During the two world wars, many Canadians were placed in internment camps. These people were immigrants from countries then at war with Canada. Although many of them had become citizens, they were perceived by the government of the day as posing a threat to our war effort.
Today, these people, or their descendants, claim that the government's action was based on prejudiced policies directed at certain minorities. They are demanding apologies and compensation. There seems to be a great deal of ignorance as to what really happened in those dark days of the wars.
In an Immigration Law class I at Seneca College in the 1990s, the professor, a lawyer and an immigrant from Africa, asked the class, “Why is it that only visible minorities were placed in internment camps?” In reply to what he believed was a rhetorical question, I informed him that more than visible minorities were interned, that many Caucasians, Germans and Italians for example, also lost their freedom for the duration of the war. I got my worst mark from him in an otherwise “Outstanding” report.
Let's examine a small piece of a personal record -- my late father's memoirs. My parents, German-speaking Austrians, had come to Canada in the 1920s. Aside from the usual expressions of prejudice and bigotry experienced by foreigners in any country, there were no problems. It was never clear to me if my parents were disliked because they were central Europeans who talked funny, or because they were Catholic, or because during the Great Depression they bought a shiny new Plymouth and two rooming houses in lower-class Toronto. Or was it because they made their own wine, a matter that provoked police investigation? No matter, World War Two was upon us.
Investigators from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police visited the working places of foreign-born people (even if they had become Canadian citizens as did my parents). In the case of my father, this was the slaughter house of Canada Parkers in Toronto's west end. They questioned his boss, fellow employees, and possibly others. This incident became one of my mother's favourite jokes. The inspector asked the boss if my father ever talked about politics. "Politics?" the boss replied. "He never talks to anybody about anything." (He later recounted this story to my father.)
The Mounted Police came to our home, fingerprinted my father, and questioned him. As a seven-year old, I was always excited by the mounties. And here they were in our dining room, but not in uniform. “Do you have guns,” I asked hopefully. They replied no. They asked if my father if he belonged to any clubs. "All I could say was that I was a member of the Catholic Church at Dundas and McCaul," my father wrote in his memoirs. They never returned.
[In 2016, a terrible thought came to mind. At the time of the visit hanging somewhere in our home, possibly in the dining room, was a small oil painting of my grandfather’s house in Stadl-Paura, Austria. My parents had received it before postal service to Austria was closed in 1939. On the reverse, several relatives extended greetings. One of them wrote “mit treudeutschen gruss,” translated “with really German greetings.” It was dated February 1938. Germany annexed Austria the following month. This greeting could have been interpreted as pro-German, making my father an enemy, and having him interned. Stranger things happened in those days of high tension.]
Besides being a quiet-spoken person, my father, like most immigrants of the time, had come to Canada to escape the political turmoil of Europe, not to spread it. We never witnessed any “systemic” government prejudice, as some would have it, directed at us or other members of our extended family, all of whom were investigated, none of whom was interned. In fact, my Austrian-born Uncle Richard Reininger was given special status because his machine shop was engaged in war work.
On the other hand, a number of acquaintances express pro-Nazi opinions, some rather vehemently. "The government investigated all Germans and Austrians," my father's memoirs continue. "My neighbour across the road on George Street got picked up by the Mounted Police at two a.m. He was a member of an illegal club. He was kept in a camp until the war was over."
This was the Gembe family, with whose son Karl, I often played. My father added the poignant observation, "His wife could not understand why they didn't pick me up." The mother and three children, Hilda, Karl and Elfrieda, survive by renting rooms. Hilda was old enough to work. (I have a vague memory of Karl sporting a swastika on his sleeve, sometime before the war.)
Mr. Gembe was part of about 800 Germans interned during the war. They were sent into the northern bush to carve out the national parks we now enjoy. He spent his spare time building beautiful model sailing ships which he sent home.
The other German family up the street did not fare so well. The husband operated a car repair shop out of a garage. He got shipped away one night. Without his income, the wife and one small girl just moved away. We never learned what happened to them.
These people were quickly segregated from the general population, and placed in internment camps. Unfortunately, this meant great hardship to their families. But their internment was a justified exercise in national security. Not because of who they were, but because of what they did were these people viewed as security risks. That made them a legitimate target of suspicion. If investigation indicated a danger to the war effort, internment rightly followed.
Examination of the official record may well produce examples of rash governmental behaviour. But before any further compensation or apology is considered, there should be an impartial review of the evidence. Let's see what really happened. Judging the facts in the context of the time will, I believe, justify much of what occurred.