Fred Kohse and Victor Heiny at the Vernon internment camp during the First World War.

Fred Kohse and Victor Heiny at the Vernon internment camp during the First World War.

Camp anniversary marked

Vernon's First World War internment camp

Sept. 18, 1914 might have been a warm fall day in the Vernon area with people working hard to get the harvest in. They would have been talking about Canada’s declaration of war against Austria-Hungary and Germany less than six weeks previously and wondering what it would mean to them.

Few of them were likely aware that an internment camp was opening that day in what is now MacDonald Park near Seaton school. Ninety-seven years later, even fewer people know that there was a camp in Vernon along with 23 others across Canada.

Although there was never any evidence of their disloyalty to Canada, thousands of Ukrainians and others of European descent and their families were interred and forced to do heavy labour. Of the 8,579 people interred, more than 5,000 were of Ukrainian background and many were women and children. Many were not released until 1920.

The What’s In Your Trunk? campaign by the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition fund is asking Canadians who may have had relatives in camps and others to look for artifacts and letters, documents or photos from that time so that these can be preserved.

The Vernon Museum has the small beginnings of a collection. There is a wood sideboard with  Morrissey Internment Camp, Fernie, 1916, made for mayor of Fernie, C. Shaw, carved in a drawer. Two intricately carved walking sticks with worn names, probably of guards, were said to have been made in Vernon. The detailed ship in a bottle may have been made in Edgewood.

“We tend to forget what happened in World War I. One of the last internees passed away a few years ago,” said Vernon Museum curator Ron Candy. “Many of these people had left Europe to escape tyranny only to have it thrust on them here. Some of them had been born in Canada. They were only trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.”

More than 8,500 people across Canada were interned under the War Measures Act of 1914 which gave the government power to inter or detain anyone they thought might be an enemy alien.

Their property was confiscated and they lived in inadequate housing. Men from the camps  were forced to work on roads, including Highway 6 from Edgewood to Cherryville and the road from Sicamous to the Okanagan, as well as in mines. Those who refused had their food rations decreased and were put in solitary confinement. Twelve Vernon camp internees escaped from the Vernon Camp by digging a 100-foot tunnel under the barbed wire fence. In other camps six people were killed while trying to escape.

The internees were released with only the clothes they were wearing, their property was not returned and they were never given any compensation.

“It must have been very difficult for them to live in the society that came out of the Great War. There would have been a terrible stigma of being associated with the enemy even though they had done nothing wrong. We have oral history of the Vernon camp but since the internees had no access to newspapers and were not allowed to write letters, we have little to go on,” said Candy.

“As a museum curator, my job is to know history and present it as truthfully as I can. I  have to look at history with open eyes. It is not my position to tidy up history and make it palatable. The archival materials and oral history can teach us. When we get the new museum, I would like to see a section of the museum dedicated to the camp as part of our history.”

On June 7, 1997, a plaque recognizing the Vernon internment camp and honouring the people who were unjustly imprisoned there was unveiled at MacDonald Park. Fred Kohse, who spent six years in the camp with his parents, including his mother who was English but interred because she was married to a supposed enemy alien, attended the unveiling.

Kohse donated his family photos to Andrea Malysh, program manager, Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund.

The What’s In Your Trunk? program, sponsored by The Canadian First World war Internment Recognition Fund, is looking for all kinds of artifacts from the internment camps across Canada. For more information or to donate items call 1-866-288-7931.