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14. Resistance

The prisoners resisted their fate by stubborn defiance. As usual for prisoners of war, they worked as slowly as they could. In some camps they went on mass strikes, refusing work that was not necessary for their own upkeep. Camp authorities tried to break the strikes by withholding food and heat or to break the solidarity with bribes of extra pay and rations.

The neutral countries such as the USA (until it entered the war), Sweden and Switzerland inspected the camps to check for compliance with international conventions.

When the German Officer class complained to their own government of their treatment, Germany threated to retaliate on Allied prisoners of war. Once the Canadian Minister of Justice assured Germany that only about 100 Germans were in work camps, engaged mostly as cooks etc., Germany dropped the issue. No one took up the cause of the interned civilians in the second class camps.

“The idea, therefore of treatment of such men as quasi-criminals seems contrary to the very best interest of the Dominion, and the temporary saving, which may be affected by the payment, or rather allowance, of such pittance as 25 cents per day for a full day’s work, not even payable to them or their families in full, seems to be as inexpedient and unjust...” (G.Willrich, American Consul, Report on Conditions of German, Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and Bulgarian Subjects in Quebec Consular District and in Detention Camp at Spirit Lake, Quebec)

15. Work

The second class prisoners in permanent camps worked on government and private projects for 10 hours a day. For clearing land, cutting trees and construction they received 25 cents a day, well below the going rate of 20 cents an hour. They could not collect this pay or use it to support their families, until after the war. By June 1926, the federal government still held more than $32,000 in unpaid earnings owed to prisoners of war.

The men worked under armed guard. The ratio of guards to workers varied from one to ten to one to two. Only under the most extreme weather conditions, and then mostly due to the lack of proper clothing, did camp authorities cancel work detail. Otherwise, prisoners started their day at 5:30 a.m. and finished at 9:00 p.m. They worked for ten hours a day.

The Government also arranged for private companies to “buy” prisoner labour. For this work the companies were to pay the government 20 cents an hour with 50 cents a day or 25% taken off for food allowance. The businesses also absorbed the cost of accommodating and feeding the guards. Railway companies and the Department of Interior, which was developing a national parks system, were the biggest users of prisoner labour.

“Looking back at my short time I was here, and I was only a boy, I realized all the time what marvels you can do if you just had the labour... We had plenty of labour. Anybody who asked us to do anything, we provided the slaves.” (Colonel Anderson-Whyte, former guard at Castle Mountain and Banff Internment Camp. Interview, 4 May, 1973, Whyte Museum of the Rockies)

16. Food

he Otter Report states that the prisoners of war received the same amount and quality of food as did the Canadian soldiers. Modern research, however, shows that the diet given to the second class prisoners was not suitable for men cutting and hauling trees in the Canadian winter climate.

Full rations called for 12 ounces of meat a day, with an allowed substitution of lentils, dried cod or cheese. However, the meat was weighed before the removal of bone and other waste material. Considering the cheaper cuts of meat purchased, the meat portion per individual was much less than twelve ounces. Furthermore, the meat was often spoiled or frozen, making it almost inedible.

Fresh vegetables were mostly root vegetables such as potatoes, turnips and carrots. Without proper storage they were often too rotten to eat. Although there were baking ovens for bread at camp, often the yeast was of poor quality resulting in insufficiently leavened bread.

Dinner served at work sites often froze before the workers got it; dinner time was too short to allow for proper cooking. Therefore, the men ate raw or smoked fat that could withstand the freezing temperatures.

Had the food been in good condition, full rations would have had just enough calories to be sufficient for the men. As it was, the bad state of the food and the prolonged dietary punishments of the prisoners cut the overall caloric intake. Modern analyses also show that the diet was lacking in vitamins.

In 1917 there was a call for food rationing in Canada. The rations in camp were also reduced. Although the Otter Report claims that “those engaged in heavy manual labour such as clearing land, cutting wood, etc.” continued to receive the full daily rations, Otter’s account to the Imperial War Cabinet in 1918 showed that Internment Operations cut the meat rations to 8 ounces across the board. In Kapuskasing, in answer to guards’ complaints, their meat rations were restored. There is no evidence that the prisoners received equal treatment.

17. Clothing

Had the camps issued the prisoners’ clothing as regulated by Internment Operations, the internees would have been sufficiently dressed for the conditions under which they lived. However, camp supplies were insufficient most of the time. The quality of the clothing did not stand up well to the hard frontier labour. Therefore, the prisoners often faced cold and wet working conditions with soaked feet, freezing hands and insufficient underclothing.

Clothing was purchased locally from area suppliers. Low price seemed to be the deciding factor for supply contracts. The material and workmanship do not seem to have been of the quality of military supplies. For example, where the army had spent approximately $7 on a pair of army boots issued to soldiers, the boot purchased for prisoners were $3.10.

“In the face of this lack of clothing and boots, there is 5 inches of snow on the ground, wet and slush in the middle of the day; some prisoners have boots with their soles half off. Their feet are soaking wet every night, and nearly half of them are in rags. I am ashamed to meet them.” (Major Stuart, Commandant of Castle Mountain Camp, Letter to Colonel Cruikshank)

18. Families

“Many of the prisoners had wives and families dependent upon them for support; consequently when the breadwinners were interned, their women and children had to be cared for.” (Otter Report)

The government issued monthly sums for food, fuel and rent for 40 women and 81 children. Internment Operations also made room for 81 women and 156 children in the Spirit Lake and Vernon camps. Thus, directly or indirectly, the Canadian government took care of 121 wives and 237 children of prisoners.

Although the prisoners made 25 cents a day for their work at camp, the wages were not to be paid until after the war. Therefore, many could not support their families. Government support to families outside the camps consisted of $1.50 to $2.00 per week and some coal in the winter months.

Associated Charities and the provincial Departments of Neglected Children issued government support to families. These agencies had the power to remove children from their parents. The women had little reason to trust them to provide aid without taking away their children.

In the Vernon camp, housing was provided only to families of first class prisoners. Records show that, aside from the wives and children of the first class prisoners, government also supported their nannies and governesses. For families of the second class prisoners, only Spirit Lake provided accommodations. These were only for immediate families.

13. Discipline

Discipline in the camps was not as “humane” as the Otter Report suggests.

Officially, the internment operations allowed the guards to punish prisoners in two ways. Food could be held back (down to bread and water) and prisoners could be confined in small and solitary “klinks”. Records show, however, that guards prodded prisoners with bayonets, suspended them by their wrists, and otherwise degraded them. Authorities dismissed the prisoners’ complaints as trivial and toleated their further punishment for insolence.

Most often guards punished prisoners for refusing to work. Other documented reasons include “destruction of boots’, “insolence”, “attempted escape”.

Internment Exhibit
The Barbed Wire Solution