Designated enemy aliens under Canada’s War Measures Act (1914), some 8,579 enemy aliens were interned during World War I as prisoners of war. The vast majority however were settler immigrants, primarily of Ukrainian, Austrian, Hungarian and German decent. Despite their civilian status, a great many were sent to prisoner of war camps located in the Canadian hinterland, to be used as military conscript labour.
By 1915 several internment camps in and around the Rocky Mountains were in full swing, including a camp at the foot of Castle Mountain, the terminal point of the then uncompleted Banff-Laggan (Lake Louise) road.
Near Castle Mountain is the site of a First World War internment camp. Life in the camps was often described as ‘grim’; with its isolated location far from the roads of the time, the Castle Mountain camp was an ideal place to confine ‘enemy aliens’ and ‘suspected enemy sympathisers’. The forced labour of these men helped build much of the infrastructure of Banff National Park.
Few people realize the Cave and Basin was the winter home of prisoners of war, alien internees during the First World War. Few remember that these men worked to improve the local Ice Palace, the toboggan run and the ski hill.
Recognizing the value of future tourism, the main purpose of the camp was to push the Banff highway on through to Lake Louise, although, in addition, bridges, culverts and fireguards were also built. The camp consisted of tents within a dual barbed wire enclosure. The tents however proved inadequate during the severe winter climate, forcing the camp to relocate to military barracks built on the outskirts of the town of Banff, adjacent to the Cave and Basin, site of the original Hot Springs.
While in Banff, the internees were engaged in a number of special projects: land fill and drainage of the Recreation Grounds; clearing the Buffalo Paddocks; cutting trails; land reclamation for tennis courts, golf links, shooting ranges and ski jumps; rock-crushing; quarrying stone for the Banff Springs Hotel (still under construction) and smaller public works projects such as street and sidewalk repair. With the onset of spring, the camp returned once more to the Castle Mountain site.
This process of return and relocation would continue until August 1917 when the camp was finally closed when the internees were conditionally released to industry to meet the growing labour shortage.
The Castle Mountain camp was a difficult facility to administer. Abuse was widespread, and although duly noted by the Directorate of Internment Operations in Ottawa, never corrected. Escapes were frequent while conditions at the camp were roundly condemned by neutral observers and the Central Powers, charging Canada with violations of international norms governing the internment of enemy aliens.
Lest we forget!