DANGEROUS PATRIOTS: CANADA'S UNKNOWN PRISONERS OF WAR
Kathleen M. Repka and William Repka.
Volume 11 Number 4.
In 1940, the Canadian government used the power of the War Measures Act to ban the Communist Party in Canada and many other communist and pro-communist organizations and newspapers. Soon after, more than a hundred of the leading activists were arrested and sent to prisoner of war internment camps at Kananaskis, Alberta, Petawawa, Ontario and Hull, Quebec. These men were not charged, were not allowed a lawyer; most never even had a hearing. They were denied contact with family and friends from the time of their arrest. They were simply interned as a threat to Canada.
In the prison camps, they were often treated worse than the German, Italian, and Canadian Nazis and fascists. At Kananaskis, each communist was forced to share a barrack with eleven fascists, and since they made up ninety per cent or more of prisoners of these camps, their leaders allocated jobs, enforced internal discipline and acted as spokesmen for all prisoner grievances, requests, etc. These men spent nearly two years as prisoners. During that time, they were denied access to the news, and letters from family were heavily censored. Medical care was minimal, and several died from illnesses.
It should be remembered that soon after war broke out, Stalin and Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact and divided Eastern Europe between them. It was believed quite likely that the U.S.S.R. would assist Germ an-Japanese war aims, possibly even join the war as their ally. In Canada, the Communist Party, though small, has considerable influence. Its members were very active in many ethnic organizations and labour unions. They had been very visible as labour organizers in many serious labour disputes, particularly in attempts to organize the least protected workers in agriculture, fishing, and the garment industry. They had elected several aldermen, members of provincial legislatures, even a Member of Parliament. And they openly denounced the war at every opportunity until Hitler turned on Russia.
Throughout the book the people profiled refer to themselves and their friends as anti-fascists, or progressive or labour groups and seldom as communists in order to minimize negative reactions. In addition, the title, Dangerous Patriots, is somewhat misleading. Though several of the internees joined the Canadian armed forces after their release and many more had sons, brothers, etc., in uniform while they were held prisoner by their own government, and some of both groups died in the war, it is apparent, throughout the book, that the primary concern of these people, first in opposing, then in supporting the war effort, was the safety of the Soviet Union.
Clearly, the powerful anti-communist business community and their friends in government saw in the War Measures Act, an opportunity to get rid of a troublesome element without worrying about the niceties of civil rights and the rule of law.
Like the Japanese-Canadians, communists and left-wing radicals lost all their rights as citizens by Order in Council, and were made prisoners by bureaucratic decree with no opportunity to face their accusers or even know of what they had been accused or by whom. Apparently, there were cases of people taken in error because their name was similar to someone on the arrest lists.
This book is important because it reminds us how fragile our legal rights are, particularly if we are, or are perceived to be, part of an "undesirable" element. The argument that it only happened because of the war and could not be repeated was clearly disproved in the October Crisis of 1970 when the War Measures Act was again used to jail hundreds of people, some of whom though separatist, were clearly opposed to the FLQ and the use of violence to pursue separatism, while many others had no relationship to the movement. In addition, many authorities throughout the country came forward to suggest that the opportunity be used to "deal with" undesirable elements ranging from hippies to "welfare bums."
This book is written in an easy, conversational style that only occasionally lapses into the stilted phrases of communist rhetoric. It consists of a collection of personal accounts of the prisoners. There are pictures of most of the people profiled, which give greater reality to the account.
This book would be a valuable addition to any public, high school, college, or university library that maintains a serious World War II collection. It would make a valuable parallel to the treatment of the Japanese Canadians in World War II or a study of minority groups and "undesirables" in democratic societies. As it is the only source on this topic, it should be seriously considered for purchase.
Neil Payne, Kingston C. V. I., Kingston, ON.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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