Prisoners of the Home Front

Prisoners of the Home Front: German POWs and ‘Enemy Aliens’ in Southern Quebec, 1940 – 1946
Published on October 1, 2006

Prisoners Of The Home Front: German Pows And ‘enemy Aliens’ In Southern Quebec, 1940 – 1946
Martin F. Auger

UBC Press

The terms “concentration camp” and “internment” conjure up images of Nazi death camps, and the western internment centres for Japanese “enemy aliens” described so eloquently in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. The reality, at least in Quebec, was very different.

In this micro-history, Auger first traces the history of the concentration camp, which was created in the late 19th century as an instrument for the suppression of guerrilla warfare. These were camps for civilians, whereas the internment camps were for prisoners of war. In southern Quebec five camps were set up in 1940 to detain enemy aliens – citizens of Germany or other Axis countries living in Canada – and to contain the overflow of prisoners of war from Britain’s overloaded system.

(That system became so overloaded at the end of the war, when Axis soldiers surrendered in immense numbers that it finally broke down.) In some ways the POWs had an easier time in their camps than the interned aliens had in theirs. The former were protected by Canada’s scrupulous following of the Geneva Convention, partly to avoid retaliation visited on Canadian prisoners of war in German camps. As well, the soldiers were accustomed to communal and regulated life. On the other hand, the enemy aliens were re-integrated into Canadian life more quickly, as they proved that they weren’t a threat to Canada. The German POWs were repatriated slowly after 1945 due to the chaos in their homeland, and their camps were not closed until 1946.

The POWs were well fed until the end of the war (sometimes better than Canadian citizens who endured food rationing, and this caused some hostility on the part of the citizenry), had access to classes and recreational facilities, and eventually to paid work. According to the Geneva Convention, POWs could not be compelled to work, and officers were not allowed to do so. This meant that any officers who wished to work (some wanted to set up model farms and learn animal husbandry) had to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to do so. The Canadian government preferred to keep the prisoners occupied, to lessen the likelihood of trouble and escape attempts. The attempts at education were aimed to introduce the Germans (particularly the Nazi sympathizers) to democratic principles, as they would be the builders of postwar Germany.

Auger has drawn a detailed and compelling portrait of these camps from all available documents, including interviews with some of the detainees. It is very telling that some of the German POWs who were repatriated eventually came back to Canada and became Canadian citizens. mRb

Margaret Goldik is a former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.



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