Park Prisoners. The Untold Story of Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915 to 1946
Bill Waiser, ISBN-13:978-1-895618-74-7
Some of our National Parks have a very chequered past that most of us are unaware of. As we drive through the front gates inviting the world in to enjoy Banff National Park today there is little evidence of the misery that men lived to build that portal.
Bill Waiser has written a very informative book describing how many of the facilities, buildings, roads and bridges were constructed during the war years and through the great depression. The projects were designed by Canada’s federal government, Provincial governments and National Parks Bureau. Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan, Banff and Jasper Parks in Alberta as well as Yoho and Revelstoke National Parks in B.C. were all beneficiaries of very cheap hand labor. Thousands of men were gathered up like prisoners and housed in makeshift camps, forced to work like many had never worked before. Some were elderly, some were very young and many torn from their families for the first time. They suffered from loneliness, home-sickness, and helplessness and from the weather. The endured crowded, often dirty camps and the drudgery of difficult work far from creature comforts.
|Memorial to the Internees That Helped Build Facilities in Our National Parks|
When Canada went to war against Germany in 1914, there were more than half a million single men from Eastern Europe who had immigrated to Canada. To protect our nation from possible subversives among us, they were forced to report to RCMP stations declaring where they lived and what they were doing monthly. If they failed to report they were rounded up and placed in labor camps. The Canadian public were not content to simply have these men interred but they should also be put to work to earn their keep. Internment camps were set up in isolated places in the country so it would not be easy for the prisoners to escape and cause mayhem. Don’t forget, these men were guilty by being of Eastern European descent only and came from Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Austria, Germany considered to be “pauper immigrants, and ignorant foreigners”. Many had small farms or worked in factories throughout the country. Anyone not of British descent was suspicious and the general populous fear of foreigners ran rampant. These aliens were put to work building roads using wheel barrows, picks, shovels and axes only, to keep costs down and make the jobs last. None of these men were guilty of any sins. As we drive the road between Banff and Jasper, think of the gangs of men toiling with their hand tools to make that terrain passable by car. Castle Mountain was the site of the first internment camp in Canada housing enemy aliens. None of these people thought that Canada would round up her own people for no reason and effectively imprison them.
Imagine building the road through the Kicking Horse Pass through Field and Golden, then on to Revelstoke by hand. Think of the bridges that had to be built across some of those raging rivers. Generally the men were fed decently but housing was crowded, cold, wet and dirty. Some barracks or bunkhouses were tents or built of logs. Outhouses, wash basins and rivers were the sanitary standards of the day. I can’t imagine living in those crowded conditions. The rate of pay was .25 per day for six days per week and there were rules about how they could spend that.
After the war was over the men collected their confiscated pay and allowed to go back to their homes if they had not caused any problems. Troublemakers were deported.
In 1930 many internment style work camps were reopened to house relief workers and transients. These workers were generally any man who did not have a job during the depression. Thousands of men wandered the country, riding the rails searching for food and jobs of any kind. These men put considerable strain on this country’s and cities resources to feed and house them. Many of them were rounded up and shipped off to these forced labor camps to continue the work of building facilities and roads in our parks. Once again, little machinery was used as it was expensive to operate and took too many men’s jobs. Some of the men who worked in these camps looked back on their experiences as very beneficial to them. They had a place to live, good food to eat and made a little bit of cash. Living conditions were very rustic to say the least. Elk Island National Park had workers clearing brush for bison pastures, Prince Albert National Park used transients for building many buildings such as the museum at Waskesiu and repaired water and sewer lines. Riding Mountain, Waterton, Miette Hot Springs, and Banff all had buildings and roads improved or built by the relief workers and transients.
During the Second World War, “Conchies,” or Conscientious Objectors who did not believe in fighting were put to work for the betterment of the country. Many Mennonites, Doukhobor’s, Hutterites and Jehovah’s Witnesses were housed in small camps throughout most National Parks in Western Canada doing works that benefited the community as a whole. Trail cutting, road and building improvements, firewood cutting and any job deemed necessary were done. Most of these Conchies were very hard workers but also very homesick and worried about their families at home. Many had never been away from their families before. They earned around .50 per day and some of their wages were sent home to their families. These men worked very hard and accomplished much using their hands and ingenuity developed and practised on their own farms.
|Meadows Below Castle Mountain in Banff Where Work Camps Held Japanese Detainees|
After the Japanese invasion of Pearle Harbour, all Japanese male citizens living near Canada’s west coast were rounded up and torn from their families and businesses and sent to remote camps far inland so they could not be of assistance to the pending Japanese invasion thought to be imminent. They lost everything with no compensation leaving them and their families destitute, frightened and under suspicion and prejudice. Jasper, Blue River, Tete Jaune Cache were areas where Japanese camps were set up to supply labor clearing right-of-way and building the road through the Yellowhead Pass. Their rate of pay was .25 per hour but they had to pay for their camp and food as well as send money home to families. The internees worked steadily but did not exert themselves and devised a strategy of passive resistance to protest being separated from their families. This caused much strife between guards, parks and government supervisors who expected much more production from each camp. There is a small plaque commemorating the Japanese along the side of highway 1a between Banff and Lake Louise.
Also during World War 2 something had to be done with German Prisoners-of-war being held in POW camps at Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. Most of these captives had been captured in North Africa and shipped to Canada to prevent them from rejoining the German war effort. One of these captives was my Dad’s cousin Gottfried Scriba. He did not get sent to some of our labor camps but spent his time at Medicine Hat before being sent to my Grand Father’s farm at Heart Valley, Alberta. Here, he was under the direct supervision of Grandpa. My grandparents, German immigrants since 1927, also had to report to the RCMP at Spirit River regularly, which was no small feat in those years. It required a trip by team and wagon of more than 30 miles to accomplish. There were some German immigrants from our area who were rounded up and kept in camps because of some suspicious activities. Gottfried enjoyed his time at the farm very much and talked about it in later years with fondness and thankfulness. After the war was over, Grandpa received a letter from the Canadian Government ordering him to “produce one live prisoner-of-war, Gottfried Scriba, to the train station on such and such a date.” Gottfried was shipped back to Germany to be repatriated.
Other German prisoners were not so lucky. Many of them were sent to detention camps to work off their keep doing all sorts of jobs. These camps were placed in isolated regions making it very difficult to escape from and cause turmoil in our country. The National Parks Bureau received prisoners which were sent to various regions from Western Ontario though Alberta. They cut fuel wood, pulp wood and built camp housing then tore it down when finished. Generally, the men were paid .50 per day, were fed and housed well and had some freedom. These camps were not like POW camps we hear of in Japan or Germany. Many of the POWs made life-long friends with fellow prisoners and guards.
|Spectacular Scenery Visits Made Possible by Hard Work of Many Detained Workers|
We have had, since these times, apologies made by government to the Japanese people for their treatment. All of the people above, except for the German POWs had done nothing wrong. They were victims of the hard times that Canada was going through as well as deep seated fears about possible subversives living among us. It continues today with the influx of Muslim immigrants coming from very war-like countries. Can we learn from the past or will we continue to be very suspicious of people who look a certain way or speak a different language? Are our policies of freedom-of-speech, freedom-of-religion, freedom-to-do-whatever get us in trouble down the road? I look back at the past one hundred years and wonder at the changes in government policy to immigrants. Europeans came and learned the rules-of-law, the language of the country and adapted to the land through very difficult times. They assimilated into the landscape and local culture of their communities while adding their own colours in harmony to build very rich and strong co-operative efforts to make a strong and united land. They built the roads, communities and added the convenience we do not think about today. Running water, electricity, telephones all came to be everyday conveniences which were unheard of in my parents and grandparents lifetime. Will our new refugees and immigrants add to the land or will they subvert the building process? All I can say is that we will be watchful and try to be aware of what is happening within our own communities.
I talked to one elderly lady within the past year who said she would never go back to Banff. She remembers it being a horrific trip on some of the worst roads. She recalls when there were no services to be had and it just wasn’t worth the trouble. I would say that it was during the late 1940s or early 1950s when she was last there. She is unaware of the new difficulties Banff is having with crowded streets thronging with foreign tourists.
As we drive through our National Parks of Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba, remember the hard work, human suffering and difficulties that some people endured to make them what we so treasure now. Take a look at the roads over the passes and up to Columbia Icefields and to Golden and pause for a moment using your imagination to see hundreds of men wielding a pick axe, shovel and wheel barrow building these roadways.
I’d like to thank Bill Waiser for bringing this story to light. Our history provides many lessons that can be learned from and that we need to never to forget.