W. O Mitchell-like about some of the passages dealing with the World War II prisoner of war camps around Riding Mountain, where, on a good number of occasions, some of the inmates were off to visit and party with some of their distant compatriots who, since the turn of the century, had been pioneering the surrounding agricultural lands. In the aftermath of the British Victory at El Alamein in 1942, officials at the Department of Natural Resources had been quite convinced that they had no interest ‘in babysitting a nest of Nazis’—and they proved it.

A good number of skeletons have been coming out of the Canadian history closet in recent decades. The story which Waiser has to tell relates to some of those revelations and is representative of a pattern in which particular ethnic groups or disadvantaged peoples have been repeatedly targeted in this century by public policies which seemingly have little in common with the liberal tradition of law which most Canadians take to be their inheritance. The author has tried to provide information illuminating the circumstances of all the players, and this is as historical writing should be. The collective national guilt aspects of his theme are implied more than discussed and have not distracted him from his main task which was to recall a forgotten episode in Canadian history.

Page revised: 13 October 2012

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