During World War II, the Canadian Government housed over 34,000 German Prisoners of War in 25 camps across Canada. Camps for refugees were already in existence before the POWs arrived. There was such great urgency to find places for these people that in both cases the settlement happened before the terms of agreement had been signed with Great Britain.
The first “civilian internees” arrived in June 1940 while Britain and Canada were still negotiating. As the talks proceeded, POWs started arriving. But even this didn’t follow the rules. The first shipment included Jewish refugees. The Jews and die-hard Nazis were being shipped and, at first, settled together.
The largest camps, in Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, Alberta opened in the winter of 1943. Camp 132 in Medicine Hat covered 50 hectares of land and could hold 12,000 prisoners. Surrounding the camp were barbed wire fences and sentinel towers placed in strategic spots. Each of the 36 dorms housed 350 men who slept in double bunks. There was also a mess hall, education huts, workshops, storage barracks and kitchens, which were worked by the men. There was also a dental clinic, a hospital and a morgue.
Camp 132 held the high-ranking Nazi officers. This is where most of the Nazi propaganda took place, causing problems with those who had lost their devotion to Nazism or never had it in the first place.
The prisoners were generally treated well by their guards — most guards didn’t even have rifles, and were retired WW I soldiers who could understand and sympathize. The food was plentiful, the barracks warm and the men could purchase goods from a mail order catalogue. Some even managed to get jobs with local businesses such as Medalta Potteries or they worked as farm hands in the region.
One such prisoner was Joachim Kessler who became a close friend of the Freeman family and was so admired by the children, they called Kessler “uncle.” He remained in Canada after the war.
Artimus Freeman is one of the Freeman children who remembers Kessler with great affection. He provided the two photos and the travel documents he received from Joachim Kessler that are posted here.
There are two or three Master’s and PhD thesis written about the camps in Canada. These studies deal with government studies of the camps and the activities among the prisoners.
There are also two books, Behind Canadian Barbed Wire by David Carter (1980) and Escape from Canada by John Melady (1981). Both attempt to reveal what camp life was like.
Camp 132 was where the Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede grounds are located today. The camp closed in January 1946.