Dangerous Patriots: Canada's Unknown Prisoners of War
Ashley Thomson is a full librarian at Laurentian University and co-editor or co-author of nine books, most recently Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide, 1988-2005.
William Repka, now deceased, was one of about 100 left-wingers tossed into Canadian internment camps without due process of law between June 1940 and September 1942, thanks to the War Measures Act. He and 15 others, as well as three of the wives involved, reminisce in this book about their experiences.
Clearly, the book’s message is that, in the midst of a war against fascism, the Canadian government used fascist methods to intern Canadian citizens, many of whom, upon their release, joined the armed forces to fight for their country.
This message will be applauded by civil libertarians, such as June Callwood, who has contributed a short blurb at the front of the book. Those who are not “bleeding hearts,” as Prime Minister Trudeau might say, will point out that in the midst of wartime, not all the niceties can be observed, particularly when, effective 6 June 1940, the Communist Party became illegal in this country. Virtually all of the individuals interned were known or suspected Communists, opposed to the war at that time, and anxious, many of them, to disturb labour peace if they deemed it necessary. (Indeed, it was only in 1941, when the Soviet Union was forced into the war on the Allied side, that the conditions became established for the eventual release of the prisoners.) Besides, in camp, the prisoners do not appear to have been treated too badly, other than having some of their correspondence censored, being stuck with interned Germans and Italians whom they didn’t like, and having to put up with too much macaroni when the Italians did the cooking. Indeed, if anyone suffered as a result of the internments, it was the prisoners’ families, who were left without a bread-winner; no wonder they campaigned so hard to win public opinion to their cause.
Politics aside, the book is a good read, particularly if one bears in mind Kathleen Repka’s injunction that reminiscences 40 years after the fact should be taken with a pinch of salt. For what we get are stories about the participants’ lives before their arrest, as well as their experiences, with most of the repetition weeded out, in one or another of the three Canadian internment camps: Kananaskis (Alberta), Petawawa (Ontario), and Hull (Quebec).
Each account reads pretty much the same, which suggests that the editing was extensive (another tip-off is that no one talks very much about being a Communist — just an “anti-fascist” or a “patriot,” as on the book’s title). That said, the accounts move briskly, and often with unconscious humor. For example, describing how her husband Norman was picked up by the cops, Jennie Freed writes “the police followed him back to the house. When they came to the door, someone noticed and told Norman to hide in the cupboard on the third floor. He said he would feel foolish if they opened the cupboard and found him there. They never did look in that cupboard, so he could have got away with it if he had” (p. 174).
Well, that’s the way it was in fascist Canada in the 1940s.