This book by Zimmerman, edited by Beaulieu and Ratz, is the first detailed and rather complete description of one of the Canadian internment camps opened during World War II to receive prisoners of war. In operation from June 1940 to October 1941, Camp R, situated in Red Rock, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Superior, received about 1,150 inmates, most of whom were civilian enemy aliens imported from Britain at the height of the Blitzkrieg. These internees were later dispersed in several already existing camps elsewhere in the country, notably in the Richelieu Valley in Québec. Places such as Camp R, we learn in the book, were unique social environments in that they welcomed prisoners who did not quite understand why victims of Nazism should be held behind barbed wire fences, while they were being guarded by Canadian military units comprised mostly of veterans of the previous world war.
Uncertainty, impermanence, and indecisiveness pretty much encapsulated life as experienced in Camp R by both the inmates and their guards, as neither the Canadian government nor the military establishment knew exactly what was expected with regards to their new charges sent from Britain by sea. Although small by any measure, the presence of internees provides interesting insights into the perceptions held by Canadians with regards to the then raging war in Europe and what might be their country's role in the coming years as the conflict deepened. It also sheds light on the place held by the country in the minds of politicians and commanders living in Great Britain, essentially a backwater well suited to house in isolation enemy soldiers who might otherwise be tempted to rejoin by any means their units on the European continent. In the Canadian wilderness, German and Italian soldiers, it was thought, would find themselves captives of enormous distances, difficult weather, and physical remoteness.
The historical complexity with regards to Camp R is that Canada realized after a while that it was housing not soldiers and belligerents, but mostly political opponents of totalitarianism, people who could think and did not follow orders blindly. Intellectuals, university professors, and activists of all kinds arrived at Red Rock and started asking questions immediately. They demanded to be released on the grounds that they had not taken up arms against Canada and resisted military discipline. Of particular interest in this context is the presence among the internees of a great number of German Jews, who could hardly be accused of being proponents of Nazism or Fascism. Cultivated and well disposed toward the British for having accepted them as refugees from Hitlerism, they quickly gave Camp R a unique colour by organizing concerts, discussion [End Page 162] groups, and classes for the purpose of serious learning. They also challenged their status as prisoners of war and as enemy aliens. And so Camp R, like a few others elsewhere in the country, became a unique encounter between high-minded German-speaking dissidents, sent to North America by mistake at a time of military panic, and rather uninformed Canadians who had no clue as to the exact meaning of such a detention process.
Pressed together by the circumstances of war, both groups had to learn to live together and survive in highly unusual conditions, hundreds of kilometers from civilization. If only for that reason, that Camp R was a unique experiment in Canadian contemporary history, it is a story well worth telling – a story that has no parallels almost anywhere else in our national record, and which is revealing of the absurdities and biting ironies that warfare can bring to unsuspecting human beings. To present this narrative, the author has done very serious and convincing research, has questioned numerous survivors, and has written an excellent study that I recommend strongly. Perhaps the Red Rock story was not as traumatic as Dieppe or as glorious as D-Day. It doesn't mention the leading officers of the Canadian military or prominent politicians. Despite its...