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Our History: Island mine strike fuelled wartime racism

While many events of the First World War are celebrated, others are recalled with discomfort.

While many events of the First World War are celebrated, others are recalled with discomfort.

In June 1915, an action in Fernie and a decision in Victoria combined to create a situation that achieved little beyond undermining the rule of law and creating social discord.

With Premier Richard McBride in England, acting premier William John Bowser, the attorney general, faced widespread unemployment and an approaching provincial election. He was also trying to convince working men he was not their class enemy.

Bowser had ordered the militia to suppress the bitter Vancouver Island coal strike in 1913, so his opponents were certainly characterizing him as an enemy of the working class.

When news reached him on Tuesday, June 8, that 1,000 coal miners at Fernie, against advice from their union officials, had gone on strike and refused to work until all employees who were citizens of Germany and Austria had been dismissed, Bowser sensed a clear opportunity.

Before the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Co. could respond to the strike, Bowser told the provincial police to intern all unmarried mine employees who were German or Austrian citizens.

The chief constable at Fernie received his orders that evening, in time to have notices printed commanding all those affected to report to police. He advised his officers in Coal Creek, Michel and Natal to swear in special constables and made arrangements to use Fernie’s skating rink as the site for a temporary jail.

Internment was to begin Wednesday, June 9. On Vancouver Island, Victoria architect Ridgeway Wilson supervised the arrests of miners who were to be held in provincial jails.

Described as enemy aliens during the war years, more than 300 Austrian and a few German employees of the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Co. were interned at the skating rink in Fernie over the course of the next few days. The rebellious miners had achieved their goal.

A century later, it is difficult to accept their declared patriotic motivation at face value. Why was such a demonstration of support for the war effort thought necessary in June 1915?

Enthusiasm for the war was high after the sinking of the Lusitania and Italy’s entry on the Allied side; the level of local unemployment was also high. Had English-speaking miners been considering this for some time, acting only when they felt assured of Italian support?

Did the Italian miners see this as a way to demonstrate their new allegiance to the Allied cause? Whatever the motivation, the Union Jack provided a wartime flag of convenience to justify the action.

For his part, Bowser was perfectly clear.

“Full advantage,” he declared, “should be taken of the chance to relieve unemployment.”

He told the Daily Colonist his purpose was to create employment for “deserving men who find themselves out of work,” and that he had the full co-operation of military authorities to remove a menace to the peace of the community.

The menace he had in mind was more likely the prospect of another miners’ strike than subversive activities by disloyal German and Austrian nationals. Fundamentally, Bowser in Victoria made the same calculation as the miners at Fernie: The appearance of patriotism and the cloak of wartime home security were enough to justify actions against enemy aliens.

Newspapers in Victoria and Vancouver — even those habitually hostile to Bowser — united in approval, but troublesome questions of legality quickly arose. Bowser had acted beyond his constitutional authority.

Internment of enemy aliens was a matter of federal jurisdiction under the provisions of the War Measures Act. The federal office called Internment Operations on June 14 advised that there “was no legal authority” for interning anyone at the Fernie rink and refused to take custody.

Apparently, even the broad powers of the War Measures Act were not sufficient to deal with Bowser’s internees. The legislation justified the imprisonment of enemy aliens who had indicated (or were alleged to have indicated) loyalty to Germany or Austria, who had attempted to flee to the United States, or who — by virtue of being unemployed — were simply suspected of disloyalty.

The men held in Fernie had not professed support for Germany or Austria, had not attempted to cross into the United States, had all registered with the police as required, and had all undertaken to obey the laws of Canada. In addition, until their internment, they had all been employed.

The Fernie Free Press asked “Where are we at?” and answered “Who knows?” Bowser soon found it necessary to deny rumours that the internees were about to be freed and to advise Prime Minister Robert Borden that riots would break out if they were.

Agreeing that the potential for disorder was substantial, the Free Press reported militia units in Calgary were awaiting orders to leave for Fernie. A distressed Bowser must have realized he had inadvertently created the conditions necessary for a repetition of the event he most sought to avoid — military intervention in a miners’ strike.

Adding to his distress, the internees had managed to retain the services of a Cranbrook lawyer who agreed to apply for writs of habeas corpus in the names of two Austrian prisoners, one of whom had been employed by the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Co. since 1908 and another who had come to Canada as a seven-year-old in 1891.

Leaning heavily on his political connections, Bowser lobbied Ottawa intensely and successfully. An order-in-council approved on June 26 stated that internment was justified if the presence of enemy aliens might “lead to disorder,” and provided a retroactive sanction for the situation at Fernie.

It seems thin, but apparently it was enough. Internment Operations took control of the prisoners on June 30. In autumn, the camp was moved to nearby Morrissey, operating there until October 1918.

Canada’s only provincially sanctioned internment camp lasted only three weeks, but it left a legacy of social division in the region and won few lasting friends for the politician responsible for its creation.

In December, Bowser succeeded McBride as premier. In the general election the next year, his Conservatives won just a handful of seats. Fernie was not one of them.