Did you know during World War II there were 27 prisoners of war camps in Canada? One such camp was in my home province of Manitoba. Reading the 2013 Stanford University thesis of Adrian Meyers helped me learn all about it. Meyers carried out an archaeological dig at the former site of the camp on Whitewater Lake. Meyers also interviewed surviving prisoners and waded through a thousand related government documents. His thesis is full of interesting information.
The 450 German prisoners, most between the ages of 16 and 22, viewed their time at the Manitoba camp as an idyllic interlude in their wartime experience. Many were captured after a battle in North Africa. They worked hard cutting trees for lumber and firewood but were paid 50 cents a day for their labours and allowed to use the money to order things from the Eaton’s catalogue. Photos of the prisoners show them neatly groomed and dressed smartly.
The Canadian government tried to re-educate the prisoners teaching them courses in Canadian history and democratic government and carefully selecting the books they read and films they watched. The POWs were under surveillance and were labelled on the basis of a colour-coded system that evaluated their allegiance to Nazism.
The prisoners had an active social life, playing soccer, carving dugout canoes they paddled to an island for picnics, skating on the frozen lake and being allowed to venture into neighbouring communities to attend dances.
Some took in stray dogs as pets, while one man even adopted a juvenile black bear he named Moses.
They distilled alcohol for personal use and put on stage shows where the men sang, played instruments and some dressed up in women’s clothes. Myers’ thesis includes examples of paintings done by the prisoners and they were provided with a ping- pong table, playing cards, craft supplies and a piano.
Ironically not many years before the POW camp was built in Riding Mountain National Park, the Canadian government had evicted the Ojibwa people who had long inhabited the area.
Suyoko Tsukamoto one of the Brandon University anthropology students who helped Meyers with the archaeological dig noted another irony. She could not help but compare the relatively luxurious lifestyle in the German POW camp to the much more trying conditions endured by her father, a full-fledged Canadian citizen who was sent to one of the government detention facilities for people of Japanese descent during the war.
The Canadian government’s rationale was that they hoped by treating the German prisoners kindly the Germans would reciprocate with similar treatment of captured Canadian soldiers.
More than 33,000 German soldiers were in prison camps across Canada during the war. The fact nearly 20% of them asked to remain here after the war is perhaps at least partially a testament to the humane way they were treated. All their requests were denied.
To explore Adrian Meyers’ fascinating research for yourself read his thesis entitled The Archaeology of Reform at a German Prisoner of War Camp in a Canadian National Park during the Second World War (1943–1945)
Thanks to my friend and fellow writer Larry Verstraete whose novel Missing in Paradise piqued my interest in this camp and inspired me to learn more about it.
Other posts about World War II……..