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Canada Agrees to Hold Second World War Prisoners

For the week of Monday, June 8, 2015

On June 10, 1940, after serious deliberation among its War Cabinet committee members, the Canadian government agreed to house prisoners of war (POWs) and Great Britain’s interned civilians. This decision led to one of Canada’s key contributions to the Allied effort during the Second World War.

German POWs at Camp 30 in Bowmanville, Ontario, 1941. POWs had the right to wear their uniforms and symbols of rank in the internment camps
© Courtesy of Clarington Museums

By June 1940, British forces had already captured thousands of German officers and soldiers in battle, detaining them in Great Britain in POW camps. The British government also interned civilian German and Austrian immigrants (some of whom were Jewish refugees), declaring them security threats due to their origins. As the war progressed, however, the soldiers stationed at the camps were needed to defend the country and its allies. The possibility of a German invasion of Great Britain also raised the possibility that the POWs could return to the fight. Therefore, the British government requested that Canada house its internees.

Canada’s vast geography, far from the battle zones of Europe, was ideal for detaining POWs and interned civilians. Canadian internment camps were already operating for captured merchant marines and Canadian civilians who were deemed security threats by the Canadian government. Too meet Britain's request, 26 internment camps and numerous labour camps were created from old factories, schools, and mills, scattered mostly in rural Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. More than 38,000 prisoners of war and “enemy aliens” were interned in Canada.

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German POWs sit in class at Camp 42 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, June 1944. Canadian authorities implemented education programs to teach POWs the values of democracy and Canadian society
© Imperial War Museum / INS 7536

Although many Canadians objected to the presence of POWs, others welcomed those who were willing to work on farms and elsewhere, as a way to fill the labour shortage caused by the war. In the camps, Canadian authorities upheld international standards for the treatment of internees as outlined in the 1929 Geneva Convention. They were given adequate food, medical care, and accommodation. The hope was that Canadians in enemy hands would be treated by the same standards. Some German POWs even stayed on after the war and rebuilt their lives as Canadians.

The Detention of Second World War Military Prisoners of War and of Enemy Aliens sent to Canada from Great Britain is a National Historic Event. Bowmanville Boys Training School/Camp 30, a former internment camp, is a National Historic Site.

This year marks the second year in the 75th anniversary of the Second World War! For more on Canada’s homefront war effort, read Calling Out the Reserves, Off to Work We Go!, and The Battle of the Atlantic-War on the Homefront in the This Week in History archives. Also check out the Government of Canada’s World War Commemorations page.

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