B.C. was home to First World War internment camp for Europeans

One of the projects funded by the Canadian Historical Recognition Program endowment to the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund – money well used:

Bill Doskoch was looking for work in Vancouver when he was arrested, for being Ukrainian.

At the dawn of the First World War, the Canadian government rounded up more than 8,000 mostly single men of German, Austrian and Ukrainian ancestry, sending them to 24 concentration camps scattered across the country. One such camp was at Morrissey, not far from Fernie.

As a civilian prisoner of war, Doskoch was moved frequently, eventually incarcerated in five camps between 1914 and 1920 and only released after most others prisoners were long gone.

“He was quite a rabble-rouser apparently and refused to take internment lying down,” said Sarah Beaulieu, an archeology PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University. “He was very angry about being interned.”

Beaulieu is pursuing an excavation at the site of the Morrissey camp this summer. She has already detected an escape tunnel and recovered artifacts, including a barbed-wire crucifix.

Morrissey was regarded as a particularly barbaric experience, with abusive guards, solitary confinement and hard labour.

Bill Doskoch is one of the few prisoners from the Morrissey Internment Camp who talked about his experiences. Here, in 1918, Doskoch is in the back row, fourth from the left, with his collar turned up. FERNIE HISTORICAL SOCIETY / PNG

A report by Consul of Switzerland Samuel Gintzburger, from 1917, notes that prisoners were “absolutely destitute” and were subject to “physical coercion” at the hands of guards. Protests were frequent.

“It was notorious for mistreatment of prisoners,” Beaulieu said. “At the time it received several note verbales (diplomatic protests) from Germany threatening retaliation on Canadian and British prisoners of war should the conditions at Morrissey not improve.”

Beaulieu learned of Bill’s wartime adventures from his daughter, Anne Sadelein, who resides in Edmonton where Doskoch settled in the 1920s. He remained a union activist throughout his life.

“My father spent a lot of time in black holes for writing letters and inciting stop workages or being political,” said Sadelein.

Doskoch was often at the centre of disputes over prisoner labour in the camps.

The Canadian government misinterpreted a clause from the 1907 Hague Convention on the rules of war so that the civilian PoWs could be used as labourers building roads and parks.

Some archival records note that prisoners were paid 55 cents a day for voluntary labour, but that 30 cents a day was deducted to pay for their room and board in the camp.

When civilian internees became aware that the clause in The Hague Convention only applied to military PoWs, Doskoch copied out the entire convention by hand as a reminder of their rights, according to Sadelein.

“He knew that they had been illegally arrested and wanted to do something about it,” said Beaulieu. “Most of the prisoners were civilians with no military connections who had come to Canada to settle the Prairies.”

Morrissey had been a coal-mining camp between 1902 and 1904, but was a ghost town when the federal government converted it into a concentration camp on Sept. 28, 1915. The Canadian government would later use the term internment to avoid the association with German concentration camps after the Second World War.

“They were very badly fed: fat and potatoes,” said a female descendant of a Ukrainian Morrissey internee interviewed by Beaulieu. “No vegetables, fruit or milk and these were young men — a lot of them in their early 20s. They had to work very hard. Ten hours a day sometimes. I can’t say that it was a nice, kind camp.”

Beaulieu has the names and faces of a few prisoners. Unfortunately, in 1954, a lot of the archival material was destroyed by the Canadian government because they had no place to store it. So very little is known about the operations of these camps today.

“When I first came to do interviews people weren’t really aware of the camp at Morrissey and the few that did were under the impression that it had been a sanctuary for destitute foreigners during the First World War,” she said.

A guard watches the fence in winter at the Morrissey Internment Camp. LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA / PNG

The internees have largely stayed in the shadows, even after the government offered to pay them for their labours. Though prisoners were supposed to be paid for their labour on release, those monies were never given to them. Most were too afraid to fight at the time and were loathe to apply for it when it was available in 1929 because it would have revealed to their families that they had been prisoners.

Interviews and documents being collected by academics such as Beaulieu are being gathered and organized by the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, which is also funding her work in Morrissey.

Source: B.C. was home to First World War internment camp for Europeans | Vancouver Sun

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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