Lethbridge Detention Camp

As 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War, two exhibits at the Galt Museum & Archives examine the impact of the war on the homefront, and the contributions of people in Lethbridge and area.

The first of these, Lethbridge's Experiences in the First World War (1914-1915) displayed May 8-September 29, 1914, looked at the beginnings of the war and its impact on the community and its citizens. Stories included initial response and mobilization efforts, Lethbridge's militia history, the spread of patriotism and the rise of xenophobia, recruitment, and the life of Lethbridge's most well known soldier: General J.S. Stewart.

We are sharing this exhibit research by guest curator Brett Clifton here; the first installment War Fever Strikes Lethbridge, then The Early Days of War, and now Lethbridge Detention Camp:

Exhibition Pavilion Buildings, 1912-1916. From a souvenir folder of 18 colourized postcards of Lethbridge, 10.1 cm x 15 cm each.   Courtesy of the Galt Museum & Archives: 19891067000-015

Exhibition Pavilion Buildings, 1912-1916. From a souvenir folder of 18 colourized postcards of Lethbridge, 10.1 cm x 15 cm each. 

Courtesy of the Galt Museum & Archives: 19891067000-015

As we look back on history, it is hard for us to imagine a time when the Canadian Government could arbitrarily brand their own citizens as enemies and find a means by which to detain them for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened in Lethbridge and other communities across the nation, beginning just hours after Canada's declaration of war in August 1914.

On 11 September 1914, barely a month after Canada entered the war, the Lethbridge Daily Herald announced that the only military prison in Alberta was to be established at the Lethbridge Exhibition Grounds. The poultry barn where the prisoners were to be held was renovated and barbed wire was installed to keep the 'enemy' safely contained.

Initially, the enemy was defined as individuals of German, Austrian, Hungarian or Turkish descent who belonged to reserve units in their homelands, however, this was soon expanded to include anyone with an ethnic sounding name that was 'acting suspiciously.'

Citizens were encouraged to report any 'suspicious behaviour' to the police for investigation - and report they did. Accusations abounded ranging from possession of banned books to the sabotage of threshing machines necessary for the production of local crops. In an attempt to escape the atmosphere of suspicion, many of these potential 'enemy aliens' tried to make their way to the American border as the United States was neutral and not involved in the conflict. If caught, potential 'enemy aliens' were promptly arrested and returned to Lethbridge for detention.

The 'enemy aliens' had also been cut off from their families in Europe, as they could not send or receive any mail to or from home. Some would try to get the mail through to Sweetgrass, Montana, but once again, if they were discovered, the consequences would be severe.

At its peak in mid-1915, the Lethbridge Detention Camp held 300 prisoners and employed 60 guards. In the fall of 1916, the Lethbridge camp was closed, primarily because the city was located too close to the American border, which provided incentive for detainees to attempt to escape.

The next installment will look at the Brigadier-General John Smith Stewart. The second exhibit Lethbridge's Experiences in the First World War (Local Contributions), begins October 11 and closes February 8, 2015.

Guest Curator Brett Clifton was born and raised in Lethbridge, attending local schools as well as the University of Lethbridge. Graduating in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Education, he now teaches Grade 7 and 8 Social Studies at G.S. Lakie Middle School. He has published two books documenting the lives and service of local men commemorated on our cenotaph, and is contributing a section on Lethbridge's war time experiences for an Alberta centennial publication coming out this year.

Please note: The Archives does not have any images of the First World War detention camp at Lethbridge. Do you and would you share them? If so, please call 403-329-7302 | 1-866-320-3898 or send a message to archives@galtmuseum.com