Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




MacEachern, Alan


This dissertation examines Canada’s program to employ prisoners of war (POWs) in Canada during the Second World War as a means of understanding how labour projects and the communities and natural environment in which they occurred shaped the POWs’ wartime experiences. The use of POW labourers, including civilian internees, enemy merchant seamen, and combatant prisoners, occurred in response to a nationwide labour shortage. Between May 1943 and November 1946, there were almost 300 small, isolated labour projects across the country employing, at its peak, over 14,000 POWs. Most prisoners were employed in either logging or agriculture, work that not only provided them with relative freedom, but offered prisoners unprecedented contact with Canada and its people. Work would therefore not only boost production but, it was hoped, instil POWs with Canadian mores and values through interaction with guards, civilians, and the natural environment.

Rather than attempt a narrative encompassing almost 300 labour projects, this dissertation examines POW labour through a series of five case studies. The first examines prisoners cutting fuelwood in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park while the second and third examine POWs cutting pulpwood in Northwestern Ontario for the Ontario-Minnesota Pulp & Paper Co. and Abitibi Power & Paper Co., respectively. The fourth case study examines POWs employed by Donnell & Mudge in its tannery in New Toronto, Ontario and the fifth examines the practice of employing POWs in farm work in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

Through these case studies, this dissertation examines how how internment officials employed remote parts of Canada as a physical boundary to prevent escape attempts, while also using it as a space to provide POWs with relative freedom as an inducement to work, and how work challenged definitions of who or what was the “enemy”. With significantly more freedom than the typical internee, POWs interacted with civilians and guards on a more familiar level, resulting in illicit fraternizations and relationships between POWs and Canadians. Although such fraternization also triggered considerable protest, these interactions reveal a great deal regarding POWs’ opinions of and attitudes towards Canada and its people as well as Canadian attitudes towards POWs.

Summary for Lay Audience

Few Canadians know how close the Second World War came to home, that thousands of enemy soldiers spent a significant portion of the war on Canadian soil. Between 1940 and 1947, over 35,000 German Prisoners of War (POWs) – including civilian internees, enemy merchant seamen, and combatant prisoners – were interned in Canada. While they were first placed in large, traditional internment camps, the Department of Labour ultimately employed over 14,000 POWs in almost 300 low-security labour projects scattered across the country.

The primary goal of these projects was to boost the struggling agricultural and lumber industries but labour projects also offered the opportunity to instil Canadian mores and values on German POW through interactions with military guards, civilians, and the natural environment. Through a series of five case studies, this dissertation examines how work in bush camps, on farms, and in a tannery shaped prisoners’ experiences in Canada while also exploring prisoners’ motivations and reactions to work, the challenges faced by employers and government officials, and the overall effectiveness of POW labour. Memoirs and interviews with former prisoners often demonstrate a fondness for their time in Canada – a feeling that has seldom been expressed elsewhere by POWs towards their captors – while wartime correspondence and reports indicate that POWs enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to work, the freedoms associated with labour projects, and, most importantly, the opportunity for a life outside the barbed wire enclosures.