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Creston Valley Goes to War

Fear and Suspicion

Italians 11June1940.jpg

The Oath of Allegiance sworn by the local Italian community, 11 June 1940

Kamo Family.jpg

The Kamo family of Canyon, a Japanese family that was forced into internment camps in 1942

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Newspaper article detailing the closure of the Ukrainian Hall, Canyon

The Second World War, like its predecessor, saw an overwhelming degree of patriotism. That’s what encouraged young men and women to join the armed forces; it’s what supported the endless fundraising and collection drives. But it also had the effect of increasing prejudice and suspicion against those of German or central European origin, or those who chose not to support the wars for any reason. 

As we’ve seen, this began immediately after the declaration of war. In September 1939, the local newspaper was wholeheartedly endorsing the decisions or provincial judges not to naturalize any “enemy aliens.” By the middle of 1940, suspicion was everywhere. Even the simple act of speaking in a language other than English was enough to raise the ire of those who did not. 

“This reporter,” reads a 1942 article in the Creston Review, “while traversing from the Canadian Bank of Commerce corner to the Creston Valley Co-operative Association’s store, a matter of one block, heard no less than three groups of foreigners haranguing in their native tongues about something or other. … While true blooded Canadians froth at the bit at such leniency shown these foreigners, Ottawa bellows, ‘Beware, the enemy has ears’ and such rot, when Canadians might be, being sabotaged because they cannot understand what these foreigners are talking about. … Further, it will be very informative to see how many of these foreigners purchased bonds or war savings certificates to help this country’s cause along, especially those persons who, in peace time were on the relief roles.” 

Two things are clear from this tirade. First, the “foreigners” were clearly known to the author and had been living in Creston for several years, if they had been beneficiaries of Depression-era relief measures. Second, whatever might have been their roles and relationships in the community, the simple fact that these people were heard speaking a language other than English was enough to brand them as potential saboteurs. 

Suspicion directed at former friends and neighbours was common. Pete Doerner, born in Hungary, had been living in Canada with his wife and children for several years before moving to West Creston in 1936. He made many friends in the community and was well-known for his cattle farming skills and his enthusiasm in organising children’s picnic games; his wife, Maria, turned out canned goods that were the envy of everyone. But when war broke out, Pete was no longer considered a friend and neighbour; he was an alien. In June 1940, Pete was found in possession of a gun and ammunition and was taken in for questioning. He was willing to fight to defend Canada, but refused to serve overseas. During the questioning, when it became clear that the authorities were questioning his loyalty, he became angry, and this was enough for the authorities to send him to an internment camp in Alberta. 

Interestingly, this did not prevent his daughter, Katie, from joining the Royal Canadian Air Force two years later. 

June of 1940 saw several other incidents that pointed to the suspicion with which residents regarded their born-outside-of-Canada-or-Britain neighbours. First, the Ukrainian Hall in Canyon was closed and the home of one of the Ukrainian residents was searched. Organised activities by people of “German” (meaning anyone of eastern or central European) descent were made illegal very early in the Second World War. While the hall itself was just one of several community-based gathering places, it did have ties to the Ukrainian Labour and Farmers’ Temple Association and from there to Soviet-style communism in Canada. 

At about the same time, Italy entered the war – on the side of the Axis. This immediately put the large and well-established local Italian community under suspicion. They responded promptly: a meeting of all the members of the Italian community, held the day after Italy’s declaration of war, immediately and publicly disclaimed all support of the Italian dictator Mussolini, enjoined all present to immediately report any talk they heard against the King or Canada to the police, and exhorted everyone to become strong, active members of the Red Cross and other local defence organisations. The meeting concluded with a call for all Italian residents to subscribe very heavily to the newest Victory Loan campaign, as a way of demonstrating their loyalty to the British Empire. 

This call for demonstrable loyalty was certainly effective. Almost all the people who signed the Oath of Allegiance on 11 June 1940 have family members who served in the military; many of the same names figure prominently in the lists of those active with the Red Cross; and one, Frank Maione, may have even served with the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers. 

A special kind of suspicion was reserved for the Doukhobors. Even before the war began, their communal lifestyle and refusal to be registered delineated the Doukhobors as “other,” and already the arsons and bombings of the more radical members of the Freedomite sect were raising fears of possible war-time sabotage. But the Doukhobor’s pacifist teachings and consequent refusal to take up arms was, quite possibly, their most reprehensible trait at a time when everyone else in the Creston valley was either being recruited for military service or struggling to support someone who was. Certainly, this resentment was at the forefront of the minds of Creston Legion members who, in 1944 roundly castigated Doukhobors who were buying land in Creston. As one member put it, “a person who will not fight for this country should not own land in it.” 

But the greatest degree of fear and suspicion was levelled at the Japanese. In the spring of 1942, those fears were running rampant, triggered by the attack on Pearl Harbour and the invasion of the Aleutians, and fuelled by reports of Japanese submarines off Vancouver Island. These fears led directly to the designation of “restricted zones” which Japanese people were forbidden to enter, the establishment of internment camps for Japanese residents of the province, and the creation of home guard civil defense corps, the Air Raid Patrol, and auxiliary military units such as the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers (PCMR). 

As soon as internment camps for Japanese people were established in the interior of BC, at places like Kaslo and New Denver, people in Creston were raising concerns about the isolation of the camps and the relative ease with which escapees could wreak havoc on important installations like railways or hydroelectric dams. “And,” inquired the Creston review in August 1942, “with these blown to Kingdom Come, what would become of the Trail smelter’s vitally important war production?” 

Throughout the war, Japanese were treated with suspicion. There was considerable opposition to the idea of bringing in Japanese labourers to help harvest the apple crops, which was never entirely overcome even though the alternative was losing the crop and the incomes that went with it. The same reluctance was equally evident in the summer of 1945, when dozens of Japanese men were brought in form the Slocan Valley to help fight the Duck Creek fire that very nearly destroyed Wynndel. And when provincial governments and other organisations floated potential resolutions to have all Japanese removed from BC entirely after the war, local groups from the Legion to the Board of trade and beyond lent them their wholehearted support. 

When the war eventually ended, attitudes like these were among the most firmly entrenched. They left scars and divisions in the community that would take years to heal.