article was written for and first published in
Renditions of the Peaceable Kingdom at War,
from Narratives of WWI and the Red Scare to the Mass Internment of Civilians
Issue #68 of Press for Conversion (Spring 2016), pp.38-39.
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From Csarist Pogroms to Canada’s WWII
Internment Camps for Jews and Communists
By Richard Sanders, Coordinator, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT)
Blamed for strikes and protests in the 1905-1907 revolution, Russian Jews were targeted by Czarist forces and attacked by vigilantes. Fleeing state terror and privatised progroms, thousands sought refuge in Canada. Canada’s Jewish population rose from 16,000 in 1901 to 76,000 in 1911. While 2,400 Jews entered Canada per year between 1901 and 1904, the annual average soon rose to 7,700 (1905-1908). Most were from Russia, just as 85% of America’s 1910 Jewish population was Russian.1
Journalist Israel Medres, who came to Montreal from Russia in 1922, said “a migration of unprecedented size arrived in the Quebec metropolis following the Russian revolution of 1905.”2 They were met by an antiSemitic/antiRed hatred that typified Canada, especially its elites. In 1907, Liberal MP, Armand Lavergne, decrying the “mongrel population...that comes in by flocks,” told Parliament that in 1906
socialist parade with the red flag of anarchy at its head, and possibly this
year, if the police do not interfere, we shall have a repetition of that
procession. In a few years the Jewish population of
has increased from 8,000 to 40,000.”3
Arguing that only “a more desirable class of people” be allowed through Canada’s gates, Lavergne warned that “[o]therwise we shall be strangers in our own country and the foreigners will be the masters.”4
In the 1930s and 1940s, Canada refused to aid Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe. In 1939, the Liberal government even deployed our Navy to expel a passenger ship because it held 900 Jewish refugees. As detailed in None is Too Many, Canadian elites were rabidly antiSemitic, especially in Quebec where:
“Church leaders, nationalist politicians, and the social elite united...in support of a boycott of Jewish owned businesses, ...and...bar Canada’s door to the further admission of Jews.”5
Less known is that beginning in 1940, Canada’s Liberals locked up 2,300 European refugees, mostly Jews, in eight POW camps in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick. Having escaped Nazi Europe, these civilians were put in British and then Canadian internment camps, with fascists. After July 1941, these Jewish and communist refugees remained captive, but behind the barbed wire of Canadian “refugee camps.” Many were not freed til late 1943.
Hundreds of the antiNazi refugees held in Canada were communists. These POWs were of prime concern to authorities. In 1941, over 45% of the 500 internees in Camp Farnham, near Montreal, were Communist supporters. Camp authorities reported that inmates had elected “Communists or Communist sympathizers...for most of the posts.” When indignant Reds became “assertive and vocal,” seven of their “ring-leaders” were targeted for transfer to the prison camp on Île Ste. Hélène (future site of Expo 67). Other inmates reacted to this with a mass, hunger strike.6
Journalist Eric Koch, who was interned in a Quebec POW camp during WWII, said “Communists were in the forefront of those making demands.” As a Jew who fled to Britain from Nazi Germany, Koch said “Communists were activists and trouble-makers” who agitated for refugee rights from within the Canadian camps.7
1. American Jewish Yearbook, 1913-1914, 1914, pp.424, 428, 436.
2. Israel Medres, in Through the Eyes of the Eagle: The Early Montreal Yiddish Press 1907-1916, 2000, p.31. Pierre Anctil (trans.)
3. Hansard, April 9, 1907, p.6155
4. Ibid.., p.6156.
5. Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948, 2012.
6. Martin Auger, Prisoners of the Home Front: A Social Study of the German Internment Camps of Southern Quebec, 1940-1946, 2000, pp.77, 84.
7. Eric Koch, Deemed Suspect: A Wartime Blunder, 1980.