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World War One
Christmas celebration at Internment Camp in Canada, W.W.I  1916

Christmas celebration at Internment Camp in Canada, W.W.I - 1916.


The 'Great War'. For recent immigrants and political radicals in Canada, the war was a time of censorship, repression and, for many, life in an internment camp. During the war, the federal government waged its own internal conflict against potential subversives through the registration and internment of enemy aliens. In total, 80 000 enemy aliens were registered and 8579 men, 81 women and 156 children had been interned during the war. Many of those interned were mostly ‘foreign aliens’ with radical political ideas and found guilty of possessing prohibited literature, attending illegal meetings, or being a member of an illegal group. Six reported cases of individuals

tried for sedition during the war resulted in four convictions for expressing pro-German sentiments. Censorship was initially limited to two items in 1914 and sixteen in 1915, jumping to a total of 184 bans by 1918. Rather than ending with the war, the powers of Canada’s chief censor increased, allowing him to ban any publication in an enemy language. Order in council PC 2381 was passed on 25 September 1918 with the attendant penalties of $5000 and/or five years imprisonment for distributing banned publications. Rooted in concerns over the implications of the Bolshevik revolution and support for socialism at home, the legislation had more to do with suppressing socialism than dealing with the exigencies of war. Political and labour groups were also outlawed through order in council PC 2384 that banned freedom of association, assembly, and speech for many people living in Canada (most of whom were recent immigrants).

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the war for the human rights movement was the War Measures Act. In 1914 the War Measures Act was created and passed by the Conservative government. It would later be invoked again in 1939 to deal with the Second World War and Igor Gouzenko's defection, and during the October Crisis in 1970.

Despite these extensive restrictions on civil liberties at home, there does not appear to have been any active civil liberties association in Canada. This does not mean there was no opposition to the government's actions; only the lack of an organized network of civil liberties organizations at this time.

Soon after the war the modern security apparatus in Canada began taking shape. By 1920, the Royal North West Mounted Police had merged with the now operating Royal Canadian Mounted Police, responsible for all federal law enforcement and national security. From a force of 303 at war’s end in 1918, by September 1919 the RCMP employed 1600 men. Fingerprinting was one of the weapons deployed by the Canadian state to deal with criminal activity and soon adopted by the RCMP. By 1919, the Canadian Criminal Identification Bureau was active in collecting and disseminating fingerprints among police forces in cities across the country, and by 1920 the RCMP was regularly exchanging fingerprints with Britain to identify people deported for criminal activity. A great deal of the force’s increased activity during the postwar period was directed against labour and radical organizations. In February 1919 the number of detectives and secret agents was almost doubled, and a system of security files was created (housed in Ottawa). The expanding security apparatus was effective enough to place an agent (Inspector John Leopold) among the twenty-two members in a secret meeting founding the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) in 1921.


Further Reading

Larry Hannant, The Infernal Machine: Investigating the Loyalty of Canada’s Citizens, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Greg Kealey, “State Repression of Labour and the Left in Canada, 1914-20: The Impact of the First World War,” Canadian Historical Review (Vol.73, No.3, 1992): 281-314.

Reg Whitaker and Gary Marcuse, Cold War Canada: The Making of a National Insecurity State: 1945-1957 ( Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994).







©Dominique Clément