The little town of Kapuskasing was founded on fear

KAPUSKASING, ON — At first glance, Kapuskasing is just another railway town. Yet until the Great War, it was just Macpherson Station, a stop for trains to replenish their water supply.

The building of Kapuskasing wasn’t about rail, and drawing the country together. It was about fear. It was about enemy aliens.

The First World War corresponded roughly with Ottawa’s desire to set up experimental farms across the country that would conduct research on climate and agriculture, breeding of livestock, seeding and fallowing.

Since no one seizes on fear and opportunity better than a government, bunkhouses were quickly raised near the water stop and enemy aliens, mostly Germans and Ukrainians, were rounded up and interned to start clearing forest for the farm. They used the rich land on the banks of the Kapuskasing River — in the centre of which was an island used for solitary confinement.

Photo of Kapuskasing's First World War internment camp courtesy of the National Archives of Canada
Photo of Kapuskasing’s First World War internment camp courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

There were 24 like camps across the country during the First World War instituted under the War Measures Act. They held more than 8,500 men, mostly Ukrainians, and 230 women and children. Also held were a selection of conscientious objectors, homeless people and other ne’er-do-wells.

Like the Japanese and Germans who would be interned in Canada during the Second World War, most of the detainees held Canadian citizenship. It was our own people we sent to remote locations to perform the hard labour of clearing farmland — and even such recreational land as a golf course in Banff. History insists the internees were protected under standard rules of engagement and later by the Geneva Conventions.

The plaque that rests outside Kapuskasing’s little railroad station came about as part of the $10-million Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund. It is one of 100 that appeared across the country to mark the internments.

It features three photos and a one-paragraph caption, however it has no context and very little explanation of what happened on this rich land.

After the war, labourers and former soldiers came north with the promise of free land on which to settle or to find work at the experimental farm. The Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company Ltd. opened in 1920, shifting the focus of the new town toward logging and newsprint manufacturing, a story repeated frequently in this forest-rich part of Ontario.

The First World War had ended in 1918, however, the internment camp in Kapuskasing remained in operation until 1920. It was the last of the Canadian camps to close.

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