21. STRIKE AT PETAWAWA
At the beginning of August relations between the antifascist group and the camp administration became so sharp that our spokesman Gerry McManus told the commandant that if we were not transferred to another place and we were not separated entirely from the fascists then we would march en masse to the barbed wire regardless of the consequences.
Our determination frightened Commandant Pence and he immediately contacted the Ministry of Justice in Ottawa. He did not receive an answer satisfactory to us, however, and we further remained together with the fascists in Camp Petawawa. Nevertheless we did not stop our struggle. Every step of the way we demanded that we be separated from the fascists.
This situation continued until August 15. That day a commission from England, led by Timothy Eden (brother of Anthony Eden, then Minister for External Affairs for Great Britain), was inspecting Internment Camp Petawawa. The commission went into all the barracks except ours. Passing close by our barrack, the inspector of internment camps in Canada, who was accompanying the commission, said, "The Russians stay here." Poet Joe Wallace, a native-born English Canadian, heard this remark. He got up, went over to the commission and protested on the spot, "Sir, that's not true! There are no Russians here. We are Canadian citizens. Don't be embarrassed to come into our barracks and acquaint yourselves with how interned Canadian antifascists live."
The commandant of our camp, Pence, shouted at him, "Shut up!"
"I won't shut up," responded Joe Wallace. "You're afraid to tell the truth that you are holding Canadian antifascists together with the fascists in the internment camp."
"Arrest him!" the commandant ordered the police.
Two huge military policemen grabbed Joe Wallace by the arms and took him away to the stockade. He was immediately tried and sentenced to 28 days in solitary confinement.
When the antifascist group learned about this they immediately held a meeting and decided to demand his release. After lunch we arranged a demonstration near the "cooler". At exactly the appointed time all the antifascists gathered and in ranks of four walked around the stockade singing revolutionary songs and shouting "Release Wallace!"
The commandant gave the order to post guards on the camp gates. In the towers were stationed soldiers with automatic rifles and machine guns, the muzzles aimed in our direction. After the two-hour demonstration we returned to our barracks. Then came the order to padlock the antifascists inside their barracks.
Max Boitler and I were in the camp infirmary then. The leadership of our group told us at all costs to stay in the infirmary for as long as possible, because we were the only contacts outside the barracks. In answer to the administration's steps the antifascist group declared a strike. They refused to fulfill their work duties and to submit to the commandant's orders. For that the antifascists were deprived of their letters, newspapers and parcels, and were locked in at all times. They were only allowed to go out for half an hour for lunch. In addition our barracks were surrounded with barbed wire, outside of which were set armed guards.
From time to time Max Boitler and I supplied our comrades in the locked barracks with information about what was happening in the camp and in the world, because in the hospital we had the opportunity to read the papers. But on the fourth day the captain came and told us that if we wished to remain in the infirmary then we would have to gather up our things from the barracks and separate ourselves from the strikers. We responded that we would not do it; on the contrary, we would return immediately to our friends. For several days after that moment contact between us and the outside world was completely severed.
I would like to mention that only one of our mates left us, finding a place in an Italian barrack. He was Tony Woytyshyn, former secretary of the Head Office of the Workers Benevolent Association, who had separated himself from us already in Kananaskis because he wanted to get out of the camp at all costs. Afterwards some people thought that he had gotten together with the fascists, gone over to their position and become our political enemy. Such an interpretation is inaccurate. For motives of a personal family nature he wanted to go free and therefore kept apart from us, thinking that this would help him. He miscalculated, however, because when under the pressure of the Canadian people all the antifascists finally left Hull Jail in the spring of 1942 he was held further in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Even though locked in the barracks, we continued the struggle. The feeling of unity among the antifascists was strong. No one showed fear, panic or the desire to leave the barracks. On the contrary, each time that the policemen accompanied us to the kitchen for lunch, we sang our songs, behaved cheerfully, and showed our contempt for our persecutors and the fascists who watched us from afar.
On the seventh day of the strike the commandant summoned our spokesman to his office and said that he had received instructions from Ottawa to move us to another camp where we would be alone, away from the fascists. Of course, we were all overjoyed. We would finally have our own kitchen, our own internal administration. There we would be able better to conduct our political and educational work.
In a day we collected our things and set out for Hull, Quebec. We still did not know, then, where we were being taken. Our journey through the Ontario towns erupted into a great demonstration. At the train stations people could not get over such a marvel. What kind of enemy prisoners of war were these who sang "O Canada" and various other English songs? We made use of every opportunity to acquaint as great a circle as possible of Canadians with the fact that we were antifascists whom Canadian reactionaries had dispatched behind barbed wire to deprive the working class of leadership in this difficult period.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All