Fears of the ‘enemy’ within
As we look back on history, it is hard for us to imagine a time when the Canadian government could arbitrarily brand their own citizens as enemies and find a means by which to detain them for long periods of time.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened in Lethbridge and other communities across the nation, beginning just hours after Canada's declaration of war in August 1914.
On Sept. 11, 1914, barely a month after Canada entered the war, the Lethbridge Daily Herald announced that the only military prison in Alberta was to be established at the Lethbridge Exhibition Grounds. The poultry barn where the prisoners were to be held was renovated and barbed wire was installed to keep the “enemy” safely contained. Initially, the enemy was defined as individuals of German, Austrian, Hungarian or Turkish descent who belonged to reserve units in their homelands; however, this was soon expanded to include anyone with an ethnic sounding name that was “acting suspiciously.” Citizens were encouraged to report any “suspicious behaviour” to the police for investigation — and report they did.
Accusations abounded ranging from possession of banned books to the sabotage of threshing machines necessary for the production of local crops. In an attempt to escape the atmosphere of suspicion, many of these potential “enemy aliens” tried to make their way to the American border as the United States was neutral and not involved in the conflict. If caught, potential “enemy aliens” were promptly arrested and returned to Lethbridge for detention.
The “enemy aliens” had also been cut off from their families in Europe, as they could not send or receive any mail to or from home. Some would try to get the mail through to Sweetgrass, Mont., but once again, if they were discovered, the consequences would be severe.
At its peak in mid-1915, the Lethbridge Detention Camp held 300 prisoners and employed 60 guards. In the fall of 1916, the Lethbridge camp was closed, primarily because the city was located too close to the American border, which provided an incentive for detainees to attempt to escape.
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A weekly look at events that helped shape the history of southern Alberta as supplied by the Galt Museum & Archives