Remembering the history of interned miners

The sudden and chaotic internment of over 300 miners at Fernie should not be overlooked.

Submitted by Wayne Norton

In Canada’s ongoing four-year commemoration of significant milestones of the World War I, the sudden and chaotic internment of over 300 miners at Fernie should not be overlooked. It is a strange episode and misunderstood.

Ignoring the urgent advice of their union leaders, English and Italian miners at Coal Creek on Tuesday, June 8, 1915, suddenly refused to return to work until all their fellow workers born in Austria-Hungary and Germany had been dismissed from employment by the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company.

Before the company had an opportunity to respond, the acting premier of British Columbia, William Bowser, instructed the Provincial Police in Fernie to intern all unmarried mine employees who were German or Austrian citizens. The chief constable posted notices commanding all those affected to report to police, and advised his officers in Coal Creek, Michel and Natal to swear in special constables. Realizing the Fernie jail could not accommodate so many prisoners, he made arrangements to use Fernie’s skating rink as the site for a temporary camp. Internment was to begin Wednesday, June 9.

Described as enemy aliens during the war years, more than 300 Austrian-born and a dozen German employees of the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company were interned at the skating rink over the course of the next few days. Well over half were from Michel and Natal, communities where there had been no demand at all for their dismissal. They were joined by a handful of prisoners from logging camps near Waldo and Elko.

A century later, it is difficult to determine what actually motivated the Coal Creek miners. Enthusiasm for the war was high following the sinking of the Lusitania and Italy’s entry on the allied side, but levels of local unemployment and under-employment were also high. The demand was likely more an attempt to secure economic advantage than simply an expression of patriotism. In 1915, actions and expressions of a patriotic nature were seldom subject to much scrutiny.

However, Bowser’s motivation seems perfectly clear. “Full advantage,” he declared, “should be taken of the chance to relieve unemployment.”

He said his purpose was to create employment for “deserving men who find themselves out of work” and to remove “a menace” to the peace of the community.

Personally responsible for sending troops to quell the bitter miners’ strike on Vancouver Island two years earlier, Bowser more likely had in mind the fearful prospect of intervening in another miners’ strike rather than subversive activities by enemy aliens. He claimed to have the full cooperation of the federal military authorities in charge of internment operations.

Newspapers in Victoria and Vancouver all approved of his action, but questions of legality quickly arose. Bowser had acted beyond his constitutional authority. Apparently, even the broad powers of the War Measures Act were not sufficient in justifying his action. This made the internment of enemy aliens a matter of federal jurisdiction and justified the imprisonment of those who declared loyalty to Germany or Austria-Hungary, who had attempted to flee to the United States, or who — by virtue of being unemployed — were simply suspected of disloyalty.  None of these conditions applied to the men held in Fernie.

Bowser was advised there was “no legal authority” for detaining anyone at the skating rink.  Clearly, he did not have the cooperation of military authorities who refused to take custody of the prisoners. Bowser soon found himself denying rumours that the internees were about to be released; he told Prime Minister Borden riots would break out if they were. The Fernie Free Press asked, “Where are we at?” and answered “Who knows?”  Militia units in Calgary were reported to be awaiting orders to leave for Fernie. The distressed acting premier of British Columbia must have realized he had inadvertently created the conditions necessary for a repetition of the event he most sought to avoid — military intervention in a miners’ strike.

Adding to his dismay, the internees retained the services of a Cranbrook lawyer who agreed to apply for writs of habeas corpus in the names of two Austrian prisoners, one of whom had been employed by the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company since 1908 and another who had come to Canada as a seven-year-old in 1891. But before the court case could be heard, the federal government intervened. Order-in-Council 1501 declared internment of enemy aliens was justified if their presence in the mines might lead to disorder. It was specifically intended to address the unique situation at Fernie.

Military authorities took command of the prisoners on June 30, operating the camp for three months at the skating rink before moving it to more permanent quarters at Morrissey. Canada’s only provincially-sanctioned internment had a history of only three weeks’ duration, was made legal only after the fact, and left an unwelcome legacy of social division. On the centenary of the camp’s first days, this event in local history provides much cause for reflection.