Excerpt from Civilian Internment in Canada

by Rhonda L. Hinther and Jim Mochoruk

Eleven-year-old Myron Shatulsky missed seeing his beloved father, internee Matthew Shatulsky, by a mere two hours when the train transferring Matthew and his comrades from the internment camp in Kananaskis, Alberta, to one at Petawawa, Ontario, passed through Winnipeg earlier than anticipated on a July day in 1941. Myron had not seen his father since the RCMP hauled him away the year before, as part of what historian Reg Whitaker has termed the Canadian government’s “official repression of communism” during the war. “When we came to the station and heard that the train had [gone]—no need to write how we felt,” said Matthew’s wife Katherine in her next letter to him. “The poor boy has so many scars on his heart to heal that he will remember for the rest of his life.”

Now in his eighties, Myron Shatulsky’s experiences of the internment years and their impact on his family and community serve as a powerful reminder of the fragility of civil liberties and human rights. His story is part of a larger, complex—and contested—conversation on civilian internment in Canada.

Internment has affected persons from a variety of political backgrounds and racialized and ethnocultural communities, during times of war and perceived war, with the most well-known being the internments of those of Japanese, Ukrainian, and Italian descent. Experiences of arrest, internment, and displacement remain deeply felt by former internees and their kin.

Modern Canada has an unfortunately rich and shameful record of violating civil rights and liberties through the employment of civilian internment. This is a complicated and, at times, messy and confusing story encompassing arrest, displacement, and confinement. And this story spanned—and still spans—war and peacetimes, having affected persons from a wide variety of political backgrounds and ethno-cultural communities.

Civilian internment in this country has not been widely discussed, particularly in comparative ways, despite the well-known impounding of tens of thousands of Japanese, Ukrainians, assorted eastern Europeans, Germans, and Italians as “enemy aliens” during the two world wars, and in spite of the deeply rooted experiences of those directly affected and their kin, as Myron Shatulsky’s experience highlights.

In a dictionary sense, internment can be simply defined as the state of being confined as a prisoner without formal charge and conviction, with persons typically incarcerated for political or military reasons.

But, as this collection indicates, such a strict definition is too limited for what transpired in Canada. During the Great War (1914–1918), over 5,900 eastern Europeans, primarily from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were interned in camps across the country, ostensibly for reasons of national security—although part of the official rationale for internment of eastern Europeans quickly came to include the warehousing of the indigent and unemployed foreigner. Approximately 80,000 more were forced to register with, and report on a regular basis to, local authorities. And even after the wartime emergency ended, the Canadian state managed to transfer to other forms of legislation many of the powers of the War Measures Act, which had allowed it to imprison and deport “dangerous foreigners”—and others whose views the state disliked or feared.

As Reg Whitaker, Greg Kealy, Andrew Parnaby, and Dennis Molinaro have pointed out, for most of the interwar period, even when the War Measures Act was not in operation, the civil liberties of many Canadians, but especially those of Canada’s “ethnic” leftists, were at great risk. A series of legislative enactments and amendments related to Immigration, Citizenship, and the Criminal Code of Canada effectively extended wartime emergency laws into peacetime.5 Collectively, these laws made it possible to surveil, harass, arrest, imprison, and even deport those whom the government of Canada and various provincial attorneys general deemed to be members of subversive organizations.

Even more to the point, as Barbara Roberts has made clear, unknown—but sizable—numbers of foreign-born radicals were arrested, interned, and then deported via closed door and often secret administrative proceedings between 1919 and 1921—all on barely disguised political grounds.6 And although it is a commonplace belief that the level of harassment and deportation declined after the election of Mackenzie King’s Liberal government in 1921, the 1920s was still not an easy time to be an ethnic leftist. With or without the repeal of the amendments to the Immigration Act, immigrant radicals could be and were arrested, interned, and deported. But matters got even worse after R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government came to power in 1930.The new federal government decided to use Section 98 of the Criminal Code to attack the Communist Party, to seize its papers and other property, and to imprison eight of its leaders. It also decided to employ the Immigration Act to not only “shovel out the unemployed” during the Depression but also to get rid of ethnic radicals such as the “Halifax 10.”

Such actions were truly draconian and sent a chilling message: the government had found—and was more than willing to use—powers which allowed it to arrest, imprison, intern, and deport long-time residents of Canada and to otherwise suspend core civil liberties during the interwar period for those who dared to think and act in ways the government did not approve.

During the Second World War, using the newly enacted Defence of Canada Regulations, federal authorities, in league with local governments, the RCMP, and local police, worked to intern a diverse array of groups. Japanese Canadians (including men, women, and children), were forcibly relocated from the West Coast, and enjoy the dubious distinction of surpassing all other groups in terms of numbers affected (over 20,000 individuals were “evacuated”), loss of property, and the devastating effects on the community and individuals. Hundreds of persons of Italian and German descent were also incarcerated without charge, largely for their alleged pro-fascist and pro-Nazi political orientations.8 Over a hundred Communists and pro-Communists, many of whom were so-called “ethnic hall” socialists, were also rounded up and interned in 1940 and most remained incarcerated well after the Soviet Union became an ally in the summer of 1941. As several of the contributions to this volume note, Canada also played host to internees on behalf of Britain; among these were German merchant marines, Italian nationals, and a sizable number of European Jews who, despite being early victims of Nazism, were arrested and interned in Britain after the outbreak of the Second World War because they were German nationals.

While the common current uniting the internment of these disparate groups was ostensibly a concern for national security and the successful prosecution of the war effort, scholars and others have demonstrated (both in this collection and elsewhere) that in most cases these were not the real reasons these groups were targeted. Rather, wartime served as the perfect excuse to ramp up the racist targeting of groups like the Japanese Canadians. It is no exaggeration to say that ever since the earliest community members’ arrival, the lives of Japanese Canadians had been unequally regulated and circumscribed by formal and informal racist manoeuvring on the part of white government officials, union members, citizens’ groups, and others. Likewise, national security had little to do with the targeting of the far left; rather, federal and local authorities seized it as an excuse to thwart communist and pro-communist activism in Canada once and for all, making use of the Defence of Canada Regulations to sidestep legitimate legal process that would have—at least potentially—offered some possible semblance of justice served and the accompanying risk that these radicals might be acquitted if charged.

Just as the end of the Great War had not brought an end to internment in Canada, the conclusion of the Second World War was equally problematic in this regard. As the hot war ended, the Cold War began—and some would argue it began right here in Canada with the Gouzenko Affair. In light of his revelations of Soviet spying, the federal government, under authority of the War Measures Act—which had not yet expired in the fall of 1945—issued a secret order-in-council (PC 6444), which allowed authorities to detain without charge several Canadian communists, scientists, and so-called fellow travellers.

Authorities continued their surveillance of the far left during the Cold War through Operation Profunc (PROminent FUNCtionaries of the Communist Party), an initiative that endured for some thirty years starting in 1950. Under Operation Profunc, in the event of a Soviet attack or the advent of war, prominent Canadian communist activists and fellow travellers would be apprehended and interned. In 1970, invoking the War Measures Act in a time of peace, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau used its provisions to arrest and detain 497 people, all of whom could be held for up to ninety days without bail—at the discretion of the authorities—when the October Crisis gripped Quebec in 1970. And, as in previous episodes of detention and internment, most of those targeted for special attention were not terrorists, but political critics (in this case nationalist and leftist critics) of the dominant order in Quebec and Canada.

As a number of the contributions to this collection remind us, important legal changes came in the 1980s: indeed, we see the formal death of the War Measures Act following the success of the hard-fought Japanese Canadian redress movement; a movement that not only sought redress for what had happened to the community during the Second World War, but had linked this fight to a struggle for broad anti-racist educational initiatives and the protection of the civil liberties of all Canadians.

However, despite the changes in Canada’s “emergency laws,” these have not prevented subsequent governments from finding new ways to detain and hold persons perceived as threatening national security (or the values of the liberal state). In the
wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Canadian authorities became willing participants in the “War on Terror” in many ways, including the creation of a security certificate process that allowed authorities to hold suspected or believed potential terrorists without charge. Like other past internment episodes, this one is inherently racialized; the majority of targets are Muslim men of colour.

Some may very well say that this volume simply dredges up sad memories from a seemingly distant past; memories which are better left undisturbed. However, as the forgoing brief history of Canadian internment indicates, the suspension of civil liberties and de facto internment is with us in the here and now. Indeed, “forgetting” past human rights violations by our governments— such as interning people for no other reason than their ethnicity or racialized background or their religious and political beliefs—is extremely dangerous. It is such forgetfulness which allows governments to claim to be defenders of civil liberties (via the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), while simultaneously trying to find ways to circumvent those rights—usually in the name of allegedly compromised security, or vague notions of the greater good.

But the questions bear posing—whose security and whose greater good? The passage of Bill C-51—the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015—by the Harper government (and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unwillingness to retract it), the use of Security Certificates to detain and deport non-citizens on the grounds that they may be threats to national security, and the treatment accorded to Omar Khadr, both by our allies and then by the Canadian government, are stark reminders of the fragility of civil rights in Canada and the ways in which authorities use and abuse their power in often violent attempts to reshape undesirable bodies into questionable and politically loaded notions of ideal citizens.

In this regard, Mona Oikawa’s work linking white settler colonialism, internment (specifically Japanese Canadian internment during the Second World War), and residential schools for Indigenous children expands the conversation in a suggestive and compelling fashion. As she put it, “The genocidal practices utilized against Native Peoples, including forced displacement, incarceration, segregation, dispossession, destruction of community infrastructures, denigration of languages other than English and French, the role of the Christian churches in destroying traditional spiritual practices, and separation of families were forerunners to exclusionary white settler immigration policies and their policing of immigrants, and the eventual formulation and administration of the Internment.

Although the processes of colonization and the Internment are not identical, it is essential to see them as linked.” Given this, it makes sense that civilian internment in Canada—and elsewhere—needs to be considered as part and parcel of a cultural and political hegemony that grants incredible authority to those in power who can, and do, claim to be restricting the civil liberties of some Canadians “for the common good.”

We must be ever vigilant and active in questioning the motives and challenging the actions of those who seek to circumscribe human rights.

Rhonda L. Hinther is an Associate Professor of History at Brandon University and an active public historian. Prior to joining BU, Hinther served as Director of Research and Curation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and, before that, as Curator of Western Canadian History at the Canadian Museum of History. Her most recent book, a 2019 Wilson Prize Finalist, is entitled Perogies and Politics: Canada’s Ukrainian Left, 1891-1991 (2018).

Jim Mochoruk has taught at the University of North Dakota since 1993. His books include The People’s Co-op: The Life and Times of a North End Institution (2000) and” “Formidable Heritage:” Manitoba’s North and the Cost of Development, 1870 to 1930 (2004)”:https://uofmpress.ca/books/detail/formidable-heritage. Originally from Winnipeg, Jim is currently working on a book-length study concerning the social and economic history of Winnipeg—and its many real and imagined communities—in the inter-war period.

About the Book
Civilian Internment in Canada a conversation about not only internment, but also about the laws and procedures—past and present—which allow the state to disregard the basic civil liberties of some of its most vulnerable citizens. Exploring the connections, contrasts, and continuities across the broad range of civilian internments in Canada, this collection seeks to begin a conversation about the laws and procedures that allow the state to criminalize and deny the basic civil liberties of some of its most vulnerable citizens. It brings together multiple perspectives on the varied internment experiences of Canadians and others from the days of World War One to the present.

This volume offers a unique blend of personal memoirs of “survivors” and their descendants, alongside the work of community activists, public historians, and scholars, all of whom raise questions about how and why in Canada basic civil liberties have been (and, in some cases, continue to be) denied to certain groups in times of perceived national crises.