Under Suspicion
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Turmoil on the Homefront
Under Suspicion
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Under Suspicion
People born in enemy countries face hostility and imprisonment in Canada during the First World War
As Canada fought in the battlefields of the First World War, a different war was being waged on the homefront. There, it was against thousands of immigrants born in enemy countries.
During the First World War, 8,579 immigrants born in enemy countries were detained in 24 camps throughout Canada including this one in Spirit Lake, Quebec. (National Archives of Canada, PA170620)
During the First World War, 8,579 immigrants born in enemy countries were detained in 24 camps throughout Canada including this one in Spirit Lake, Quebec. (National Archives of Canada, PA170620)

"When Ottawa imprisoned my family, I was six years old," remembered Mary Manko. "I did not do anything wrong. My parents came to Canada in search of liberty. They were invited here. They worked hard, helped build the country with their blood, toil and tears."

Mary Manko was born in Canada to Ukrainian parents. When war broke out against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, immigrants from those countries were suddenly under suspicion of being possible enemy agents. In fact, most were farmers or workers lured to Canada before the war by the federal governments immigration incentives.

Now the federal government forced these immigrants to register, to carry around special identity papers and report regularly to the authorities. Some were interned- confined during the war in camps.

They also experienced a hostile Canadian public, which directed its anger toward anyone or anything linked to enemy countries.

Berlin, Ontario shared its name with the capital of Germany and three-quarters of its population were of German ancestry. In August 1914, anti-German feelings ran so high in that town that a statue of German leader Kaiser Wilhelm was pulled down and heaved into a lake. Two years later, the city's name was changed to Kitchener (after the Lord Horatio Kitchener, the British War Secretary.)

Public hostility increased in May 1915 after German U-Boats torpedoed the Lusitania, a large passenger liner carrying travelers from New York to England. The ship sank off Ireland, and 1,200 people were lost, including 100 Canadians, most of whom were women and children meeting up with husbands or fathers serving overseas.

Canadians angrily attacked German shops in Victoria, Montreal and Vancouver.

In 1917, the federal government stepped up its efforts in the war against "enemy" immigrants. Canadian citizens originally from enemy countries were stripped of their right to vote under the Wartime Elections Act.

But the biggest government assault against the immigrants was the internment camp. Any enemy "alien" who failed to report once a month or to register, or was suspected of collusion with the enemy, was interned.

During the war, 8,579 immigrants were detained in 24 camps throughout Canada: Germans, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarians, Turks, Croats, Serbians and especially Ukrainians (then known as Galicians) who were guilty only of coming from a country that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Mary Manko and her family were detained in Quebec. They found themselves in the Spirit Lake camp, near Amos, in the Abitibi region, surrounded by 400 kilometres of forest. For two years, 1,200 prisoners, including 60 women and children, were incarcerated there at gunpoint

At the camp, some chores were compulsory: making meals, doing housework, carrying wood.

"At first," said Nicola Sakaliuk, another Ukrainian interned at Spirit Lake, "they told us that we could work or not work, as we saw fit. But these conditions only lasted one month or two. Then, if you refused to work, they put you on dry bread and water. And if that didnt work, they stopped feeding you. I was convinced that they didnt have the right to act like that."

In 1916, nearly all internees were released due to the labour shortage in Canada caused by the presence of so many men at the front.

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