Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

Beyond the Barbed Wire: POW Labour Projects in Canada during the Second World War

Document type Thesis
Author O'Hagan, Michael
Degree Ph.D., History
Publisher Western University; London, Ontario
Date 2020
Pages 482 pages


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.