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Reviewed by:
  • No Free Man: Canada, the Great War, and the Enemy Alien Experience by Bohdan S. Kordan
  • Amy Shaw
No Free Man: Canada, the Great War, and the Enemy Alien Experience by, Bohdan S. Kordan. Montreal, Kingston, London, Chicago, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016. xvi, 394 pp. $39.95 Cdn (cloth or e-book).

When World War I broke out Canada declared several thousand of its inhabitants to be "enemy aliens." These people were subject to intense surveillance, and many were interned and used as forced labour; some were later deported. They were punished economically and faced mob violence not for acts of disloyalty, but simply because they had been born in a country with which Canada was now at war. Bohdan Kordan's latest work examines how this state of affairs came about and addresses some of its implications, adding necessary depth to a little-known aspect of Canada's WWI experience, and making important observations about imperial identities and the role of fear and responsibility in wartime.

Canada, anxious for settlers and economic development in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, had encouraged European immigration. Many of the people who responded came from countries that would later make up the Central Powers — the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, Turkey, and Bulgaria. The Canadian government seems to have recognized that it had obligations to these people — who had been invited to this country — but chose, by and large, to abdicate those responsibilities in favour of appeasing public opinion and the temptation the economic benefits of interned labour offered. Considerable latitude was given to local officials and internment camp officers to interpret and punish perceived threats as they saw fit, and fear and nativism seems largely to have won the day.

Kordan shows that internment was understood by the government as a pragmatic response. The need for security in wartime overrode individual rights. But the commitment to security was overzealous in that it was based on the possibility that an individual might become a threat, rather than on active disloyalty. It also operated according to a very loose definition of what threat entailed. Enemy aliens had been patriotically fired from their jobs at the outbreak of war and were not permitted to move to the neutral United States to find work. Consequently they were suffering intense privation and this suffering was an important aspect of why they were considered threatening. Men whose families were starving might respond radically. This made them a liability and justified internment as much as the circumstances of their birth.

If threat was interpreted broadly there was a similar moral flexibility in the problem of interning civilians as what amounted to prisoners of war. The Canadian government responded to the legal and ethical problems of this by recognizing that in an age of conscription everyone was a potential [End Page 620] enemy combatant. Kordan tends, however, to see registration and internment as responses to grassroots fear and nativism rather than as government overreach. The book recognizes regional variety, including the peculiar vehemence of British Columbia's response, and the variety in how internees from different countries were treated, with Germans generally accorded greater status than Ukranians in the camps. Kordan resists polemic and easy narratives of victimization, writing in a measured way that makes the impossible situation these men and their families faced all the more powerful. Particularly evocative were the stories of two men who had been interned, and faced with the prospect of being re-interned, committed suicide.

Those deemed enemy aliens under the War Measures Act were in an untenable situation. They could not leave the country, or enlist, or become naturalized. They were disenfranchised in 1917. In the internment camps they faced economic exploitation. The work of interned labour was lucrative for the government, building roads, opening up areas of settlement, and developing national parks for tourism. Based on this Kordan reveals internment as oppression based on class as well as ethnicity. The illegal forced labour of the internees was morally justified on the grounds that they were working class people, accustomed to hard labour and harsh living conditions. Enemy aliens were thus punished...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2292-8502
Print ISSN
0008-4107
Pages
pp. 620-621
Launched on MUSE
2017-12-23
Open Access
No
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