Researcher uncovers details about Vernon's WW I internment camp

During the First World War, Canada interned more than 8,500 enemy aliens in 24 camps across the country. Historian Don McNair has been studying the Vernon internment camp for two years and is gearing up to do a presentation on his findings.

Amateur historian, Don McNair, has been researching Vernon's internment camp for 2 years

Guards escort prisoners into the Vernon internment camp, which historian Don McNair says was mostly made up of single German men. (Gwen Cash, courtesy of Derek Cash)

Don McNair has spent a large chunk of the past two years researching a World War I internment camp that was in Vernon, B.C.

He's gearing up to present his findings — including artifacts, stories from relatives and new information about what life was like for the men and women who were imprisoned there.

"One of the beauties of the research we've done is how the details of particular prisoners lives have begun to spring out," McNair said.

Despite being on a small 10-acre lot, McNair said that the Vernon internment camp housed up to 500 prisoners and guards. ( Library and Archives Canada PA 127103)

During World War I, people who had immigrated to Canada of German and Austro-Hungarian descent quickly became enemy aliens under the War Measures Act.

Canada interned more than 8,500 enemy aliens across the country, including many in B.C. 

McNair says the Vernon camp, which opened at the start of the war, became very crowded, very fast, as the original building was only meant to house 80 prisoners. The lot itself was only 10 acres and room was needed for garden plots and orchards.

"Between prisoners and guards, at one point in 1918, you got over 500 people living on that site," McNair said.

"There's one guy who described it as a beehive and I think that's because people, in a sense, were crawling all over each other."

With three work camps nearby — the Mara Lake, Monashee and Edgewood camps — McNair says there was no gruelling labour to be done at the Vernon camp.

"Prisoners who arrived in Vernon, if they were German they tended to stay in Vernon, but if they were from Austria-Hungary they tended to be pushed off to work camps in the immediate vicinity to build roads ... and paid a measly wage for it," McNair said.

During the First World War, Canada interned more than 8,500 enemy aliens in 24 camps across the country. Historian Don McNair has been studying the Vernon internment camp for two years and is gearing up to do a presentation on his findings. 9:12

McNair says that despite some times of overcrowding and a couple of prisoners trying to escape, he did not come across many stories of violence or fighting between detainees and guards.

"One the one hand, we have this lack of evidence of brutality, and on the other hand, we have it being described at one point as 'the most difficult of our camps' by the national director of the program."

The research was made possible through grants awarded to the Vernon and District Family History Society by the Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund.

McNair will be presenting some of his findings this weekend at The Greater Vernon Museum and Archives.

With files from Radio West