Prisoner of War Internment Camp Monument

In memory of prisoners of war

The pyramid-shaped monument that we see in the background was erected by prisoners of the First World War, in 1918. About thirty people rest in this small cemetery located near a farm.

A statue and a plaque were installed in their memory in 1995, The monument was restored in 2010.

Photo : Andréanne Joly

Forced labor

The first prisoners arrived in December 1914 and they were immediately sent to work clearing bush in -30-degree weather.

The government hoped to open the Clay Belt area for settlement, but it was first necessary to develop and test hardy food crops that might grow the challenging climate. A site for a federal experimental farm was provided by the Ontario government on a tract of 1,282 acres that lay west of the Kapuskasing River and south of the railway line. 

Intense cold in the winter and heat in the summer made life a misery for both prisoners and guards. Despite harsh conditions, over the next four years, some 1,300 internees constructed buildings and cleared hundreds of acres of spruce forest for the experimental farm and the future town-site.

Photo : Prisoners clearing the Way.

The initial vocation of the government project

Originally, the federal government said it wanted to develop and test hardy plants capable of growing in the capricious climate, which is why it sought to colonize the region known as the Clay Belt.

It is for this purpose that the Ontario government provided the federal government with a plot of land of 1,282 acres west of the Kapuskasing River and south of the railway to establish an experimental farm. This eventually became an internment center for prisoners of war sentenced to perform forced labor.

The severity of the winter cold and the summer heat made life miserable for both prisoners and guards. Despite the trying conditions, in the first four years, the 1,300 interned prisoners built buildings and cleared hundreds of acres of spruce forest for use on the experimental farm and eventual village.

Fists and fire

In the spring of 1916, the prisoners mutinied, and a serious riot erupted.  It was ignited by several prisoners transferred from the Petawawa internment camp where they had refused to work after being forced to do so during religious holidays. They continued their resistance and were soon joined by most of the established inmates. The dispute culminated in a confrontation in which three hundred armed soldiers used firearms and bayonets on the prisoners, seriously wounding a dozen. 

During the summer of 1916, much of northern Ontario was swept by raging forest fires. The towns of Cochrane and Matheson were wiped out and many lives lost. On July 29, the entire population of the Kapuskasing camp - guards and inmates - fought the flames threatening the camp. They succeeded, with no loss of life, and were able to transport food and clothing to destitute survivors at Cochrane long before relief from southern Ontario could arrive.

Ukrainian Internment in Canada During WWI


Successful Escapes

Three prisoners managed to escape the scene, including a very powerful man who allegedly twisted the steel bars of his cell door and window in order to escape with another prisoner during the night. Probably having boarded a train without anyone knowing, they were never seen again.

The third of the escapees not found adopted a less conventional and much less obvious and pleasant method. He and another prisoner hid in two foul barrels used to transport the contents of the camp's latrines for disposal outside the site. At nightfall, the two morose prisoners came out of their execrable hiding place and disappeared. Two months later, one was arrested in Saskatchewan, but the other was never seen again.

 

The Great Escapes

While the remote location of the Kapuskasing Camp discouraged escape, the last six months of 1917 saw no fewer than ten attempts!  No match for the bugs, bears, and terrain, all but three prisoners failed in their attempts, either being captured, dying from starvation and exposure, or returning of their own volition after encountering the stark reality of Northern Ontario’s wilderness.  

Two of the three that were never recaptured included a prisoner of incredible strength who is said to have bent the iron bars of his cell door along with those an outside window, escaping into the night along with a fellow cellmate.  Likely riding out on a through freight, the pair were never seen again.

The third prisoner that managed to avoid capture used a less conventional, and arguably much less pleasant, method of escape. Two prisoners opted to hide in a pair of large stinking casks which had been filled and then used to transport the contents of the camp latrines offsite for disposal.  Once it had grown dark, the long-suffering pair emerged from their vile hiding-places and vanished. Two months later one was arrested in Saskatchewan, the other never to be recaptured.

POW

Most inmates were paroled in 1917 to help relieve wartime labour shortages. Approximately 60 men remained in camp for health or security reasons. They were soon joined by 400 German prisoners of war transferred from the recently closed Fort Henry internment station, soon to be followed by the prisoners at Banff. To hold these more dangerous inmates, high barbed-wire fences were erected around the camp and a stricter regime was instituted. Soon the camp's population again rose to over 1,200 prisoners. The majority now were German prisoners of war, mostly sailors and merchant seamen taken from German ships in the Caribbean.

Following the end of the First World War in 1918, the internment camp in Kapuskasing remained in operation holding prisoners of war and political radicals, including leaders of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.  In the summer of 1919, it was decided to move the internees from all the camps but a lack of available steamship accommodation to transport them to Europe made the process agonizingly slow. Only three camps remained in operation at this point. Kapuskasing was the last to close, on February 24, 1920.

The camp buildings were subsequently sold by tender and torn down. The only physical reminder of the Kapuskasing internment camp is a small cemetery containing the graves of thirty-two prisoners that is situated across from the town's public cemetery.

Addition of Barbed Wire

Soon after, about 400 German prisoners of war from the recently closed Fort Henry internment station were added, as were prisoners from Banff.

Since these prisoners were considered more dangerous, barbed wire fences were put up around the camp and more stringent rules were adopted. The camp's population continued to climb, numbering some 1,200 prisoners, most of them German prisoners of war, mostly sailors and merchant seamen, captured on German ships in the Caribbean.

Even after the end of World War I in 1918, the internment camp at Kapuskasing continued to house prisoners of war and political radicals, including the leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. In the summer In that year, it was decided to transport the internees from all the camps in Europe, but the process was terribly slow due to the lack of steamships. At the time, only three functional camps remained, including Kapuskasing, which was the last to close on February 24, 1920.

The camp buildings were sold by auction and subsequently demolished. A small cemetery containing the graves of 32 prisoners, located opposite the town's public cemetery, is the only physical evocation of the Kapuskasing internment camp.

Lest we forget

It is generally agreed that the internment of enemy aliens from eastern European countries was an over-reaction prompted more by public paranoia and prejudice than by any real threat to national security. A plaque, which is located just outside Kapuskasing’s railroad station came about as part of the $10-million Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund. It is one of 100 plaques that appeared across the country as a formal acknowledgement from the Canadian government that "a wrong was done to citizens of Ukrainian and other East European origins" during the 1914-1920 internment operations.



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Excerpt of
Self-Guided Tour of Kapuskasing and Hearst Region

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