22. HULL JAIL
Come the evening of August 20, 1941, we arrived in Ottawa. From there we were removed by truck to Hull Jail — a large, grey cement building. It was a new prison which had never been used. A commission had concluded that it was unfit for criminals because fungus had appeared on its walls. It was such a place that our tormentors had found for us.
From the trucks we were taken straight to a square area which adjoined the prison and was enclosed on three sides by huge grey cement walls four metres high. The square was overgrown with weeds that came up to our knees. Amazed, we looked all around. You could see in everyone's eyes the question, "Where are we? Where have they brought us? Can this be a camp?"
Once they had lined us up in ranks on the square the camp commandant Major J.V. Green made a speech. He began to read a lecture on how we should behave ourselves and what our duties were. But he had not even finished his speech when our spokesman Gerry McManus stepped forward and asked, "Sir, where are we? Is this a camp? Why have we been brought to a prison? We are not criminals!"
His words struck the commandant like a bolt out of the blue. He was caught unawares and was dumbfounded. In a minute he began to mollify the spokesman.
"Just a minute, old boy!" This was his favourite phrase in conversation. "I do not know who you are, or how long you will be here, but this is the place where you will be staying temporarily."
Then we all began resolutely to protest. The commandant immediately saw that before him were people who could not be frightened with threats nor hushed with promises. This was our first, but not last, confrontation with him.
Having no other way out, we submitted to our fate for the time being and settled into the cells. It should be mentioned that nothing had been prepared for us, not the kitchen, the laundry, the dining hall nor even the straw mattresses for the beds. We understood that we had been transported here suddenly, after we had maintained the strike solidly demanding segregation from the fascists. Everything would be easier for us here. We could speak freely. There would be neither Nazis, nor Italian fascists, nor Arcandists near us.
Joe Wallace remained in Petawawa in solitary confinement, serving his sentence. The ailing Mike Sawiak and William Kolisnyk were in Pembroke Military Hospital.
After resting from our tiring journey, on the second day we held a meeting at which were communists and non-communists alike. After a short report by members of the leading committee, discussion opened on how we should begin life in our new place, in Hull Jail.
During lunch yet another meeting was held, at the request of the commandant, in order to elect a spokesman with whom he would maintain liaison. He said that he would conduct the meeting but we ought to nominate candidates for a spokesman. Someone from the group proposed Gerry McManus and someone else proposed that his assistant be Romeo Duval. No one nominated anyone else.
The commandant urged, "Let's have some other candidates. Who will still nominate someone?"
Silence reigned in the hall. All were quiet. He again requested other nominees. The silence continued. He shook his head and handed out the ballots. Five minutes had not yet passed when we had all tossed our ballots into his peak hat. He dropped them out on the table and began to sort them into two little piles — McManus and Duval. No one had voted against them and no one had spoiled a single ballot.
The commandant could not contain himself and said, "Odd, no one is against, no one even spoiled a ballot."
You could read the bitterness and malice on his contorted face. Our unanimity frightened him very much. He saw that before him were people who could not be broken, that the whole group would stand united in defence of an individual. It should be mentioned that of all the commandants he was the most mean and reactionary enemy of the progressive movement. This was a classic example of a reactionary of the old English conservative school. Born in Great Britain, he had arrived in Canada not long ago. There was a rumour that for improper conduct in the army he had been transferred to the post of commandant of a concentration camp. He revealed himself to be a genuine inquisitor with regard to the interned antifascists. But since he often came into conflict with the antifascist prisoners in the camp he was removed from the post of the commandant and was demoted in rank. He was reduced from major to captain. In his place as commandant of Hull Internment Camp was appointed Major Bruce Thompson. This occurred, however, after I had gone free in the last months of the functioning of the internment camp at Hull.
After the election of the spokesman and his alternate we started making order in Hull Jail. We set to organizing work brigades at once. We assigned the cooks, the sales clerk in the canteen, sweepers, woodcutters, dishwashers, launderers, and the servers in the dining hall. Besides the spokesman and his alternate we had a steering committee which managed the internal administration, resolved all problems of the camp and individual prisoners. It was accountable to the general meeting of interned antifascists.
Our days in Hull Jail passed according to the following routine: at seven o'clock in the morning we got up, washed and tidied up in our cells; at nine o'clock we had breakfast; at two o'clock, lunch; and at five o'clock, supper. In between we did the daily chores: swept and washed the floor, washed the dishes and cut firewood.
The prisoners who were not occupied with work duties read newspapers, magazines and books in the reading room (we had set aside a special room for this purpose) and made souvenirs from wood. Some would stroll on the square in the fresh air. You could go out onto the square at any time between seven in the morning and nine o'clock in the evening. The cells were not locked up. You could go from one cell to another at any time of the day.
The work duties in Hull Jail did not take up all the prisoners' time. Consequently, at specific hours in the morning, afternoon and evening, various courses were given. There was an English language class, a French language class, a course in accounting, lectures on the history of Canada, lectures in political economy and on the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and lectures on the trade union movement. From time to time Doctor Howard Lowrie would read lectures about different diseases and Professor Samuel Levine would lecture about physics and mathematics. Lectures were given on the international situation and the course of the war.
The party committee frequently held public meetings at which speakers explained the situation in Canada and the role of the Communist Party of Canada in mobilizing workers for the war effort to strengthen the country's armed forces in the battle with German Nazism.
The members of the Communist Party of Canada had been divided into groups which held their own meetings each week. An organizer was responsible for each group. At the meetings the documents of the Communist Party of Canada, which came to us by a round-about route, were studied. In Hull Jail we could develop our work fully because we were not hindered by our fellow inhabitants, as in Kananaskis or even, to a certain extent, in Petawawa. There we had had to conduct our activities in secret. In Hull Jail we conducted them openly because the camp administration could not know what was going on inside, isolated as we were from it by an iron door and high cement walls. Beyond a single roll call in the evening we were by ourselves all the time. No one in the administration knew anything of what we did because, I wish to stress, among us there were no informers specially placed in camp. In later years, though, some of the interned antifascists left the labour movement, some even taking hostile positions. However, there will be more about this later. Besides that there were no informers, among the guards in Hull Jail were soldiers who sympathized with us and were quite friendly to us. Many things happened before their very eyes but they deliberately did not pay attention or report to their superiors.
If we had been by ourselves from the very beginning of our internment, we would certainly have made better use of our time in study. Many comrades would have significantly broadened their political outlook and acquired the education which they lacked and which they had not had the opportunity to gain in school. Nonetheless we properly employed even this short time and often called Hull Jail "our university."
Newspapers were delivered to us on the second day after they were published. Having breakfasted, we gathered in a long corridor. Some sat on benches, some stood. The majority seated themselves on the floor. This was our "news briefing". Whoever had a strong voice and good diction read the newspaper — news items and some political articles (analyses and commentaries) — out loud. For the most part Dave Sinclair read the paper. Though we did not have the right to have a radio receiver, after the paper was read one of the comrades gave a resume of the news which had just come over the air. Some readers might wonder how he had learned about these events when we did not have a radio. This is how it happened. Our comrades in Winnipeg knew that we were eager for the latest news of world events, particularly from the war fronts. Thus they contrived to send us a radio receiver (a crystal set) on which you could hear the broadcasts with the help of earphones. They had put this simple radio, small in size, on the bottom of a tin can, covered it with a thick layer of cheese, frozen it and sent it in a refrigerator car to one of the antifascists. Although the inspecting officer who handed out parcels to the prisoners poked the cheese with an awl, there was apparently nothing suspicious. Consequently he gave the tin can to the addressee. So we not only received a radio but our cook, Peter Keveryha, who was famous for his preparation of Ukrainian dishes, made delicious varenyky out of that cheese for the entire antifascist commune. It meant that the parcel from our comrades in Winnipeg was just as tasty as it was useful.
With regards to the radio I should mention that an embarrassing situation developed one time. For such a radio to work it was necessary for an antenna, a metal wire, to run from it along a wall. The wall was grey and so the guards did not spot the wire against its background. One time , however, our comrade Nick Huculak from Windsor, having seen the extended wire, hung his bedsheets to air out on it. Seeing the hanging linens, a guard immediately leaped to the conclusion that there was something suspicious, dashed to the wire and began to pull on it. He tore it down but did not spot exactly from which window it had stretched. He had noticed only that the window was on the third floor. He quickly ran to the commandant. In the meantime the comrade who was in the cell where the radio was located carried it to another floor. Thus when the military police tore into the cells on the third floor they could find nothing. Afterwards it was necessary for our technicians to think up somewhere else to run the antenna so that it could not be seen with the "naked eye". By the way, among us there was one expert, Jim Murphy, who had worked as a technician for the CBC until his internment.
True, in the last months before the liquidation of Internment Camp Hull the administration permitted the antifascist prisoners to have legally their own radio receiver.
Thus we were well informed about world events and this made our stay in the camp significantly easier. At that time the USA had entered the war and the Red Army was striking blow after deadly blow at Hitler's Wehrmacht near Moscow and in other sectors of the front.
At first Marxist literature and the workers' press were not allowed in Hull Jail. Nevertheless we received such literature by illegal means. We also received by the same route the illegal literature of the Communist Party of Canada. By those very same means we passed along information about ourselves to our friends outside. This alarmed the camp administration. It began to repress our spokesman and the members of the steering committee.
Here is an example of those repressive measures which the Hull Jail administration used against us. Our leadership, with the approval of all of us, sent a memorandum on our continued sojourn in Hull Jail to Ottawa through the commandant. In the memorandum were set forth our proposals and a statement of our readiness to take part in the war effort or to join the Canadian armed forces. In the document were also given explanations of the actual reasons why Canadian reactionaries were striving to detain us as long as possible in prison. We did not receive any reply to the memorandum. A suspicion formed that either the commandant had "shelved" it, not releasing it from his office, or some civil servant in Ottawa had stuffed it into a pigeon-hole. Our steering committee decided then to publish a copy of the memorandum in the workers' press. It was sent to the newspaper "The Canadian Tribune" along a circuitous path. When it was published the commandant immediately began to terrorize our leadership. He ordered the arrest of Gerry McManus and Norman Freed. They were dispatched to solitary confinement. We all came to their defence. We refused to write letters to our families. Not receiving letters from us for a long time, our relatives began to bombard the Ministry of Justice with inquiries, "What has happened to our husbands? Where have you sent them? Why are there no letters from them?" On the outside an animated mass movement developed around this matter and the Ministry was forced to order the commandant to release our representatives from solitary confinement.
The commandant would be after us for the least trifle and would try to punish us with solitary confinement. For example, Doctor Howard Lowrie and Jimmy Murphy (he worked for the CBC radio network as chief mechanic until his internment) had constructed Morse code keys and practised the code in their free moments for their personal amusement. Having learned about this, the commandant immediately ordered that they be arrested and placed in solitary confinement, and the keys be confiscated. Dr. Howard Lowrie contracted a nervous disorder while in solitary confinement.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All