Manitoba History: “Enemies Within Our Gates:” Brandon’s Alien Detention Centre During the Great War

by George Buri
Department of History, Brandon University

Number 56, October 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Mitro Mahoumnuk reacted to the outbreak of World War One in the same way as thousands of other young men across Canada and Europe. He volunteered to join the army and fight on behalf of his country of residence. Like thousands of others who displayed a sudden, enthusiastic patriotism and an extreme naivety about what modern warfare entailed, this twenty year old was perhaps enthusiastic to experience the adventure and heroism that recruiters promised to those who joined up. Mahoumnuk, however, would never get the chance to see the Great War at the front lines. Instead he experienced the effects that war can have on the home front, bringing latent prejudices to the surface and amplifying the coercive power of the state.

Mitro Mahoumnuk, having immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1910, was classified as an “enemy alien,” and interned at the alien detention centre in Brandon Manitoba. Once there, he was, along with over nine hundred other men, imprisoned for almost two years and later sent to a work camp in Banff, Alberta after the Brandon internment camp closed in 1916. Mitro’s experiences are known today only because he managed to escape from the Brandon alien detention centre, only to be recaptured over six months later. [1] Due to the destruction of all official government records dealing with internment operations in the 1950s, the names of most of the internees at the Brandon camp remain unknown today. [2] However, the experiences of those interned and those who supported internment can be partially reconstructed with the help of civic records, oral history and newspaper articles. In all, over 8,579 “enemy aliens” were interned in Canada from 1914 to 1920. Of these, 5,441 were civilians and five thousand were Ukrainians who, like Mahoumnuk, had lived under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before emigrating to Canada. [3] Brandon itself was home to up to nine hundred of these people at any one time from 27 November 1914 to 19 July 1916.

Alien Detention

‘Aliens’ learn English. Reinhold Salzmann, bearded in the second row, was born in Bodeschwingh, Germany in 1876. He immigrated to a farm near Punnichy, Saskatchewan in June 1913. The next year, he was arrested and interned at Brandon, leaving his wife and three young children to mind the farm. In this photo from March 1916, he joined other internees in an English language class. When the Brandon Internment Centre closed later that year, Salzmann was moved to one at Morrissey, BC where he remained until the end of the war. He returned to his farm, moving to Winnipeg in 1932. He died there in 1969, never having expressed any hard feelings over his internment.
Source: Guenther Salzmann

The alien detention centre in Brandon was used to hold any “enemy aliens” from the province of Manitoba whom the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (RNMP) or Canadian armed forces decided to intern. Its location in Brandon was more than simply coincidental or practical. For a number of reasons, city leaders and middle class Brandonites who felt a strong attachment to the British Empire lobbied for the creation of an alien detention centre in their city. Although the war served as a convenient pretext for the imprisonment of thousands of mostly young, urban working class men, the detention of “enemy aliens” had less to do with the security concerns, real or imagined, of a nation at war than it did with the class and ethnic (at that time termed racial) tensions within Brandon and indeed all of English Canada. Brandon in the early 1910s was a rapidly growing, yet divided, city in which the middle class Anglo-Protestant elite held the levers of political power and sought to impose a cultural hegemony defined by unregulated capitalism, curtailment of the power of labour and a Canadian nationalism concerned with racial purity and a close attachment to the British Empire. The implementation of this middle class vision was threatened by working class Brandonites, a large portion of whom were of Eastern European descent, and who made up an increasingly large proportion of the city’s population. Internment camps represented an attempt by the Canadian state, supported by the local Brandon elite, to address the threat that unemployed, foreign-born working class men potentially presented to the Anglo-Canadian middle class vision of Canada.

When the federal government passed the War Measures Act in August 1914, it became possible to approve Orders in Council under which it was possible to arrest and detain any resident of Canada without charging him or her with a crime or providing access to a court of law. One of the government’s first actions during the war was to provide for the registration and possible internment of aliens. An order-in-council was issued on 28 October 1914, stating that unnaturalized immigrants from Germany or Austria-Hungary were to be classified as “enemy aliens” and would be required to register with federal authorities. [4] Those who registered at their local NWMP office were given identity papers and required to have them with them at all times. [5] They were also forbidden to leave the country and expected to return to their local registration office at designated intervals to have their papers stamped. Failure to comply with these restrictions was to result in immediate internment. [6] Moreover, the costs associated with registration were to be paid by the aliens themselves. [7]

The legal status of these internees remained somewhat sketchy. Minister of Justice Charles Doherty told parliament that the question of appropriate treatment of the “enemy alien” was complicated by the fact that the Hague Convention governing the treatment of prisoners of war did not make mention of proper treatment of civilians whose place of origin was an enemy country. Of course, one possible conclusion to draw from this situation was that civilians were not subject to the laws of war and thus depriving them of their freedom during times of war was illegal under international law. Doherty, however, made the opposite conclusion, arguing that the absence of any mention of civilians in the Hague Convention meant that, “it did not deprive us of our right to intern them.” [8] In other words, in the absence of law or precedent Canada was free to either expel or intern enemy aliens as it pleased.

Officially, “enemy aliens” interned in Brandon and elsewhere were individuals who posed an immediate danger to Canada by virtue of engaging in subversive activity such as sabotage. [9] In reality, the authorities seldom maintained the pretext that those interned were any real threat to the physical security of Canada. The Canadian government officially declared that only aliens who committed acts of “sedition” against Canada or those who attempted to return home in order to join enemy militaries had been interned. [10] The Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs stated that the population of aliens within Canada was problematic for several reasons including, “reservists trying to join their armies in Europe. A Press which had natural inclinations toward the German-Austrian side of the struggle. Settlers in the West who did not yet speak English ... German Canadians who had relatives and friends in the German Forces.” [11] The inclusion of language, out of place alongside the other three problems, indicates that even official sources did not bother to maintain the argument that military issues alone made enemy aliens “problematic.”

Brandon Prairie

A vast prairie lay just beyond Brandon’s city limits in this panoramic scene of Manitoba’s “Wheat City”, on the eve of World War I.
Source: Magnacca Research Centre, Daly House Museum, 80-153-1

Moreover, the frequently touted possibility of aliens trying to join enemy armies in Europe was preposterous when it came to most of the Manitoba immigrant population. Of the approximately 30,000 people of Austro-Hungarian citizenship identified as immigrating to Manitoba between 1901 and 1911, [12] almost all would have been Ukrainians. They were generally rural labourers who came from regions of th Ukraine that had been annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire; primarily Galicia and Bukovina. [13] These immigrants, who were officially identified as either “Galicians” or “Ruthenians” by immigration authorities, had very little, if any, sympathy with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, having experienced economic dislocation and ethnic persecution that prompted their decision to emigrate in the first place. Unlike many other immigrant groups, Ukrainians seldom were sojourners attempting to earn enough money in Canada to return home and better their financial position in their home country. Instead, they were predominantly permanent migrants hoping to continue a life of peasant agriculture that had become untenable in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thus their political ties to the old country were limited. [14] For the vast majority, the notion of returning home to fight in the Great War would have been unthinkable. Ironically, immigrants from Russian-occupied areas of the Ukraine were ignored by the government and some even registered for service in the Canadian armed forces.

Although Canadian authorities may not have been knowledgeable enough about the immigrants who flooded into their cities to ascertain their loyalty, British authorities were and recommended in January of 1915 that Canada treat all “Ruthenians”, the official term at the time for Ukrainians, as friendly rather than hostile aliens. General Otter, the man put in charge of internment operations declined to carry out this recommendation, however, providing a clear indication that there were reasons for interning Ukrainians other than a perceived threat to national security. Indeed, the Ukrainian community made every effort to demonstrate their loyalty publicly. After an Austrian Bishop was quoted in the media calling for, “All the Austrian subjects to be at home in a position to defend our native country,” [15] his call was met with a rally of “3000 Ruthenians” in Winnipeg on 9 August 1914 who “vigorously expressed their support of Britain and their opposition to the Bishop.” [16] Despite these protestations, however, the federal government would arrest and intern thousands of Ukrainian Canadians during the course of the war.

In Brandon, the federal government’s actions were met with great enthusiasm by the city council who, according to minutes of their meetings, “without discussion and with not a dissenting voice raised,” [17] passed a motion on 2 November stating, “with respect to the registration of Austrians and Germans … There are a large number of these aliens in Brandon” and requesting, “to have the City of Brandon fixed as a registration centre.” [18] A concerted effort was made by city council and Conservative MP J. A. M. Aikins to ensure that Brandon was used both as a centre of registration and the location for an internment camp. [19] Letters were sent petitioning both the federal government and the military to locate an internment camp in Brandon. The eventual creation of a camp in the recently constructed Winter Fair buildings adjoining the Wheat City Arena on the corner of Tenth Street and Victoria Avenue was the result of a coordinated campaign on the part of city council. [20] When this campaign was successful the council passed another unanimous motion declaring, “the Citizens of Brandon desire to place on record their appreciation of the services of Sir J. A. M Aikins, relative to the arrangements for the interning of prisoners of war at Brandon.” [21] In the minds of Anglo-middle class Brandonites, the internment camp was not merely a necessary arrangement in time of war but was regarded as potentially beneficial to the development of Brandon along acceptable lines both in the short and long term.

J. A. M. Aikins

James A. M. Aikins (1851-1929), a keen duck hunter, lobbied on behalf of an Alien Internment Centre for Brandon in his capacity as the city’s MP in 1914. Two years later, he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba.
Source: Manitobans As We See ’Em, 1908 and 1909. Newspaper Cartoonists’ Association of Manitoba.

The reasons for the enthusiasm of civic leaders for an internment camp for Ukrainian immigrants can be partially understood by examining the economic situation in Manitoba at the time. In the early decades of industrial capitalism in Canada dramatic cycles of boom and bust coinciding with world economic trends had been quite common. Decades of prosperity between 1896 and early 1914 had brought a sudden surge in immigration to the Canadian West and turned what was initially a failed attempt at massive white settlement on the prairies into one of the largest grain-producing regions in the world. Urban centres sprung up to meet the demands of the expanding farm economy and brought jobs to more of the immigrants who flooded into the region. In the first half of 1914, however, a worldwide recession brought a slowdown in industrial production and therefore a lack of jobs in the resource extraction industries that had been the backbone of the western Canadian economy. The year 1914 also brought a particularly poor harvest to farmers, many of whom were recent immigrants. Ukrainians who could not make a living in agriculture were forced to travel to cities such as Brandon in order to find whatever low-skilled, low paying jobs were available. [22] The combination of an influx of workers from the agricultural sector and a decrease in the total number of available waged jobs meant that urban centres such as Brandon experienced a sudden acute problem with unemployment. The issues of unemployment and poor wages among recent immigrants had been on the minds of many in Brandon before the war. The harvest, combined with a lack of available jobs in industries such as railroading, logging and mining, put a great stress on municipal governments to provide either work or relief to the unemployed who travelled to cities. In winter, relief was particularly necessary for many of Brandon’s working class residents, a large percentage of whom were Eastern European immigrants. [23]

Numerous articles appeared in the Brandon Daily Sun, a representative of Anglo middle-class opinion, concerning the increasing number of non-English speaking people living in the North End of the growing city and the cost of providing them with services. [24] It was not just the cost of providing infrastructure for these residents that was of concern but the cost of providing poor relief, a responsibility that at this time fell solely on the municipal, rather than provincial or federal levels of government. The city of Brandon was, like most other Canadian cities at the time, committed to a laissez-faire economic policy and had few monetary resources upon which to draw other than increased local taxation to pay for increases in spending on poor relief. Thus the increased number of unemployed Brandonites was a serious concern for the middle-class, as represented by the City Council. Any measure that would allow the City to eliminate the problem of unemployment would have been welcomed.

Locating an internment camp in Brandon was one solution to the problem of poverty during economic downturns that city leaders found particularly appealing. Providing relief work to the unemployed was ineffective in the long term and forced the City to spend money by paying workers the meagre wage of twenty cents per hour. [25] Despite the efforts of some to lower these wages even further, the Mayor acknowledged the necessity of paying at least this wage, stating, “I fail to see how any man can live on less than two dollars per day.” [26] Direct relief money provided by the City was unacceptable as a solution from the point of view of city leaders, as it contradicted the principles of laissez-faire and meant spending money without reaping any tangible rewards in the form of infrastructure. By maintaining an internment camp in Brandon, the City could not only pass the costs of sheltering and feeding a number of unemployed aliens to the federal government and the military, but could also create a market for local retailers and tradesmen.

Local tradesmen were employed installing heating and plumbing in the Winter Fair Arena that was to house the interned aliens and the Labour Gazette of September 1915 reported that the alien detention camp was one of the few new industries in Brandon that year and provided work for a large number of men as guards. [27] Alien detention had the same economic effect as large numbers of young men enlisting in the military. Both decreased the total active work force, while at the same time stimulating a demand for food, clothing, and other support services. Internment camps were a growth industry that provided many economic benefits and brought money to local businessmen. Indeed, the Auditor General’s Report of 1916 to 1917 indicates that over $50,000 was paid to local Brandon businesses for providing various support services related to the internment camp ranging from bedding, food and coal to translators and psychologists. [28] This money represented a significant subsidy and no doubt provided a boost to the local economy which had just two years previous been suffering from a recession. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Daily Sun reported on 13 November 1914 that, “other cities in the West are making every effort to secure the location of these prisoners.” [29] Once a camp was located in a city, one could intern unemployed local aliens on the pretence of these aliens being a threat to national security and in doing so give one’s local economy a jump start.

It was not simply the direct monetary benefits for the city of Brandon that led city council to campaign for an internment camp, however, but the fear that large numbers of young, single, unemployed men represented a potentially radical or even revolutionary force. If these men could not find work in a reasonable amount of time, it was thought they might very well turn to socialism and revolutionary action. A quest for immediate employment might easily turn into a quest for broader social justice and more radical social change if the unemployed became angry and alienated enough.

An editorial from the 11 April 1916 Brandon Daily Sun, in reference to the men interned at the Brandon camp stated, “these men were not interned just because they had no work. They were interned after trial and because they had committed disloyal acts or given utterance to disloyal sentiments.” [30] This statement was not only factually inaccurate, as there was no formal legal action taken against enemy aliens, but it also demonstrates that the (correct) perception that internment was related to unemployment was widespread enough to warrant vociferous denial. Indeed, the connection between unemployment and internment was so widespread as to even have been made explicit by Major Coleman, the commandant of the Brandon Alien Detention Centre who stated, “the large majority of the men were at the Arena (the site used for the internment camp) because they could not get work on account of their nationality.” [31] This statement was prompted by a controversy over whether or not to release some internees for work on local farms in 1916. On 13 April 1916, Major Coleman attempted to reassure a worried public that releasing aliens would present no physical dangers, saying, “I have yet to learn of one case where a parolled (sic) man failed to keep his promise (not to leave Canada or commit sedition) or was interned again.” [32] Even the Minister of Justice, in the same breath that he argued that the interned aliens were guilty of showing, “a spirit of hostility to this country” admitted that most had been interned because they were, “starving in some of our cities” due to lack of work. [33]

The true reasons for the internment of Ukrainians during the Great War can also be discovered by examining the few surviving first-hand accounts from internees themselves. Nick Lypko, a former internee at Brandon, tells a story which is likely very similar to the experiences of the vast majority of the men who ended up in internment camps. He states that he attended a meeting of approximately five hundred unemployed Ukrainians in Winnipeg. Having heard that there was work to be found in the United States, they set out immediately on foot toward the border. When they arrived at the border town of Emerson, however, they were stopped by the Mounted Police who not only prevented them from crossing the border, but arrested them instead, giving them a meal and transporting them immediately to the Brandon internment camp. [34] This story is confirmed and presented from another angle by the Brandon Daily Sun, which chronicled the arrival of 175 aliens from Emerson on 19 May 1915. These men were described as a “tired lot” with “blistered feet,” no doubt a result of their long walk from Winnipeg to Emerson. The Sun stated that the men were given nothing to eat after Emerson and arrived very hungry. An unusually accurate picture of who these men were was also presented by the Sun, which described them as former workers on railway construction gangs who “openly declare that they have no interest whatever in the war except that it has thrown them into the ranks of the unemployed and to the verge of starvation.” [35] Many Ukrainians were thrown out of work first during times of economic depression because of their ethnicity. These men arrested in Emerson were evidently in that category.

Newspapers were also quick to report on stories of aliens actually asking to be interned upon outbreak of the war. [36] Although these accounts somewhat strain believability, the situation faced by unemployed Ukrainian workers at the time was so dire that internment may have been appealing because it at least promised one the ability to obtain food and shelter. The Annual Review of Public Affairs speaks in passing of Austrian citizens who were, “discharged by employers owing to a patriotic preference for Canadian labour.” [37] Indeed, it was common practice once the war broke out for English-speaking employers to lay off foreign workers if possible and replace them with workers of British origin. Class and ethnicity combined and reinforced each other to act against Ukrainian immigrants. Not only did they, like all workers, face dismissal from their jobs without warning or compensation, but their ethnicity ensured that they would be given the most undesirable jobs and would be the first laid off in times of difficulty. A Daily Sun editorial gives an indication of the pressure put upon all employers to avoid hiring aliens stating, “Although regrettable, it is a fact that there are employers of labour in Canada who would at least as readily give employment to an alien enemy as to a loyal citizen. They too ought to be in the internment camps.” [38] Attitudes such as these were likely quite widespread, judging by stories such as that of Mike Ukracintz, an “Austrian labourer” who showed up at the provincial jail asking to be treated as a prisoner of war because he could not find enough work to feed himself. [39] The judge who heard his plea told the Sun that, “it was one of those peculiar cases which are arising every day. The man was willing to work but could not obtain any employment because of his nationality.” [40] This statement reveals that the inability to get work because of ethnicity was a daily fact of life for Ukrainians in Brandon.

Ironically, men who were in internment camps because they could not find work were used as a source of cheap labour by the Canadian government. Across Canada, internees were employed on infrastructure and public works projects for which the federal government was unwilling to pay people a living wage. By interning someone who was unemployed, the local government could not only avoid paying him poor relief and pass the cost of keeping him alive onto the federal government, but could profit from the use of that person’s labour once they were interned. General Otter stated that internment “provided a great advantage to the organizations short of labour.” [41] In Castle Mountain internment camp at Banff, Alberta, where Brandon’s inmates were sent after the camp closed in July 1916, internees were paid 12.5 cents per day (free workers would receive around $2) to build roads, clear trees and make general improvements to the national parks in the area. Although the Canadian Government officially insisted that the interned aliens were not being forced to work, testimony from the internees themselves reveals that conditions in the camp were such that refusal to work was unwise. [42] Brandon’s aliens were not compelled to work on road building for pragmatic reasons. The Brandon camp, located in the Winter Fair Arena in the middle of the city, was unusual in that it was inside of an urban centre. All other camps were set up in remote areas or old forts where possible work was in closer proximity and the chance of escape when working was low. There were, however, frequent calls from Brandon citizens and city councillors for the interned aliens to be put to work.

Although there is one brief mention of interned aliens being employed to clean up the summer exhibition grounds, [43] on the whole the federal authorities did not seek to put the Brandon inmates to work en masse as was done throughout the rest of the country. The decision to disband the Brandon camp and relocate its inmates was likely motivated by the government’s desire to get more free labour from the interned aliens. The Sun reported in July 1916 that there was a “strong possibility” that internees would be used to “make a good road between Brandon and Carberry” [44], an idea that was promoted by Brandon’s civic leaders with great enthusiasm. A council resolution was passed in 1915 petitioning the federal government to use the internees on gravel roads leading into Brandon. [45] The next year Alderman Fisher again requested that the federal Government use internees for labour and asked the Manitoba legislature to build a “prison farm” in Brandon. [46] The military and federal government remained unconvinced, however, as General Otter declared that there were no public works projects in either Manitoba or Saskatchewan upon which the inmates could be made to work. [47] Eventually, some of the inmates were also released from the camp for harvest time if farmers in the surrounding area needed extra labour and the prisoners were willing to go. Most, however, remained locked in the Winter Fair Arena until their transfer to Banff in 1916. [48]

Conditions in the Brandon camp, while perhaps better than those elsewhere, were physically and psychologically trying. Escape attempts were common, as many inmates were willing to risk death rather than remain interned. Although it is difficult to reconstruct exactly what conditions were like inside the walls of the camp due to military secrecy at the time and a lack of sources left by the inmates themselves, some basic facts about life inside the camp can be discerned. The Arena and Winter Fair Building were overcrowded, holding 942 men at their peak in August 1915. [49] The arena, of course, was never intended to house so many people and overcrowding was acknowledged by those in charge of operating the camp. [50] Inside the building itself, prisoners slept on cots in a single room and passed the time playing card, telling stories or singing. [51] Twice a day the prisoners were taken outside by the guards to get exercise, although this practice was temporarily suspended after a series of escape attempts took place while inmates were on their walk. [52] Throughout Canada, prisoners were denied access to news of the outside world and had their correspondence censored. [53] Incidents of brutality and abuse on the part of the guards were reported across Canada, with Brandon being no exception. Lights were kept on all night in the Arena in order to prevent escapes, and the “black hole,” a type of solitary confinement, was used as punishment by the guards. Nick Lypka, one of the internees, tells the story of an officer getting drunk and shooting at the floor in order to scare the inmates. [54] One can only imagine the loneliness, isolation from family and friends, boredom and lack of control over life that must have been psychologically devastating for many. Above all the uncertainty of not knowing when, if ever, they were to be released took a psychological toll upon the inmates among who psychological illness was common and escape or rioting even more so. [55] In all of Canada, 107 people died while interned, including Andrew Graphko, an eighteen year old Ukrainian who was shot during one of many attempted escapes from the Brandon camp. [56]

If one were to only read the Brandon Daily Sun in regard to internment, it would seem very strange that so many escapes were attempted. The paper wrote only of content, well-behaved prisoners who were treated well, with one even being allowed to visit his sick daughter. [57] The 13 February 1915 Sun stated, “their food is of the best and … a goodly number have gained a good home for themselves and judging by their appearance are not unduly melancholy at being held in durance vile.” [58] This was either wishful thinking on the part of the paper or overt propaganda. In any case, a statement given by one of the recaptured escapees demonstrates their sense of despair at being locked up. Simon Konrat, described by the Sun as “determined to get his liberty or die in the attempt”, stated, “I will try again because I will go crazy if I stay there much longer. I will take the chance on getting shot.” [59]

On 3 May 1915, the first reported escape from Brandon’s alien detention centre took place when Dimytro Kowalchuk, a twenty two year old who had been in Canada for over five years, pretended to be ill and then climbed out of the skylight of the room to which he was transferred as a patient. [60] Kowalchuk, like most of the escapees, was soon captured and returned to the camp. [61] The frequency of escape attempts grew greater in May and June of that year. Considering the general lack of success of the attempts, this would seem to demonstrate worsening conditions and increasing desperation on the part of the internees. Escapes of varied levels of sophistication took place almost every Saturday night in late May and early June. Some waited for the changing of the guard and simply jumped out a window, while others used a table knife as a saw and cut a hole in the floor. [62] This later attempt was the largest attempted and most sophisticated, involving fifteen men. The escape created panic and excitement in Brandon and warranted a front page headline in the Daily Sun that stated, “Fifteen Desperate Aliens Attempt Escape: One May Die, One Escapes, Others in Custody.” [63] In total, only two people were ever able to permanently escape the camp, and it is possible that they may have been found and interned elsewhere later in the war, although their names do not reappear in the registers of those interned.

As the miserable conditions in the camps themselves demonstrate, the internment of Ukrainian Canadians during the Great War cannot be explained without an understanding of the widespread racism that made the presence of such conditions acceptable in the minds of those who imposed them. To interpret the creation of internment camps as the result of cold, economic calculus as a solution to the problem of poverty would be only partially correct. Although it was unemployment that prompted the creation of the camps, unemployment and poverty themselves were inextricably connected to ethnicity in late 19th and early 20th century Brandon. Furthermore, without a pervasive and virulent racism on the part of the Anglo-Canadian elite, it is difficult to imagine such widespread support for the creation of prison and labour camps for those unable to find work. Such racism did not originate with the Great War nor did it stem from the fear that Ukrainian immigrants represented a military threat. The War did, however, enhance a pre-existing culture of militarism, patriotism and racism associated with British imperialism.

Brandon Winter Fair Building

The Brandon Winter Fair building, shown here circa 1912, housed the city’s Alien Internment Centre from November 1914 to July 1916.
Source: Christie’s Bookstore, Brandon, Manitoba: The Wheat City, no date, G. Goldsborough.

Far from being sympathetic to the plights of internees, middle-class Brandonites of British origin called for even more severe measures to be taken against enemy aliens. A Brandon Daily Sun editorial from 12 May 1915 expressed these sentiments, stating that the singing of songs in foreign languages by the internees “must be stopped” at all costs by “going as far as necessary.” [64] After a series of escapes, the Sun called for further escapes to be prevented by the use of brutal physical force stating, “It is the duty of the authorities to punish these men so severely that others contemplating a dash for liberty will be deterred from doing so.” [65] Sun editorials urged more extreme anti-alien measures than the government was willing to carry out, not only calling for forced work for all aliens but the entire removal of rights from those of non-British descent living in Brandon.

The gulf between the more affluent, English speaking Brandonites who lived in the South End of town and the poor, mostly Ukrainian or Eastern European immigrants who inhabited the North End was very wide indeed in early 20th century Brandon. This gulf was reflected in the opinions expressed in the Daily Sun, the official organ of middle class, Anglo Brandonites. In an article entitled “Enemy Within Our Gates” the Sun wrote, “Internment even on a wholesale scale and at the risk of individual cases of injustice, is preferable to a single, loyal Canadian suffering in person or property.” [66] The idea of who constituted a “loyal Canadian” is further explained when the author stated, “Canada, The British Empire, is fighting for its life; in self-defence it should overlook no precaution or fail in any measure for the safety of itself or its people.” [67] In other words, the only people entitled to rights or recognition as full citizens were those who were racially and ideologically suitable for the British Empire of which Canada and Brandon were loyal parts. The North End, therefore, was seen as an aberration, an unwanted intrusion of second-class people into a sphere that was rightfully part of the Empire. The internment of Ukrainians, then, was just another incident in an ongoing battle for control over physical and intellectual space within Brandon. At stake was not simply the issue of who would physically occupy the city but whether the discourse of western Canada as a bastion of “civilization” represented by the British “race” amidst a sea of inferior people in need of uplift would be preserved. Articles discussing “Galiciatown” in the North End express the anxiety felt by those who saw their British imperialist vision of Brandon as threatened by the intrusion of “inferior” peoples. [68]

A news story from May 1915 described several soldiers burning a house on the north side of the CPR track to the ground because they believed one of their friends and fellow soldiers was being held there. Apparently, the only evidence they had that this was the case was the fact that their friend had not been seen for over two days and that he was “roughly handled by foreigners” some time previously. The repeated use of the term “foreigner” to describe those who lived in the North End, rather than using actual names, ages, or even nationalities as descriptive terms indicates a generalized dehumanization of those who came to Brandon from anywhere other than Great Britain. Furthermore, the tone of the story and several subsequent editorials was that of understanding and justification for the actions of the soldiers. The article stated, “They and all citizens have been annoyed of late by numbers of foreigners making seditious remarks and behaving in an attitude extremely offensive.” The most telling sign of how Anglo-Brandonites reacted to this situation was a statement that, “the crowd was cheering for the soldiers and “Tipperary” was sung with gusto as the men were marched away.” [69] Perhaps the singing of war songs indicates that many people in the crowd felt as if the present war, which was supposedly being fought to preserve the British Empire and thus “civilization” itself, was not only being fought on the western front, but in the streets of Brandon itself. The war for them was with the “foreigners” in the area who they saw as connected with those at the front on the enemy side. The intrusion of these less “civilized” individuals into Brandon represented as much of a threat to the British Empire and all that it stood for as the demonized “Hun” overseas. World War One has been called the first “total war” because citizens of countries mobilized and fought each other rather than armies simply fighting. This theory seems to be supported by this incident the anti-foreigner hysteria that was present in Brandon during the First World War.

When war broke out on 4 August 1914, there were crowds cheering in the streets downtown and speeches in favour of the war, including one from the Mayor. The Sun wrote that he “said that they (the crowd) were all part of the greatest nation of Earth and reminded his hearers of all they owed to Great Britain.” [70] It is important to note that the “nation” of which he spoke was not a geographic but rather a racial one. To be a true Canadian, to the Mayor and most middle-class Brandonites, meant to be a loyal subject of the British Empire. The Mayor also, “reminded the foreign element of Brandon of all that Britain had done for them in the past.” A concern with the loyalty of the “foreign element” was a recurring theme in articles written before, during and after the war. An 8 June 1914 article discussing Ukrainians or “Ruthenians” optimistically reported that perhaps they could become loyal imperial subjects stating, “They are eager to have their children learn English and are swift to Canadianize themselves.” It was this apparent willingness to assimilate that prompted the remark, “there are no more intelligent and labourious immigrants in the Dominion.” [71] This attitude is extremely ironic considering what would be written about the very same people in the years to follow. Assimilation became an even more pressing concern once the war broke out. Initial articles optimistically portrayed the chances of immigrants, “men with moustaches,” as they were referred to, adopting British language and customs, stating “their eagerness to learn English is most commendable and almost pathetic.” [72] Paternalistic infantilization of immigrants, however, quickly gave way to more menacing portrayals. In the discourse presented by the popular media, immigrants who were originally seen as naive children who were naturally inferior to British Canadians but who posed no threat and could be temporarily useful, turned quickly into potential revolutionaries who showed no desire to conform and retained their old and backward ideas, customs, and languages.

Military Parade on Rosser Avenue

Military might on Brandon streets. The First Depot Battalion marching on Rosser Avenue, 4 June 1918.
Source: Magnacca Research Centre, Daly House Museum, 86-28-5.

In October 1915, Brandon Collegiate, the local high school, decided that the “enemy tongue” of German would no longer be taught to its students. This measure is indicative of a public hysteria about the influence of foreigners and its perceived destructive effect upon society. Hatred and scorn were suddenly directed toward anything associated with Austria or Germany. Across Canada, anti-immigrant sentiment boiled over, especially after the sinking of the Lusitania, an event that was used extensively by the government and media as a propaganda tool. In Victoria, hysteria about alien terrorism resulted in riots and the destruction of businesses belonging to non-English merchants. [73] The War Time Elections Act of 1917 disenfranchised both unnaturalized and naturalized Ukrainians because Prime Minister Borden was concerned about how immigrants would vote in upcoming elections. [74] Tensions within Brandon also became very high and manifested themselves in incidents such as the house burning described earlier and in editorials that called the interned men, “a race that as a people celebrated … the deaths of hundreds of babes on the Lusitania.” The internees, it was said, “should be put to work in gangs on public work that is both arduous and distasteful to English speaking people.” [75] This last statement again expressed the pervasive racism used to justify British world domination and the denial of full legal rights to people not of British origin.

Not only was certain work viewed as being fit for foreigners rather than British men, but British men were seen as naturally superior to recent immigrants in every way. The ranking of “races” can be observed in articles concerning aliens in the Daily Sun. The leaders of escape attempts from the internment camp are described as “much superior to the average Austrian labourer in intellect” but obviously not as intelligent as the “Britishers” who had not only caught the aliens but had set up, “the undying traditions which had made the name of Britain a beacon of light to all in the world.” [76] In many of the articles concerning aliens, the shape of their heads, (described as “pointed”) their dress and other physical features are described and used to classify them as either the “labouring type” of foreigner or belonging to a more “respectable” class. [77] The racist pseudo-sciences of phrenology and eugenics which at that time remained popular and retained reputable adherents within academic institutions, were fully on display in popular form in discussions of the Ukrainian internees. [78] Such ideas regarding the superiority of the British race were reflected in a statement by University of Saskatchewan professor Bateman:

War should be the supreme test both of the nation and the individual. Biologically, struggle and self-sacrifice by one generation of behalf of the next, are the conditions of the perpetuation of the species. A similar law of competition seems to hold for those aggregates of men which we call nations. [79]

War was portrayed by many as a way for members of the British nation to assert and prove their superiority over all others in a Darwinist battle for survival. In the minds of many people in society, “A new era in Canadian history had opened” [80] in which “inferior” peoples would have to assimilate into the British Empire. Those who did not, such as the internees who continued to sing “offensive” “national airs” were seen as a menace to British society that would undermine British institutions and prevent progress. [81] The Daily Sun concluded, “One lesson which this war has surely taught is the necessity for excluding every alien immigrant who does not give reasonable assurance of willingness to renounce his foreign allegiance and embrace British citizenship to which he can be admitted after due probation.” [82]

Brandon’s internment camp was shut down on 30 July 1916 after the remaining inmates were transferred to Castle Mountain, Alberta to be put to work on improvements to Banff National Park. [83] On 7 August 1917, this camp was shut down as well and, in 1920, almost two years after the end of the war itself, the internment operations of the federal government officially ended with the closing of the Kapuskasing, Ontario camp. [84] Anti-Alien sentiments and calls for renewed internment, however, did not end across Canada or in Brandon itself. In 1917, the Brandon Sun wrote, “Britishers are looking forward to the time when the foreigner’s labour will be conscripted.” [85] Near the end of the war the Daily Sun called for “all the enemy aliens and able-bodied slackers from neutral and allied countries” to be “set to work on the land or making roads.” [86] Reports that foreigners were attempting to garner higher wages from their employers led to renewed calls for internment and forced labour by local businessmen and a statement from Mayor Cater stating, “I don’t intend to put up with any nonsense.” [87] A long and bloody war had further exasperated nativism within Brandon. The Russian Bolshevik Revolution, the Winnipeg General Strike and the growing popularity of socialism struck further fear into the hearts of middle-class Brandonites that immigrant workers represented a potentially revolutionary force. While immigrant poverty was thought to lead to revolutionary socialism, immigrant prosperity was equally worrisome for the social elite. Paranoia about immigrants gaining control of the economic prosperity and political power that British middle class Brandonites had monopolized led to fears that aliens were “earning bigger wages than ever … putting nearly all of it away” and not “depositing it in a bank so that the country might get some good out of it.” A growing fear of the entire working class and a desire to strip them of their rights was developing and building upon a fear of foreigners. Throughout the remainder of the war, and leading up to the General Strike of 1919 in Winnipeg, there would be calls for internment of aliens, and the suppression of newspapers in foreign languages. During the strike itself, many of the labour leaders arrested under the new legislation passed by the federal government were transported to Kapuskasing internment camp and some deported to their countries of origin.

The story of the Alien Detention Centre in Brandon is not a story simply about the Great War or of a “mistake” made by the government as a result of wartime hysteria. Rather it is a story that illustrates the deep fissures that existed in Canadian society at this time along the lines of class and ethnicity. Internment of “enemy aliens” was primarily a response to the threat of an ever-increasing group of unemployed eastern European men in cities across Western Canada. Long standing prejudices and ideas about the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon “race” coincided with a problem of lack of jobs for the large numbers of immigrants who were arriving in cities and towns across the prairies. Internment was a pragmatic solution to a perceived social threat that was posed by unemployed, immigrant workers who, it was feared, might turn to radical political solutions or perhaps even revolutionary action in order to solve their immediate economic problems. The internment of mostly Ukrainian men in Brandon from 1914 to 1916 was not a reaction to physical threats, real or imagined, to the physical security of Canada during the Great War, nor was it the result of a nativistic hysteria drummed up among the general population as a result of wartime propaganda and a climate of fear. Rather it was a practical solution to the problem of poverty made possible by a pervasive racist ideology of British imperialism that predated and outlived the Great War in Canada. Unfortunately, amid a sea of nationalist self-congratulation surrounding the commemoration of World War I battles such as Vimy Ridge this shameful incident in Canadian history has largely been forgotten. Few people in Brandon today are aware of the Alien Detention Centre that once occupied a central location in their city or understand what sort of forces within Canadian society led to the arrest and imprisonment of over 900 innocent people there. In the era of Maher Arar and Omar Khadr, when governments can once again arrest and indefinitely detain Canadians without due process, this chapter in Canada’s history seems more important than ever.


1. Brandon Daily Sun, 10 February 1916. S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University.

2. Lubomyr Luciuk, A Time for Atonement: Canada’s First National Internment Operations and the Ukrainian Canadians 1914 - 1920. Limestone Press, 1988.

3. Ibid.

4. J. Castell Hopkins, The Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs 1914. Toronto: The Annual Review Publishing Company Limited. pp. 282.

5. Freedom Had a Price. Video. National Film Board of Canada. Producer/Director Yurij Luhovy. 1994.

6. M. H. Marunchak, The Ukrainian Canadians: A History. Winnipeg: Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences. 1982, pp. 326.

7. Freedom Had a Price.

8. Charles Doherty, Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Debates, 13th Parliament, 1st session, volume 132, 1918: 1020-1021.

9. Brandon Daily Sun, 11 April 1916.

10. Annual Review. pp. 278; Doherty. p. 1018

11. Ibid., pp. 277.

12. Ibid., pp. 276.

13. Luciuk.

14. For more on the experience of Ukrainian immigrants in Canada see: Orest T. Martynowych, Ukrainians in Canada: The Formative Period 1891 - 1924. Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. 1991. and Lubomyr Luciuk and Stella Hryniuk, eds. Canada’s Ukrainians: Negotiating an Identity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1991.

15. Annual Review, pp. 278.

16. Ibid., pp. 279.

17. Brandon Daily Sun, 3 November 1914.

18. Brandon City Council Meeting Minutes, 2 November 1914. Brandon City Hall Archives.

19. Letter From J. A. M. Aikins to Canadian Military, 12 November 1914. Brandon City Hall Archives.

20. Telegrams from Federal Government to City of Brandon, 2, 10 and 15 November 1914. Brandon City Hall Archives.

21. City Council Minutes, 15 November 1914.

22. Freedom Had a Price.

23. Brandon Daily Sun, 25 October 1915.

24. Ibid., 16 June 1914.

25. Council Minutes, 29 December 1914.

26. Brandon Daily Sun, 12 May 1915.

27. Labour Gazette, September 1915. pp. 274.

28. Canada. Auditor General’s Report, 1916 - 1917. Vol. 53 No. 1 1918. p. zz16-zz17.

29. Brandon Daily Sun, 13 November 1914.

30. J. B. Whitehead, Brandon Daily Sun, 11 April 1916.

31. Brandon Daily Sun, 10 April 1916.

32. Brandon Daily Sun, 13 April 1916.

33. Doherty, p. 1018.

34. Interview with Nick Lypko. Freedom Had a Price.

35. Brandon Daily Sun, 19 May 1915.

36. Brandon Daily Sun, 19 May 1915.

37. Annual Review, pp. 278.

38. Brandon Daily Sun, 4 July 1916.

39. Brandon Daily Sun, 14 July 1915.

40. Magistrate Bates. Brandon Daily Sun, 14 July 1915.

41. Luciuk.

42. Doherty, p. 1021; Freedom Had a Price.

43. Brandon Daily Sun, 9 August 1915.

44. Brandon Daily Sun, 12 July 1916.

45. Council Minutes, 4 October 1915.

46. Council Minutes, 17 May 1916.

47. Council Minutes, 28 August 1915.

48. Brandon Daily Sun, 5 April 1916.

49. Brandon Daily Sun, 28 August 1915.

50. Brandon Daily Sun, 21 December 1915.

51. Lypko, Freedom Had a Price.

52. Brandon Daily Sun, 26 July 1915.

53. Luciuk.

54. Lypko, Freedom Had a Price.

55. Luciuk.

56. Brandon Daily Sun, 21 June 1915.

57. Brandon Daily Sun, 15 February 1915.

58. Brandon Daily Sun, 13 February 1915.

59. Brandon Daily Sun, 7 June 1915.

60. Brandon Daily Sun, 3 May 1915.

61. Brandon Daily Sun, 4 May 1915.

62. Brandon Daily Sun, 31 May and 7 June 1915.

63. Brandon Daily Sun, 7 June 1915.

64. Brandon Daily Sun, 12 May 1915.

65. Brandon Daily Sun, 7 June 1915.

66. Brandon Daily Sun, 9 June 1915.

67. Ibid.

68. Brandon Daily Sun, 3 July 1915.

69. Brandon Daily Sun, 14 May 1915.

70. Brandon Daily Sun, 5 August 1914.

71. Brandon Daily Sun, 8 July 1914.

72. Brandon Daily Sun, 23 October 1914.

73. Freedom Had A Price.

74. Ibid.

75. Brandon Daily Sun, 11 April 1916.

76. Brandon Daily Sun, 10 September 1914.

77. Brandon Daily Sun, 27 November 1914.

78. For more on eugenics in Canada, see Angus McLaren, Our Own Master Race. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990 or for a discussion of racist science throughout the English-speaking world see Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.

79. Annual Review, pp. 275.

80. Ibid., pp. 611.

81. Brandon Daily Sun, 12 May 1915.

82. Brandon Daily Sun, 4 July 1916.

83. Brandon Daily Sun, 29 July 1916.

84. B. S. Kordan and P. Melnycky, ed. In the Shadow of the Rockies: Diary of the Castle Mountain Internment Camp 1915-1917. Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1991 for more on the Castle Mountain experience and other rural internment camps see Bohdan S. Kordan, Enemy Aliens, Prisoners of War: Internment in Canada during the Great War. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2002.

85. Brandon Daily Sun, 25 August 1917.

86. Brandon Daily Sun, 31 May 1917.

87. Ibid.

Page revised: 31 October 2020