Marginalizing Landscapes

Postcards of Canadian Internment

Author: Alana Zuzak

A significant portion of the Canadian national consciousness is tied to the country's vast expanses of land that are enjoyed with pride and appreciation.  Canadian fine art, too, is closely tied to the landscape; one might look to the Group of Seven as one of the nation’s most defining contributions to the western art canon.  As such, it is not surprising that the landscape so commonly surfaces as the subject of choice be it in visual fine art or in ephemera.  Postcards of the Canadian landscape, often expressing the impressive grandeur of national parks, speak to this fascination with and veneration of the land.  However, images of Canadian national parks are not necessarily the benign expressions of patriotism that they may, at first glance, appear to be.  Postcards dating from the early decades of the twentieth century, depicting the landscapes of Banff National Park, show the quiet meeting of what Canadians would like to believe of themselves and the dark truths of the early years of this nation.

Banff National Park, or Rocky Mountain Park as it was known at its inception in 1887, was the first national park of Canada.  Established after the discovery of hot springs at Cave and Basin,1 the park has long been a tourist attraction for Canadian and international guests.  Envisioned and promoted as ‘national playgrounds,’2 the parks’ reputation as healthful places in which people could escape daily life, relax, and return to nature is one that is perpetuated still today.  ‘Banff’ represents the wholesome values of Canada and is a name known across the country and around the world. The name itself evokes a number of notions and images including snow capped mountains, protected wildlife, untouched landscapes, the Banff Springs Hotel, skiing, camping, hiking, all pastimes and spaces associated with an active and wholesome lifestyle. Banff National Park is part wildlife preserve and part popular tourist attraction.  While one may find many fallacies in this identity, it is the irony of class and the park’s all-welcoming inclusion that will be explored here through postcards depicting Banff that have been printed, sold, collected, sent and received.

While it has been acknowledged recently by the government and studied by historians such as Bill Waiser, the internment of naturalized and un-naturalized immigrants of German and Austro-Hungarian ethnicity in national parks across the country remains a dark and unspoken portion of Canadian history.  The onset of World War One (WWI) exacerbated the already present and prevalent nativist sentiments felt throughout the west.  Suddenly, acts of discrimination and racism became acts of patriotism. 

Affected by the homogenizing policies of late nineteenth and early twentieth century governments, individuals originating from any of the Central Powers (such as the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires) were shunned from the rest of Canadian society.3  Seen and dubbed as ‘enemy aliens,’ these individuals, mostly single, male Ukrainians, lost their jobs and were unable to gain other employment due to their ethnicity.  It is ironic that many of them had been recruited by the Canadian government to take up industrial work in the east to serve as a temporary labor force prior to WWI.4  Indeed, postcards of Banff follow the same conventions as the visual propaganda campaign of the ‘Last Best West’ that brought millions of immigrants to Canada’s shores5: each lure individuals by using images of the rustic and unspoiled beauty and bounty of a park and country.  Placed in internment camps, established as early as 19156 located in the national parks of the Rocky Mountain region, enemy aliens were imprisoned and forced to work in reparation for their crimes - their ethnicity. 

Parks were attractive internment sites as they were generally rather remote.7  Keeping enemy aliens out of sight did not keep them from the minds of naturalized Canadians, but did aid in keeping the population free from worry and fear.  However, segregation was not enough.  These prisoners of war were expected to be employed while true Canadians risked their lives abroad for the sake of Queen and nation.8  Internees were largely engaged in building roads to and throughout the parks to increase accessibility as the automobile became a primary mode of personal transportation for the middle class.9  To become ‘national playgrounds,’ these parks required roads and visitor facilities.  Banff catered to a distinctly middle class audience, for whom else could afford the vehicle, vacation time, and other costs incurred escaping to this ‘idyllic’ retreat? 

Calgary's Summer Resort-Banff,
Calgary's Summer Resort-Banff
(image details)

The postcard above, though printed prior to 1915, is titled “Calgary’s Summer Resort, Banff” and appeals to the demographic who were to enjoy the national park and who consumed such ephemera - namely white, Anglo-Saxon, affluent, middle class Canadian citizens. The same image, unfortunately, might also represent the exclusionary social atmosphere in which immigrants in Canada were interned in horrific conditions. 

While it may seem unfounded to claim landscapes as marginalizing, postcards from the early twentieth century, (and arguably even today), depicting Canada’s national parks were not aimed at a general audience.  Discreetly targeting only visitors deemed as desirable, as determined largely by class and ethnicity, the landscape images on such postcards omit all presence of the camps where ‘enemy aliens’ were housed and forced to work.  Ladies dressed in clean and appropriate skirts, blouses and prettily decorated hats sit on a mossy log while a male companion stands before them dressed in a sports coat.  In the distance what appear to be a cabin, dock and perhaps boating house are nestled on the lake backed by a picturesque mountain range.  The outdoors, for the individuals in the foreground and those that enjoy the buildings in the distance, represent a luxury and perhaps even a novelty.   These white, Edwardian, thoroughly middle class people of polite society are comfortable subjects for the audience of such postcards as well as Banff itself.  Similarly below, even idolized landscapes devoid of people can include and exclude portions of society.  The postcard below of Castle Mountain has omitted the presence of the internment camp established there.  For those interned at Castle Mountain and for the tourist society meant to visit Banff, this postcard would represent two very disparate ideas. 

The camp at Castle Mountain, Canada’s first internment facility, was established by Robert Borden’s Conservative government in 1915 under great pressure from the public and the opposition. 10   The labor opportunities of such camps were to be fully exploited.  Many of the men had been accustomed to manual labor in adverse conditions, and it seemed logical that they be deployed to perform the same kind of difficult work during their imprisonment. 11 Because the war effort had severely limited Banff’s budget,12 the creation of the interned labor force was rather fortuitous for the park’s continued development.  Unfortunately, however, the interned laborers were not as lucky. 

Selected Real Photographs Canadian Pacific Rockies – Castle Mtn
Selected Real Photographs Canadian Pacific Rockies – “Castle Mtn”
(image details)

Such postcards, including this photograph card of Castle Mountain, give no aesthetic hint of the horrific living and working conditions which at least six hundred German and Austro-Hungarian internees endured.13  Workers were employed six days per week at a wage of twenty-five cents per day, and anything of value they held in their possession at the time of their internment was kept in trust in case it was decided at the conclusion of the war to use these assets to pay the cost of internment.14 Housed in canvas tents even in the harshest weather, the first task of early internees at Castle Mountain was the completion of a motor road from Banff to Lake Louise.15  Combined with only limited hand tools and outrageous work quotas, the internees were understandably an unhappy lot.  Their treatment by supervisors and park foremen was little better than enslavement, often not receiving enough food to sustain themselves after long days of demanding physical labor.16  As such, escapes were not uncommon nor surprising, even in the face of corporal punishment.  Often disappearing into the bush while on work errands, several prisoners manage to escape though not all were successful.  Even camp supervisors, sometimes selected from the internees, who usually enjoyed some privileges, were known to attempt escapes.17     

Postcards represent what Canadians would like to believe of themselves; they form an image of a quiet, peaceful nation with respectable citizens who value, enjoy, and identify with the landscape.  Leading healthful lives, Canadians are proud of the measures taken to preserve the pristine environments throughout the country.  Indeed today, the Parks Canada Charter reads as follows: 

On behalf of the people of Canada, we protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada's natural and cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure the ecological and commemorative integrity of these places for present and future generations.18

But, knowledge of Canadian internment, an embarrassing chapter of the country’s history, distorts the assumed benign realism of images such as the Castle Mountain postcard and the optimistic ambition of Parks Canada’s mandate.  Such majestic and gorgeous landscapes, especially considering the pride with which they were made and circulated, suddenly appear sinister and shameful.

In the winter of 1915, Castle Mountain camp was moved to the Banff town site temporarily to house the internees in warmer conditions.  The internees continued to clear recreation grounds, cut new roads, and build a bridge over the Spray River.19  Much like the bridge on the postcard below titled, “Cascade Mountain and bridge across Bow River, Banff, Alberta on Canadian Pacific Railway,” these roads and railroads were expanded for the sake of encouraging and facilitating tourism to Canada’s national playgrounds. 

Cascade Mountain and bridge across Bow River, Banff, Alberta on Canadian Pacific Railway
Cascade Mountain and bridge across Bow River, Banff, Alberta on Canadian Pacific Railway
(image details)

The railroads, in a twisted turn of fate, provided the eventual opportunity to be released from the camp.  During the labor vacuum of WWI, internees deemed non-dangerous were paroled to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway by the government in 1917. 20  Bitter and painful, the exciting establishment of roads and railroads in Banff marks the meeting of two very different views of a country which now touts multiculturalism, a mosaic of ethnicities, and its land as the nation’s most valuable resources.

Photograph or photoengraving postcards such as these three which I have presented do not provide a window onto reality, but a window onto a past and present society.  There are reasons I was not made aware of Canadian internment during my secondary-school history education.  Indeed, upon an informal poll of many of my university peers, internment of Germans and Austro-Hungarians in our much loved national parks is not only an alien notion but one that disgusts.  Unfortunately, despite the fact that Canadians cling to their image as peace-keepers and environmentalists, our reputation today not only dwindles abroad but at home as well.  And, we continue to partake in propagandist tourism and promotion, as I am certain that no Albertan postcards depict the tar sands at Fort McMurray.  This is the crux of postcards:  they promote what we would like to see in ourselves though no one, ourselves included, might believe it.


Calgary's Summer Resort-Banff. [190-?]. University of Saskatchewan Library Special

Collections.  Canadiana Pamphlets Collection.  Photoengraving three color process.

Retrieval information: 3. Postcard Views of Alberta-3-106   Database ID: 32704.

Cascade Mountain and bride across Bow River, Banff, Alberta on Canadian Pacific

Railway.  [190-?]. University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collections.  Canadiana Pamphlets Collection.  Photoengraving three color process.

Retrieval Information: 3. Postcard Views of Alberta-3-108    Database ID: 32707.

Jackson, Robert.  The Prisoners 1914-18.  New York:  Routledge, 1989. 

Kordan, Bohdan S.  Prisoners of War: Internment in Canada during the Great War.  Montreal:

McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

Kordan, Bohdan S. and Peter Melnycky.  In the Shadow of the Rockies:  Diary of the Castle

Mountain Internment Camp, 1915-1917.  Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1991.

McNamee, Kevin.  The National Parks of Canada.  Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited, 2004.

Parks Canada.  The Parks Canada Charter

Accessed 18 February 2010.

Selected Real Photographs Canadian Pacific Rockies – “Castle Mtn.”  [19-?].  Archives of the

Humboldt and Distric Museum Gallery Photograph collection. Real photograph card.  Bell Family Postcard Collection-2001_01_5_q, 33843.

Waiser, Bill.  Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915-

1946.  Saskatoon: Fifth House Ltd, 1995.

Woodsworth, J. S.  Strangers Within Our Gates.  Toronto: Doreen Stephen Books, 1909.


1 Kevin McNamee, The National Parks of Canada, (Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited, 2004), 124.

2 Bill Waiser, Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915-1946, (Saskatoon: Fifth House Ltd, 1995), 2.

3 J. S. Woodsworth, Strangers Within Our Gates, (Toronto: Doreen Stephen Books, 1909).

4 Waiser, Park Prisoners, pp. 4-5.

5 Bohdan S. Kordan, Prisoners of War: Internment in Canada during the Great War, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), 5.

6 Bohdan S. Kordan and Peter Melnycky, In the Shadow of the Rockies:  Diary of the Castle Mountain Internment Camp, 1915-1917, (Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1991), 16.

7 Kordan, In the Shadow of the Rockies, p.16.

8 Waiser, Park Prisoners, p. 2.

9 Kordan, In the Shadow of the Rockies, p. 17.

10 Waiser, Park Prisoners, p. 8.

11 Ibid, p.10.

12 Ibid, p.4.

13 Kordan, In the Shadow of the Rockies, p.5.

14 Waiser, Park Prisoners, pp.11-2.

15 Kordan, In the Shadow of the Rockies, p.17.

16 Waiser, Park Prisoners, p.15.

17 Ibid, p.16.

18 Parks Canada, The Parks Canada Charter,, accessed 18 February 2010.

19 Kordan, In the Shadow of the Rockies, p.18.

20 Waiser, Park Prisoners, p. 44.