Manitoba History: Riding Mountain POWs: The Teacher’s Tale
by Bill Waiser
It started with a phone call one evening.
“Are you Bill Waiser?” the caller asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Author of Park Prisoners?”
“Go get the book,” she told me.
I often get emails and telephone calls about my writing. Some people want to tell me that they enjoyed one of my books; others want to talk about some aspect or provide new information. But this call was different. The woman on the phone seemed anxious, as if something was wrong.
When I picked up the receiver again, with book in hand, she told me to turn to page 235. That was the part of Park Prisoners where I talked about the German prisoners of war who were being held in Riding Mountain National Park during the Second World War and how they slipped away from their camp at night to visit the outlying communities. The page in question was about a raid on a farmhouse in the Olha district, when several camp guards caught the local schoolteacher doing a jigsaw puzzle with two prisoners.
“I’m the schoolteacher,” the caller announced.
When Canada went to war in September 1939, Prime Minister Mackenzie King was determined to fight a “limited liability” war. The federal Liberal leader wanted to avoid large manpower commitments and therefore the possibility of conscription for overseas service. Instead, Canada would contribute to the Allied cause in other ways, such as training pilots and ground crew, testing chemical weapons, and interning prisoners of war.
This last duty, serving as the Allies official gaoler, assumed growing significance following the defeat of the German Afrika Korps in 1942. By the end of the year, more than 16,000 German prisoners of war were being held in Canada, the majority at Lethbridge and Medicine Hat in southern Alberta. Eventually, 34,000 were housed at more than two dozen sites across the country.
One of the more unusual internment facilities was found in Riding Mountain National Park near Dauphin. In October 1943, 440 German prisoners were transferred from Medicine Hat to a woodcutting camp on Whitewater Lake in the heart of Riding Mountain. Almost one in two Canadian households at the time used wood as a source of heat, and the federal departments of Labour and National Defence wanted to use the prisoner labour to help avert a possible fuel shortage that winter.
This was not the first time that one of Canada’s National Parks had housed a work camp. Starting in 1915, thousands of men—from enemy aliens to relief workers to conscientious objectors to relocated Japanese Canadians—had been held in western Canada’s prairie and mountain parks during the two world wars and the Great Depression. Here, they built roads, visitor facilities, and stone-and-log buildings, all in the interests of developing the parks and attracting more tourists.
But the Whitewater camp was unlike any other camp that the National Parks Bureau had operated for other groups over the past quarter century. Constructed at an estimated third of a million dollars, the camp featured six large bunkhouses (each with its own washroom and shower facilities) and a number of other structures, including a hospital and power plant.
What was probably most surprising, though, was that there was no enclosed compound, let alone guard towers. The boundaries of the camp were designated by blazes on a ring of outlying trees. Beyond that, there was nothing but mile after mile of wilderness.
Project officials believed that the lack of fencing would serve as an inducement to the men to work. But just in case, to help the Veterans Guard keep track of the prisoners, the men wore blue denim work clothes with a red stripe down the outer leg of the trousers and a large red circle on the back of the shirt and jacket. The outfit was not only resented by the prisoners, but also made them uneasy—as if they were carrying a target on their backs.
The Germans prisoners quickly adapted to their new wood cutting duties. Camp authorities, in turn, placed considerable trust in the men. They operated the camp power plant, had regular access to horses and trucks, and often went to town to help pick up supplies. Officials granted these privileges on the understanding that the camp would not function without the cooperation of the prisoners.
When not cutting wood, the men spent their leisure hours talking about the war, reading, or playing games. Some had theatrical or musical talents and staged regular performances. Others turned their hands to crafts, fashioning all kinds of items out of wood, including dugout canoes.
They missed, however, the outside world and the company of family and friends, especially women. The absence weighed heavily on the men’s minds, all the more so as their first winter in their forest prison dragged on.
This need for companionship prompted some of the prisoners to slip away overnight, using crude compasses fashioned from watches that they had ironically ordered from Eaton’s catalogue. They would visit the small immigrant communities along the southern boundary of the park and then head back to camp before roll call the next morning.
Apparently, the Germans were favoured guests at local dances and parties because they carried with them rationed goods, especially sugar for the local stills. Local farmers with sleighs routinely picked up the men at the park boundary and gave them a change of clothing.
Lieutenant Mann, the officer in charge of the Veterans Guard, alerted the local RCMP detachment in Dauphin, but the Mounties would not get involved unless the prisoners were reported missing or a civilian lodged a complaint. Internment officials did not regard the men as escapees, since they always returned to camp.
The Germans, meanwhile, always used the same excuse for their absence—they had simply gone for a hike and become lost. They realized that any mass escape attempt would mean an end to their Whitewater days and immediate shipment to a maximum-security facility.
Mann decided to take matters into his own hands and planned a late-night visit to the communities on Saturday, 19 February 1944. The detail first raided the home of Peter Chrun near Seech, where they found two prisoners in the company of Catherine Chastko, teacher at the Zaporoza School. “The prisoners’ visit had evidently been pre-arranged,” Mann noted in his official report, “as the teacher, admitted having previously met them at a dance.”
The patrol then proceeded to Seech where it broke up a wedding dance and nearly came to blows with several local men, including Peter Chrun who insisted that prisoners had never before visited the schoolteacher at his home. By the next morning, seven Germans had been rounded up and placed under guard back at camp until it was decided what to do with them. Mann also contacted the provincial Department of Education about the schoolteacher.
Catherine (Chastko) Dobrowski wanted to talk to me about the February 1944 incident. That was one of the reasons for her phone call—to tell her side of the story. She planned to visit her daughter who lived on an acreage outside Saskatoon, and we agreed to meet there. I promised to bring along the government documents I had used for the account in the book.
Over coffee, Catherine explained how there had been a shortage of teachers in rural Manitoba during the war and that she had been asked to help out at the end of Grade 11. After a six-week course at Wesley College in Winnipeg in the summer of 1943, she was placed at the Zaparoza School, about fifteen miles north of her family home at Shoal Lake. She was just seventeen.
Catherine boarded with farmer Peter Chrun, his wife Anne, and their two small girls. She enjoyed working with the students, many of them children of European immigrants like herself. Otherwise, she felt isolated. She consequently jumped at the chance in the new year to attend a Saturday dance at nearby Seech with some local women her age.
At the dance, Catherine was surprised to find German prisoners of war. That is when she learned that the men were regular visitors to the area and that she should not be afraid of them.
This advice was tested a week later—19 February—when she was asked to babysit the Chrun children while Peter and Anne attended a wedding dance about two miles away. Around 10:30 pm, there was a knock on the farmhouse door. Outside stood two prisoners who wanted to come in to warm up.
Catherine hesitated, but let them in because it was snowing heavily. The men introduced themselves as Willi and Reinhard and offered to help with the jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table.
No more than an hour later, there was another knock on the door. This time, it was Lieutenant Mann from the camp, who ordered the two Germans to come with him. Catherine, through tears, told Mann that she never invited the men to visit her, and she had met them only once at the Seech dance a week before.
Mann did not believe her and headed off to the wedding party to find out what the Chruns knew about schoolteacher’s relationship with the prisoners. However, it was the wrong time and wrong place to conduct such an interrogation and the situation became ugly, with shouting and pushing, because many of the wedding guests had been drinking.
The following day, Catherine was worried about her fate while the rest of the community blamed her for ruining the dance.
It fell to the two Germans, Willi and Reinhard, to try to set things right. About two weeks later, they came back to the Chrun farmhouse in the middle of the night and asked to see Catherine. They had gifts for the family—a ship in a bottle and a small hand-made wooden box filled with chocolate bars—and apologized for the trouble they had caused everyone.
It turned out that someone on the road that night had told Willi and Reinhard that Catherine was alone and in need of company. That same person then alerted the camp guards. Footsteps found in the snow outside a window at the Chrun home the next morning suggested that at least two people had evidently been watching Catherine and the prisoners as they worked on the jigsaw puzzle.
The two Germans also told Catherine that Mann had taken a short detour on his way back to the park camp that night to stop in Shoal Lake to find her father and complain about her behaviour.
Catherine never saw the two prisoners again. Nevertheless, it did not mean that the Germans stopped visiting. That April, another prisoner knocked on the door of the schoolhouse and asked if he could watch her teach the children. He noticed that the clock in the classroom was not working, repaired it, and then left.
Sometime thereafter, Catherine found another prisoner sitting on the steps of the schoolhouse when she let the children out for recess. He got up, apologized for the intrusion, and moved on.
Catherine returned home at the end of the school year. Her father, to her relief, never mentioned the incident. But it was apparent that her teaching days were over. That summer, she headed east to Ontario and found work on an assembly line in a munitions factory.
Whitewater camp, meanwhile, continued to operate until the spring of 1945 when the government decided to close the facility and transfer the prisoners to other work projects. The Germans had become bored with woodcutting and deliberately slowed down production.
Once the last batch of prisoners was removed, a Winnipeg wrecking firm razed all the buildings and cleaned up the site. The Parks Bureau was determined to wipe out any sign of the camp—as if it had never existed.
The Parks people, however, could not destroy the fact that during the latter years of the Second World War, animosities were set aside and Riding Mountain’s German prisoners of war found a home-away-from-home in the immigrant farming communities beyond the park’s boundaries. The dances at Seech were never quite the same again.
Page revised: 25 May 2017