Enemy aliens were imprisoned in Toronto during the First World War.
When Canada entered the First World War in 1914, the CNE grounds were put to military use. Various buildings on the site were used as barracks and training facilities, and later on to process demobilized Canadian soldiers. Stanley Barracks soon found itself repurposed as an internment centre, housing dozens of civilians deemed potentially dangerous enemy aliens.
From the outset of the war, many Canadian communities became anxious about the loyalties of local residents from enemy nations. In late October of 1914, the Canadian government issued legislation “providing for the registration and internment in certain cases of aliens of enemy nationality.” In order to oversee the operation, Major-General Sir William Dillon Otter was brought out of retirement, and authorized to “take whatever military action may be necessary or expedient to carry out effectively such provisions [and] given command of sufficient military forces for that purpose.” Internment sites were soon established across the country.
People with connections to enemy nations were required to register with the government, where they would be assessed as potential threats to the country. The Toronto office was located at 34 Adelaide Street East, where Judge Emerson Coatsworth subjected each individual to an assessment lasting approximately 15 minutes. Those who refused to register, or who were caught trying to leave the country, could expect to be automatically sent to an internment camp.
Although Otter’s own postwar report gives the Stanley Barracks camp’s opening date as December 14, 1914, it appears that the first prisoners were housed there at least two months earlier, before the official registration of enemy aliens began.
On October 1, the Toronto Star reported that “a large open space is being fenced off at the Barracks with a double barrier around it to serve as a detention camp for the Austrian and German prisoners.” At this time there were already three German prisoners being held there, with another 15 reported on the way. One prisoner, Carl Von Bimberg, was believed to be a reservist in the German army; according to the Star, “the police say that he declared that if he could possibly make his way to Germany he would certainly assist his country, and this was taken as sufficient justification for action by the police.”
Stanley Barracks was one of several sites which served primarily as a temporary receiving station. Some of those held there were evidently released if it could be proven that they posed no threat. Most, however, were sent to more permanent holding sites or work camps. One article suggests that the German and Turkish prisoners at Stanley Barracks were more likely to be sent to the camp at Fort Henry in Kingston, whereas “Austrians, Hungarians, Austrian-Serbs, and other varieties of Teutons, Huns, and their allies” were sent to the work camp in Kapuskasing.
In Stanley Barracks: Toronto’s Military Legacy, historian Aldona Sendzikas writes that most of those interned at Toronto were “Austrian” or “Hungarian,” although these classifications are anything but precise. The confusing and ephemeral political climate in Europe at the time made it difficult to identify ethnic origins. It is now believed that many of the interned were Ukrainians or ethnically related to other groups then controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Many of those interned at Stanley Barracks were not arrested in Toronto. In the early months of the war, many were apprehended in border cities, presumably seeking to enter to the United States which remained neutral during the first years of the conflict. One group of prisoners held in Toronto had been apprehended at Niagara Falls; a Star article refers to them as “alleged Austrians who, it is said, were attempting to enter the United States under the guise of Roumanians.” In early November, it was reported that limited space in Toronto forced the camp to refuse a group of 120 Turks, which the Star claimed were “arrested in the colony in Brantford.”
In his post-war report, Major-General Otter wrote that the terms of the Hague Convention obliged Canada to give the internment camp prisoners “provision of quarters equal to those furnished to our own troops.” At the Toronto camp, the prisoners were housed in a building on the west side of the fort, identified by Sendzikas as the cavalry quarters. Prisoners were each issued clothing, a cot, and three blankets. Otter notes that many of the interned had wives and families in need of support. Although women and children were allowed to join the interned men at some camps, it appears that family visits were limited at Stanley Barracks to one per month. In these instances, Otter writes that families could remain at their homes and would be issued “a monthly sum for rent, food, and fuel.”
A 1914 Globe article boasted of the good treatment that the prisoners received in Toronto. “Every comfort is provided, and food is of the best quality. Meat, milk, bread, pies, cake, cheese and butter, staple articles of food, were seen yesterday to be not only plentiful but good. Baths, hot [and] cold shower are available, with separate towels for each prisoner… Electric lights are provided and every provision is made for amusement, indoor and outdoor. In fine weather the men are allowed to exercise in a wire-enclosed area…”
On several occasions, the descriptions in the Star present a less enthusiastic picture.
On November 5, 1914, the Star reported that the prisoners were given a bath, as some were found to have “gone three weeks without a tubbing… The soldiers were promptly ordered to go over them with scrubbing brushes and force them under the water.”
In 1915, the Star reported that an Austrian prisoner had begun a hunger strike, and in further protest had “battered his head against a wall, and ruptured blood vessels in his head.”
Later that year, a Star reporter visited the barracks one afternoon to talk to the prisoners, and met two who refused to leave their beds. When a Lieutenant attempted to rouse an Austrian named Sebastian, the reporter noted that “they might as well have endeavoured to wake a corpse. The heavy figure lay face down on a mattress on the floor in a corner of the big, bare guard-room.” According to the reporter, Sebastian remained in bed all day except for meals, and he “has to be carried by two men to the lavatory to be washed… The doctor says he is suffering from melancholia.”
In his post-war report, Otter acknowledged that insanity was a considerable problem at many camps, which he partially attributed to “a nervous condition brought about by the confinement and restrictions entailed.”
The system for determining who needed to be interned was anything but clear. In the first months of the war, many of those sent to Stanley Barracks are reported as reservists in enemy armies. Others appear to have been arrested for more flimsy reasons — Otter himself wrote that “it is also suspected that the tendency of municipalities to ‘unload’ their indigent was the cause of the confinement of not a few.” One Star article gives a prisoner’s reason for internment as “a German caught loitering in a suspicious manner.”
In January of 1915, the Globe reported on the case of Richard Ullrich, a confectioner from Mount Dennis. Ullrich, who was born in Germany, had become a naturalized American citizen, and attributed his arrest to “some practical joker, who apparently was bent upon perpetrating a hoax on either himself or Police Magistrate Bayliss at Mount Dennis.”
Numerous other cases of disputed internment made Toronto headlines. Many protested their innocence, or had others publicly appeal on their behalf. The same month as Ullrich’s arrest, the Globe reported on the case of Rudolf Burnek, arrested as a spy on the Toronto Island. According to his wife, reported as “a born Canadian of British parentage,” Burnek’s suspicious conduct consisted of following “a waggon full of bricks to the Island,” evidently in the hopes of discovering an opportunity for day labour.
Otter wrote that prisoners in the camps were generally allowed various “luxuries,” although he noted that “the sale or use of wines, beer, or spiritous liquors of any description was debarred in all of the camps, and numerous attempts at manufacture by prisoners [were] frustrated.” Tobacco was permitted, although due to a fire it appears that prisoners were banned from smoking within Stanley Barracks itself. According to one Star article this led to a “mutiny,” as “the [prisoners] grew impertinent because smoking was prohibited, were impudent to the guard, and five of them were placed in a cell overnight.”
The process of registering enemy aliens finished in June of 1915, and from then on, newspaper reports from the Stanley Barracks internment camp grow increasingly infrequent. By late 1915, most of the interned were either released or sent on to permanent camps, and Otter claims that the Stanley Barracks camp was officially closed in October of 1916. Other permanent internment camps continued throughout the war, and at least two camps, including the one at Kapuskasing that received many prisoners from Toronto, were operational as late as 1920.
After the war, Otter claimed that a total of 8,579 men were interned during the war. The majority of them were classified as “Austro-Hungarians, covering Croats, Ruthenians, Slovaks, and Chzecks [sic].” It is not clear if this number includes only those detained throughout the war, or also those held temporarily at receiving stations such as the one in Toronto. Of those 8,579, Otter believes only 3,138 “could be correctly classed as prisoners of war, that is, captured ‘in arms’ or belonging to enemy reserves.”
Additional material from: Carl Benn, Historic Fort York 1793—1993 (Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., 1993: Toronto); The Globe (November 3, November 13, December 5, December 10, December 26, 1914; January 12, January 30, June 22, July 19, 1915); Lubomir Luciuk, In Fear of the Barbed Wire Fence (Kashtan, 2001); W.D. Otter, Report on Interment Operations (Thomas Mulvey, 1921: Ottawa); Aldona Sendzikas, Stanley Barracks: Toronto’s Military History (Dundurn, 2011: Toronto); Toronto Star (October 1, October 20, October 29, October 30, November 5, November 10, November 23, December 10, December 14, December 26, December 29, 1914; January 2, January 22, January 29, February 1, May 21, August 26, September 29, October 9, 1915; January 6, March 2, 1916).
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