1914-18 First World War

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Internment Camp | Copyright Dominique Clément / Clément Consulting

For recent immigrants and political radicals in Canada, the “Great War” was a time of censorship, repression, and for many, life in an internment camp. During the war, the federal government waged its own internal conflict against potential subversives through the registration and detention of enemy aliens. In total, eighty thousand enemy aliens were registered, and 8,579 men, 81 women, and 156 children were interned during the war. Many internees, “foreign aliens” who espoused radical political ideas, were found guilty of possessing prohibited literature, attending illegal meetings, or of belonging to a banned group. Six individuals were tried for sedition during the war, four of whom were convicted for expressing pro-German sentiments. Censorship proscribed only 2 items in 1914 and 16 in 1915, jumping to a total of 184 by 1918. Rather than ending with the war, the powers of Canada’s chief censor increased, allowing him to ban any publication in an enemy language. Order-in-Council PC2381 was passed on 25 September 1918 with the attendant penalties of $5,000 and/or five years in jail for distributing forbidden literature. Rooted in concerns over the implications of the Bolshevik Revolution and of support for socialism at home, the legislation had more to do with suppressing socialism than dealing with the exigencies of war. Order-in-Council PC2384 outlawed political and labour groups, banning freedom of association, assembly, and speech for many people in Canada (most of whom were recent immigrants).

The War Measures Act was perhaps the war’s greatest legacy for the human rights movement. Created and passed by the Conservative government in 1914, it would be reinvoked in 1939 to deal with the Second World War and Igor Gouzenko’s defection, and during the October Crisis of 1970. Barely two pages long, it empowered the federal government to suspend all rights, and it transferred authority from Parliament to cabinet, which effectively ruled the entire country by decree for four years. A stunning range of orders flowed from the act. The government suspended habeas corpus; imposed widespread censorship; declared numerous associations as unlawful; broke strikes and banned newspapers from reporting on its actions (and later banned striking); limited due process to facilitate prosecutions; interned thousands of enemy aliens; and created agencies to regulate prices and control the production or distribution of goods. Parliament imposed conscription, which led to the jailing of thousands of men for desertion, and it threatened to conscript anyone who incited or participated in labour unrest. Citizens were encouraged to spy on their neighbours to discourage hoarding or waste in the midst of food shortages. Government officials were authorized to seize and destroy any materials that they judged prejudicial to the war effort. Anyone who expressed “objectionable speech” – including unfavourable comments about the government or the war – could be fined $5,000 and/or imprisoned for five years. Virtually any utterance might be construed as supporting an unlawful organization, which the Order-in-Council defined as (among other things) comments that were profane, scurrilous, or abusive toward the government. In court prosecutions, the onus of proof was reversed: rather than being considered innocent unless proven guilty, the accused were required to prove that they were not guilty. If it deemed an organization to be unlawful, the government could seize its property, break into and search any premises without a warrant, and prosecute any member or individual affiliated with the group. People who rented or provided space to an unlawful association were equally guilty, and guilt was retroactive: if they had supported the organization in any way at the beginning of the war, they were guilty even if there was no proof of their continued affiliation.

These are only the most blatant examples of restrictions on civil liberties during the war. Such power inevitably led to abuses, such as an absurd Order-in-Council that criminalized idlers or a policy that banned dog shows. Following a 1918 conscription riot in Quebec City, Ottawa passed an Order-in-Council to permit the military to prosecute individuals by court martial, a policy that was disturbingly reminiscent of the Lawless Aggression Act that followed the rebellions of 1837-38. Another Order-in-Council made it a crime for women with a venereal disease to have sexual intercourse (or to solicit) any member of the Armed Forces. A woman found guilty could be forcibly detained for at least a week while she underwent a medical examination. And Ottawa’s penchant for using excessive measures did not end with the war. Even for a nation traumatized by the conflict, the federal government’s decision to expand the regulations governing internment – months after the war was over – was clearly unwarranted. The new policy allowed any county or district court to intern an individual for no better reason than “a feeling of public apprehension entertained by the community.” The accused was not permitted to have legal counsel and did not even need to be present at the hearing to be convicted. Following the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, at least thirty-three men were interned, and the internment camps remained open until 1920.

There was no organized resistance in Canada to these extensive restrictions on individual rights. However, there was also no organized network of civil liberties groups at the time.


Further Reading

Hannant, Larry. The Infernal Machine: Investigating the Loyalty of Canada’s Citizens. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Lambertson, Ross. Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Whitaker, Reg, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby. Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

Whitaker, Reg, and Gary Marcuse. Cold War Canada: The Making of a National Insecurity State, 1945-1957. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.


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