Saturday, June 22, 2013

"The Canadian Bush"

"In the name of all the wood-cutters, I would convey greetings to you and the entire camp. We find ourselves in the midst of the Canadian bush here, in the so-called Riding Mountain National Park. There is no barbed wire here, but instead a definite boundary has been set by red markings on trees. The woods principally leaf, and partly mixed. The ground is slightly hilly and swampy in part.” - Camp Spokesman Leo Manuel, November, 1944.
Among my interests is looking at how the PoWs reacted to and interacted with the environment that surrounded them. Most, if not all, of the PoWs had been captured in the North African desert in 1941 and 1942 and, after a brief internment in Egypt, had been sent to North America. First interned at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, they were moved to the vast Albertan prairie at camps in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. A year or two after their capture, these men were now working in the middle of the Canadian "bush."

Camp medical staff outside of one of the camp buildings.
Note the elk antlers above the door as well as the black bear and dogs.
Free to roam through the immediate area around the camp, PoWs looked to their surroundings in different ways. Among the first, and most popular, activities was hiking through the bush. Though the PoWs were quickly introduced to the dangers of wandering through the bush in the late fall (19 PoWs got lost and were introduced to the Manitoba winter), the continued their wandering until the camp closed in 1945.

Manuel also stated that the area was abundant with game, including wolves, deer, elk, bears, and moose. While some PoWs simply enjoyed listening to the elks bugling and the wolves howling, others picked up antlers shed by deer, elk, and moose as souvenirs. It was not long before nearly every building in the camp featured some form of antlers hanging above the entrances.

Whether PoWs were canoeing in their hand-made dugout canoes, playing with the camp bear, or getting lost while hiking around Whitewater Lake, the "wilderness" defined their experiences and drastically changed the way they thought about Canada and wartime internment. This will be my next project as I return to school in the fall.

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