Lethbridge Internment Camp During the First World War

By Isabella Lee

Between 1914 and 1920 the Canadian government interned 8,579 so-called “enemy aliens” in 24 camps across Canada. “Enemy aliens” were civilians who had immigrated to Canada from countries that were legally at war with the British Empire. One internment camp opened in Lethbridge in September 1914, and was situated at the Lethbridge fair grounds. The number of internees at the Lethbridge camp peaked at 300 in mid-1915 while the camp employed 60 guards.

Many of the internees had lived in southern Alberta prior to their internment. The proximity of Lethbridge to the United States border provided incentive for many escape attempts, sometimes with outside help from family or friends in the community. The great escape was on April 26, 1916, when six internees escaped the camp through a 111 foot-long tunnel that ran from the poultry building to an area behind bushes and trees outside the City nurseries. The six internees were never caught. More internees might have escaped if it wasn’t for one individual who either became stuck or lost his nerve in the tunnel. A second tunnel was later found in a second building that was 50 feet short of the camp’s fence. Due to the various successful escape attempts, the camp was closed on November 11, 1916 and its internees were moved to other internment camps.

Little is known about the treatment of internees, but the Chicago Tribune got in contact with a former internee at the camp named Caserai, an Austrian who was later returned to the United States. The newspaper published an article on November 28, 1915 stating that the prisoners from the Lethbridge detention camp were grossly abused by guards and officers. The charges were sent to the United States Consulate in Calgary but nothing ever came from the charges. The camp’s commanding officer at the time, James Birney, called the charges “ridiculous.”

Today there are two monuments at the entrance of Heritage Hall at Exhibition Park. The monuments were funded by the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund that supports projects that commemorate and recognize the experiences of all of the ethno-cultural communities affected by Canada's first national internment operations of 1914–1920.

You can find out more about the Lethbridge Internment Camp at the Galt Museum & Archives.