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Investigating the Morrissey internment camp

Internees and guards at the Morrissey camp in 1915. - Submitted photo
Internees and guards at the Morrissey camp in 1915.
— image credit: Submitted photo

After Britain entered the First World War in 1914, the Canadian government passed the War Measures Act, which mandated the registration and, in some cases, internment of citizens of “enemy nationality.”

Thousands of Ukrainians, Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Turks and other immigrants from the Central Powers were labeled “enemy aliens” and imprisoned during and after the war.

The official line was these people had to be jailed to prevent them from engaging in espionage or other illegal activity but a local historian and former police officer is investigating how they were exploited for financial gain right here in the Elk Valley.

During the course of the war, over 8,500 enemy aliens were incarcerated. From 1914 until it's close in 1918, over 300 of them were held at the Morrissey internment camp in the Elk Valley.

There is little evidence left of the hardships faced by the people who were imprisoned at Morrissey, which is now a ghost town a few kilometres west of Fernie. The camp has been destroyed, as have official government records.

But former RCMP officer Dan Ste-Marie has been following the money and on Feb. 17, Ste-Marie revealed how local individuals and businesses exploited these unfortunate people to line their own pockets during a Lunch and Learn event hosted by the Seniors’ Centre and the museum.

“It was a dark part of our history,” said Ste-Marie to about 30 attendees. “But it was an important one.”

Ste-Marie joined the RCMP in January 1986. For the first 10 years of his service he was a member of what was then termed the Executive and Diplomatic Protective Service whose responsibility was providing personal security to the Governor General, the Prime Minister and foreign diplomats in Ottawa.

He was transferred to the Drug Section for three years then the War Crimes Section where he was assigned to investigating allegations that individuals living in Canada had actively participated in the Rwandan genocide. He spent nine weeks in Rwanda visiting the killing fields, interviewing witnesses and collecting documentary and photographic evidence.

He was then transferred to the Immigration and Passport Section and tasked with investigating cases of corruption at the Immigration and Refugee Board and the offices of Immigration Canada in Ottawa.  During the period from 2004 to 2009, he was the Regional Human Trafficking Awareness Coordinator where he conducted investigations into human trafficking.

“I also traveled to China to dismantle an organization that was sending young women to Canada to work in the sex trade by using fraudulent travel documents,” he said.

Now a Fernie resident and officially retired, Ste-Marie is still digging for the truth. Since 2010, he’s been conducting an investigation into the impact that Canada’s First National Internment Operations had on the local economy.

The internment began after about 600 Anglo-Saxon miners turned against their colleagues of non-British origin and demanded that single miners and married miners with families still back in Europe be interned.

Ste-Marie said the local press contributed to an atmosphere of hostility. Germans, Austro-Hungarians and others were branded spies and saboteurs and were accused of domestic terrorism, “but it was all bull***t.”

They were even blamed for the 1914 Hillcrest mine disaster, which was the worst coal mining disaster in Canadian history, even though a third of the fatalities were Austro-Hungarian.

Coverage by local newspapers offers a glimpse into the events leading up to the internment. The June 11, 1915 issue of The Free Press states, “English-speaking miners of Coal Creek demand of mine officials that all alien enemies be discharged from the mines and refuse to resume work with Austrians and Germans. Demands reiterated at public meeting in Fernie. Authorities at Victoria notified.”

“Miners do not work. Provincial police acting on instructions order unmarried Germans and Austrians and married men without families here to report with blankets and belongings for internment. Conservative Association tried to have Morrissey Mines made an internment camp. 108 men were interned in skating rink under 30 armed guards. Miners decide to return to work provisionally, demanding internment of all Germans and Austrians, naturalized or not.”

The roundup started that month. Some voluntarily reported to the Fernie Court House. Others from Fernie, Michel, Natal, Corbin and Cranbrook were arrested. All were housed at the Fernie Skating and Curling Rink. They had to put up the barbed wire fencing that surrounded the building, dig their own privy pits and cook their food in field kitchens. They slept on the floor of the building on blankets that they had brought with them, as there were no beds.

At the start of the First World War the Elk Valley was experiencing an economic downturn. Fernie was still recovering from the devastation of the 1908 fire and the 1913 pan-Canadian recession. There was high unemployment, double digit inflation and the mines were only open three shifts per week.

Facing dire economic circumstances, local merchants turned to the prison industry.

“The city and merchants realized the importance of the money being spent in the community as a result of having the camp,” said Ste-Marie. “So Mayor Tom Uphill, members of the board of trade, [local merchant] Amos Trites, R.W. Wood, W.R. Wilson, the manager of the Crowsnest Pass Coal Company, who owned the buildings at Morrissey, met with [Canada’s internment operations director Major-General Sir William Otter] to convince him to move the camp from Fernie to Morrissey."

Only nine families were still living in Morrissey, a the once vibrant town, which had quickly depopulated after its mine closed in 1909. The internees were transferred to Morrissey in October 1915.

They were housed in the Windsor and Alexandria hotels and guarded by soldiers from the 107th Regiment of the Canadian Army.

Many Canadian communities were vying to house internment camps as they saw an opportunity to use the internees as cheap labour. The prisoners were employed on massive projects including mining, logging and roadwork for which they were paid a mere $0.25 per day.

“These internees, when they went out to work [Otter] said in all these reports that it was all voluntary. Well bull***t these people were beaten, they were prodded with bayonets and they were forced to work,” said Ste-Marie.

There was talk of closing the camp in June 1916 when there were only 77 internees being guarded by about 100 military staff but efforts were made to find more prisoners to keep the camp viable.

“It was in the economic interest of members of the board of trade…. and others to keep that going here,”  said Ste-Marie.

Otter decided to close other camps instead. In a period of only a few months five camps in Canada were closed and about 160 prisoners were transferred to Morrissey.

Adjusting for inflation, Ste-Marie has calculated that the camp was contributing $6.7 million a year to the local economy.

Not counting construction costs, the federal government spent about $18 million on the camp between 1915 and 1918.

“Which really helped out a lot,” he said.

A number of local businesses profited at the expense of the internees. The Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company made money by renting Morrissey’s buildings to the federal government. The Morrissey, Fernie and Michel Railways were paid for haulage of all food and equipment. Fernie businesses such as A. MacDonald & Company, Burns Meats, Maclean Drugs and Books, Trites-Wood and others helped feed, clothe and house the internees at the federal government’s expense. In addition, the internees had much of their wealth confiscated by local authorities, said Ste-Marie.

Despite their hardships, many of the internees tried their best to find normalcy in dire circumstances.

“These guys were artists,” said Ste-Marie. “They were great with their hands. They made ships in bottles, chessboards, musical instruments, clocks and paintings.”

The internees even published a newspaper called the Morrissey Mention, where they would advertise goods and services like haircuts, tailoring and walking sticks.

But for the most part, life was hell in Morrissey.

Over 100 internees died from tuberculosis and other diseases that were exacerbated by malnutrition and mistreatment. Escape attempts were common and recaptured prisoners were punished with solitary confinement and sleep deprivation.

“The internees and their families suffered greatly,” said Ste-Marie. “They committed no crime, they did nothing wrong.”

After the Morrissey camp closed in 1918, many of the internees were sent to other camps where they were kept until the internment finally ended in 1920.

The Fernie Museum has applied to the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund for a grant to fund a project that will explore what happened to Elk Valley internees after they were finally released.

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