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Interned Without Cause, by Peter Krawchuk


Sixty-five kilometres to the southwest of Calgary, on the railroad line stretching to Vancouver, was the small station of Seebe. Eleven kilometres to the south of Seebe, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, was the Indian settlement of Kananaskis, past which flowed a river of the same name. This name came from the legend that allegedly it was here that the Indian Kananaskis had recovered from a blow to the head with an axe. The natural picturesque beauty of the area drew the attention of tourists who travelled by the lakes, rivers and dense forests on the Rocky Mountain ranges via the Trans-Canada Highway.

In the midst of this blissful beauty, in 1939 when the Second World War began, the federal government opened an internment camp to which the RCMP transported arrested Germans from Western Canada, who had been active in or were sympathetic with the pro-Hitler organization Deutsche Bund fur Kanada. In the opinion of the authorities these people were enemies of Canada, which was fighting Nazi Germany together with other countries. These people not only desired victory for the Vaterland but also hindered the Canadian war effort with their malicious, whispered rumours which they received from the German Ministry of Propaganda and bow-legged Josef Goebbels in Berlin through the United States of America, which still had not been dragged into the war.

The police brought the first of the arrested antifascists from Winnipeg Jacob Penner and John Naviziwsky -- to that very concentration camp in June, 1940. At that time in the camp there were 250 interned Germans. John Naviziwsky was given number 251. On July 8, 17 arrested antifascists were delivered there. As an immediate consequence the internees who ideologically had nothing in common with the German fascists formed a group and immediately demanded to be physically segregated from the Germans, to have separate barracks for themselves and to have their own representative recognized by the administration.

The camp commandant was Lieutenant-Colonel W. H. de Watson a coarse person, a typical British officer, viciously disposed toward communists and generally against progressive people. Punctiliously maintaining the camp regulations, he declined to allot separate barracks to the antifascists and did not agree to a separate representative for them. He agreed only to an assistant spokesman for the antifascists. In Kananaskis the assistant representative was Andrew Bileski. On the commandant's orders the camp administration scattered the antifascists among the Nazis one, two or three to a barrack. After some time a single barrack was allotted to the antifascists because of their resolute insistence. It was not only the abode of 12 internees but became in reality the communal quarters for all interned antifascists. Meetings, lectures and even rehearsals of an improvised choir were held in this barrack. It was only in the beginning of 1941 that all antifascists were separated from the Nazis and given their own barracks.

The German Nazis talked as if the commandant had told them to "mop the barracks' floors with the communists". Knowing his anti-communist disposition one could easily believe that he could give such instructions to the German Nazis, his sympathies for whom he did not hide.

The camp was bounded on the west by the foothills overgrown with forest, on the south by the precipitously high Barrier Mountain, on the north by the Kananaskis River, and on the east by the plains which stretched out to Seebe railway station.

The camp was divided into two sections: in one section, behind barbed wire, were the barracks of the internees; in the other were the administrative buildings, the guards' barracks, the stores and the dining hall.

The section of the camp holding the internees was surrounded by two parallel barbed wire fences, four metres in height. Between the fences there was quite a narrow corridor (perhaps three metres wide), through which at established intervals the sergeant-major regularly conveyed the relief guards. The camp looked like a triangle. A guard tower dominated each corner. Inside each tower was a soldier armed with a rifle. He followed the internees' movements in the prison section of the camp.

Wire was strung alongside the fence, several metres from it. This was the boundary to which an internee could go. If he were to step over this wire and approach the fence, then the guard, after warning him, had the right to shoot him. During the whole of my stay at the camp there was no instance of a guard shooting someone or someone endeavouring to step into the forbidden zone. True, there were several attempts to escape but not from the camp itself, only during work in the forest. One time some Nazis rioted and the guards mounted machine guns on the towers, aiming the muzzles at the mob which was assembled on the parade-ground shouting fascist rallying cries and singing their anthem Horst Wessel Lied. The antifascists did not take part in this riot; they had segregated themselves immediately from the Nazi adventure.

The camp guard was made up of older soldiers the Home Guard among whom were quite a few former members of the Organization of the Unemployed and participants in the On to Ottawa Trek. There was even one guard, Jimmy Wilson, who fought in the ranks of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion against the fascist insurrection in Spain in 1936-39. He was a personal friend of Pat Lenihan, the communist Calgary alderman, who was in the camp at Kananaskis. It was through Jimmy Wilson that we learned the news of our comrades at liberty and also passed on to them information about our living conditions. Often this information was passed to him by William Rigby of Vancouver and myself because we both, alternately, served the guard room and had direct contact with the soldiers. Generally they were sympathetic towards us and could not understand why we were being held behind barbed wire, knowing that we hated fascism. Without exception the soldiers hated the interned German Nazis. Nevertheless it should be noted that not all the interned Germans were fascists, for among them were guiltless victims who had nothing in common with the Nazis; they also hated Hitlerism.

The internees' barracks were located along the north and south sides of the camp. In the western part were the kitchen and lavatory. In the eastern part were the offices of the internees' representative and the quarters of the internal military guard. Every four hours the guard changed there. They were unarmed. Their duty was to ascertain, along with the commandant or his assistant, the presence of the internees on the parade-ground and in the buildings (at night). They escorted the internees, accompanied by the camp representative, to the commandant's offices or to the quarter-master's stores. In their quarters they distributed parcels and mail received on behalf of the internees. They were under the command of the sergeant-major. In the northeastern corner of the camp was the solitary confinement cell where an internee would be dispatched for breaking the regulations, particularly if he refused to salute the senior military ranks, beginning with the sergeant-major up to the lieutenant-colonel (commandant of the camp). In the southwestern part was the camp hospital for the internees. In the southern part was the recreation hall where meetings permitted by the administration, concerts and showings of old motion pictures took place. Early on Sundays church services were held there. Whoever wished to do so took part in them; no one was constrained to attend.

In the middle, between the rows of barracks, was the parade-ground where the internees played soccer in the evening and on Sunday. The Nazis named this square Hitler Platz. By the way, they called the little avenue by our barracks Stalin Strasse.

The internees had their own canteen where they could buy tobacco, cigarette papers, matches, note-books, pencils, soap, toothbrushes, razors and other small items. The internees were not allowed to have money; they were given yellow paper tokens on which was designated the equivalent value in money. The administration gave goods from the canteen in return for these tickets. One was not allowed to have money so that one could not bribe the guards with it.

The barracks were built of thin boards, the roof was covered with tar paper and barbed wire was stretched over the windows. Beside the walls stood the beds six on each side. Near the rear wall there was a shelf on which was a bucket of water, and near the bucket there was a tin cup. On the floor was located the pail used as a urinal. In the middle of the barrack was located a long table primitively knocked together from boards. On both sides of the table stood benches. Not far from the table there was a wood stove. The smoke went outside through a pipe in the roof.

At night the barrack was locked from outside. If an internee needed to go to the latrine then he had to pound on the doors so that the guard would hear and take him outside. In that case the internee woke not only all his barrack mates but also those in the neighbouring barracks since they were located near by.

There was no plumbing in the barracks and thus the internees used a single common latrine, a long deep pit under a shed. In the morning the barrack orderly carried out the pail of urine to the latrine. When the latrine pit filled up, it was covered over with earth and another was dug.

In the first months the barracks were lit at night with oil lamps. Later electricity was brought in and each barrack was lit with a single lightbulb. Of course, one bulb was not enough for proper lighting especially for reading books.

The military section of the camp, which was not fenced off, was separated from the prison section by a great gate through which trucks drove occasionally and a narrow wicket, through which an internee passed under escort by a sergeant or corporal. When the prisoner returned to camp the guard at the wicket searched him: he turned his pockets inside out and felt him to see that he had not brought in any contraband under his clothing. The prisoner had to hold his hands up in the air then.

The military administration of the camp consisted of the commandant (the lieutenant-colonel), a major, captains, lieutenants and soldiers. Altogether they numbered perhaps close to 200 men. The officers lived in comfortable buildings with modern fittings bathtubs, toilets with running water, small furnished rooms. The soldiers lived in ordinary wooden barracks.

Access to the camp was forbidden to civilians. Not even the wives and children of the internees were allowed in. But very often, particularly in summer, the officers brought women, perhaps their lovers, to their quarters.


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