Canada’s darkest chapter hiding among the rockies
A prisoner finds himself standing on the hard, cold ground of the Alberta prairies, shivering in the shade cast by the easternmost peak of the Rockies’ main ranges. As the sun goes down the temperature dives below -20 C. He was never given proper winter clothes and is forced to stuff old newspaper into his jacket and shoes to hold in body heat.
He was picked up by the police somewhere out east. Perhaps Etobicoke or Brandon – a lot of people in the camps were from Brandon, Manitoba. The crime, the reason they shipped him out here, was his country of origin. Nothing more. Now he’s shivering at the base of Castle Mountain. Living now in one of the harshest Canadian internment camps created at the beginning of the first world war.
Canada’s illegal prison camps
The Canadian government created 24 permanent internment camps across the country during 1914-15 to house thousands of Ukrainians pulled from the nation’s cities for the crime of their heritage. Just under 9,000 naturalized citizens, most of them Ukrainian, were branded as enemy aliens when hostilities between Britain and its allies began against the Austro-Hungarian alliance with Germany in August 1914.
Alberta housed five of the internment camps, primarily in small towns across the southwest edge of the province: Jasper, Banff, Castle Mountain, Lethbridge and Munson.
The Castle Mountain camp was opened July 14, 1915 when an undocumented mix of 300 prisoners were transferred to the site. The Calgary Herald reported the week before, citing a Colonel Cruickshanks as source, that the prisoners would be put to work on the road between Castle and Banff.
The Castle camp consisted of canvas tents pitched in a small clearing previously made for lumber. The camp was surrounded by a ten-foot wall of logs and barbed wire. Initially reported as being a camp for 80 to 100, the population quickly swelled when another 500 were sent to the camp two months later. By the end of the summer it was over 600 male prisoners in camp.
Guards and prisoners organizing and expanding the size of the camp, Castle Mountain, Alberta. Photos courtesy of Glenbow Museum.
even the guards live in misery
A news blurb in the Banff Crag and Canyon paper sourced information on the camp from a group of soldiers turned guards, pulled from the 103rd Rifles Calgary. The original clearing proved too small and the guards had been forced to march a group of prisoners into the bush to clear way for an expansion of the camp. When the last of the soldiers arrived they were told “tales of woe” from the other guards.
The paper never interviewed the prisoners.
Reading of a letter from Castle Mountain supply officer. Photos courtesy of Glenbow Museum.
A larger issue than the overcrowding emerged as the weather turned: with no permanent structures or other adequate infrastructure, trying to survive in the camp during the winter months was nearly impossible.
Weather in the valley also changes rapidly and can kill with little warning.
The camp was closed during the winter, forcing the entire population to march from the Castle Mountain area up to a military barracks next to the Cave and Basin in Banff each year.
None of the newspaper records or historical documents we found mention the conditions of the camps. Photographic evidence makes it plain that the physical conditions were difficult – cold and inhospitable during the winter, dry and scorching in the summer.
The story finally emerges
No one who was interned in the camps is still alive to tell their story.
But it was only recently, when filmmaker Ryan Boyko used the resources of the the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, to bring the story of the camps to the world.
Boyko interviewed Walter Gerdts Jr. whose father had been a prisoner in the Castle/Banff camps. In the Boyko’s recently released documentary “That Never Happened,” Gerdts recounted his father’s words about the lack of food.
“He said they were always hungry. They stole potatoes and ate those,” said Gerdts. “And he said there isn’t a live cat around the camp… they all went for stew.”
No records were kept of those who died due to malnourishment or suicide in the camps. The only noted deaths were those prisoners who had the gall to escape into the frozen landscape. A handful were shot and a few were later found frozen to death. But some managed to slip away, no longer content to shiver in the shade of the mountain and willing to brave the elements to return home.
The Castle and Banff camps were closed on the same day, July. 15, 1917. Some researchers have recently come across lengths of rusty barbed wire and rotting lumber in the woods near the highway as the sites are scoured for evidence. Much of the material was simply left where it was standing, like the story the camps were left behind to vanish with time.