1939-45 Second World War

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Internment Camp | Copyright Dominique Clément / Clément Consulting

With the onset of another world war in 1939, and the creation of the Defence of Canada Regulations (DOCR), a new host of human rights issues came to the fore. According to historian Ramsay Cook in “Canadian Civil Liberties,” the DOCR “represented the most serious restrictions upon the civil liberties of Canadians since Confederation.” Under the pretext of how best to fight the war, an entire apparatus designed to protect national security was expanding. Loyalty to the state was paramount. To question the prevailing orthodoxy was to risk becoming the target of police surveillance, losing a government job, being purged from a trade union, or facing deportation proceedings. In the rush to protect the nation from various threats identified by the popular media, the RCMP, and political leaders, minorities and controversial groups soon became targets.

The federal government reimposed the War Measures Act in 1939 and employed it to pass the DOCR, quickly putting its new powers to work. It censored 325 newspapers and periodicals (compared to 184 in the First World War); banned more than thirty religious, social, ethnic, and political organizations; interned 2,423 Canadians (compared to 1,800 in England); arrested and summarily tried hundreds of people for speaking against the war or distributing literature on behalf of banned organizations; and granted police the authority to arrest and detain individuals without charge or trial. Although the RCMP failed to secure the authority to arrest British citizens who were deemed “likely” to incite unrest, cabinet did authorize the police to issue search warrants against illegal organizations. This was a remarkable departure from due process: now RCMP officers did not need to consult a judge and could simply write their own warrant without cause. Hundreds of German Canadians were arrested and detained on the grounds that they were probably Nazi sympathizers. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were declared an illegal organization. Municipal and provincial governments “purged” suspected subversives by removing politicians from office or firing civil servants. The mayor of Montreal, Camille Houde, was interned without trial for four years because he criticized the government and refused to cooperate with a national manpower registry (the censors initially prohibited newspapers from publishing his statements, but the Montreal Gazette evaded this restriction by having an MP read them into the minutes of the House of Commons). In many cases, cabinet passed Orders-in-Council that banned any appeal to the courts. Police intimidation was also common: authorities could threaten to charge people under the regulations or use their power to search without judicial warrants. Everyone was vulnerable: in one instance, a doctor was interned because one of his patients was a communist. War hysteria placed severe restrictions on free speech; even universities discouraged criticism of the war effort, and legislators feared that they themselves could be arrested if they criticized war policies. There were several cases involving imprisonment for public comments, including one man who, while drinking in a tavern, unwisely suggested that British prime minister “Chamberlain is as bad as Hitler.” He was sentenced to three months in jail. Another man, Samuel Levine, was jailed and interned for renting a room to someone who possessed communist literature.

Many palpably discriminatory practices also occurred. Canada was among the world’s least hospitable destinations for Jewish refugees during the war. Recruiting centres rejected blacks and other minorities who sought to enlist. Only white men were allowed to join the air force until 1943 and the navy until 1944. And even after some racial minorities were permitted to enlist in the Armed Forces, Chinese and Japanese men were still banned from serving in the air force and navy. Meanwhile, in a forcible relocation that was one of the most notable legacies of the war, twenty-two thousand men, women, and children of Japanese descent were removed from the Pacific coast and interned in the BC Interior.

As Ross Lambertson notes in Repression and Resistance, the national government was not alone in abusing rights during the war:

“The provincial governments also succumbed to the hysteria. The premier of British Columbia, Duff Pattullo, warned CCF members of the Legislative Assembly that to oppose the sending of a Canadian expeditionary force to France was an offence under section 39 of the DOCR. The Manitoba government passed legislation that removed from office any member of the provincial legislature, municipal council, or local school board if that person had been convicted or even detained under the DOCR; one of the major targets of this law was the highly effective Winnipeg city councillor, Jacob Penner, interned for almost two years. In Ontario, meanwhile, Premier Mitchell Hepburn had attacked the government of Mackenzie King for not pursuing the war effort with all possible vigour, and banned a film called March of Time, not because he saw it as subversive but because it was not sufficiently critical of the federal Liberals. However, it was his attorney general, George Conant, who became a hero of the authoritarian right. He demanded that Ottawa take action against what he called the ‘slimy, subversive elements’ that opposed the war, he exhorted mayors, local police, and crown attorneys to do their best in suppressing any manifestations of subversion, and at one point he called for the suspension of the traditional principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

Municipal authorities, too, were often eager to suppress dissent. Toronto Chief Constable Dennis Draper, a traditional nemesis of the radical left, asked the local Police Commission to prohibit public meetings of the allegedly Communist Ukrainian Labor Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA) as well as the local Lithuanian Society. But one of the most extreme cases of the hysteria virus infected the municipality of Hamilton, Ontario. Its board of control demanded legislation ‘which would disfranchise all citizens found to be members of or associated with, any club, group, society or organization, which has objects considered prejudicial to the good government of Canada and the prosecution of the war.’ One of the board members noted that, in his mind at least, the resolution was intended to include not just Communists and Nazis but also the advocates of ‘pacifism, disarmament and brotherly love.’ Fortunately, not even the Ontario government of Hepburn and Conant was willing to go that far, but the city of Toronto did purge itself of any employees suspected of ‘subversive tendencies.’ When a former CCF secretary appealed his treatment, one city councillor demonstrated an appalling lack of logic and compassion by pointing out that ‘if you were in Germany today, you would be in an internment camp or more likely you would have been lined up and shot.’

Sometimes minority rights were lost in a fog of jingoism. In September 1940 a number of Jehovah’s Witness children were sent home from school in Hamilton because they refused to sing the national anthem or salute the flag. (Both practices were seen by members of the sect as a form of heresy, placing allegiance to the state above allegiance to God.) Although the children promised to stand respectfully at attention during the singing of the anthem, they were not permitted to return to classes. Over the course of the next few years, the issue of religious freedom versus patriotic conformity was fought out at the judicial and political level in a number of provinces, and although the Witnesses were finally successful, it was a series of conditional wins, based upon fairly narrow legal technicalities. By the fall of 1940, over 1,500 people had been interned under the DOCR. In retrospect, this was the stuff of Orwellian nightmares.”


Further Reading

Cook, Ramsay. “Canadian Civil Liberties in Wartime.” Master’s thesis, Queen’s University, 1955.

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

Patrias, Carmela. Jobs and Justice: Fighting Discrimination in Wartime Canada, 1939-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.


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