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Daily life in WW I internment camps

Overview of the set

This set of History Docs invites students to assess the daily living conditions of internees held in Canadian World War I internment camps after examining a variety of primary and secondary sources including government documents, photographs, personal letters, journal articles, books, and historical fiction.

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Primary sources

1. Report on internment operations |

2. Camp Otter, Yoho National Park, 1916 |

3. Report on internment activities |

4. Internees working on a road |

5. Prisoner on a stretcher |

6. Inside the campground at Kapuskasing |

7. A report of complaints |

8. Report of Captain O. L. Spencer’s |

9. Work camp on Rundle Mountain |

10. Censored letter from an internee |

Secondary sources

1. Diary of a young Ukrainian girl |

2. Internment camp living conditions |

3. Inspection of Spirit Lake Camp |

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Student tasks

Question: What were daily conditions like for internees in internment camps across Canada during World War I?

When determining what conditions were like for internees, you may want to consider the following aspects:

  • living conditions (sleeping quarters, cooking and eating facilities).
  • quality of life (access to water and medical treatment, safety).
  • treatment by guards and other officials.
  • working conditions.
  • leisure time.

Teacher notes

The following notes are intended to:

  • help teachers guide student interpretation of the sources included in the set of History Docs
  • provide teachers with historical background information on the topic.

Using History Docs

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Tools for investigating documents

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Historical context for teachers

Internment of Ukrainians

  • In total, 8579 “enemy aliens” (including 81 women and 156 children) were interned in the 24 internment camps across Canada. Only 3138 of the 8579 internees could be properly classified as prisoners of war (POWs), (individuals captured under arms or reservists required to serve in the Austrian or German armed forces), and only 817 of these POWs were active servicemen captured in Caribbean ports at the onset of the war and transferred to Canada.
  • The internment camps housed 7762 Canadian residents, 5954 non-Germans from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1192 Germans, 205 Turks and 99 Bulgarians.
  • Internees from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were officially designated as Austrians, although the vast majority were different minorities including Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Poles, Slovenes and Ukrainians.
  • Although no formal tally of ethnic origin exists, the majority of surnames in the camps were Ukrainian which reflects the ethnic make-up of immigrants from Austria-Hungary in Canada at the time. No Ukrainians originally from the Russian Empire were interned because Russia was an ally of Great Britain.

Organization of the camps

  • Upon being interned, internees’ possessions and monetary funds were seized by the Canadian government. The prisoners in the camps were segregated into two classes according to their nationality, occupation and previous military service.
  • Generally speaking, internees of German ethnicity were treated as first-class internees while Ukrainians and other ethnic groups from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were designated second-class internees.
  • First-class internees received preferred accommodation and rations, usually staying near an urban centre. Second-class internees were forced to work for the Canadian government, usually far away from major urban centres.
  • The Hague Convention outlined rules for the employment of POWs. Internees were required to provide work for their own comfort, cleanliness and health. However, any work completed for the advantage of the government, or for the service of private individuals or corporations, was voluntary and required payment.
  • Internees received the same pay as a Canadian soldier for noncombat work (25 cents per day). Internees were primarily put to work building roads, clearing land (including for experimental farms in northern Ontario and Québec), cutting wood, building railways and building Canada’s national parks, including Banff National Park in Alberta.
  • Due to severe labour shortages across Canada during the last two years of the war, many internment camps closed between 1916 and 1918. Many internees were paroled to private companies to work as full-time employees, or shipped to larger camps. Those who were paroled and allowed to leave the camps went to work for private businesses; for municipal, provincial and federal levels of government; or for railway companies.
  • Many paroled Ukrainians were forced to move to different spots across Canada without their families, and many were employed in industries in which they had no previous experience.
  • Although most camps closed from 1916 to 1918, several camps (in Vernon, British Columbia; Kapuskasing, Ontario; and Amherst, Nova Scotia) were not closed until 1919 or 1920, a full year and a half after the end of the war.