Today (June 26) marks National Canoe Day so what better way to celebrate than a post on PoW-made canoes!
In May 1943, the Canadian government approved the use of prisoner of war labour to help boost the struggling lumber and agricultural industries. From 1943 to 1946, thousands of German PoWs, Enemy Merchant Seamen (EMS), and civilian internees were employed in almost 300 labour projects and farm hostels across the country. The opportunity to work came with increased freedom as remote bush camps had no barbed wire fences or guard towers to contain PoWs. Many of these PoWs turned to their natural surroundings for recreation and hiking, swimming, and boating soon became some of the more popular ways to spend free time.
The camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, known today as the Whitewater PoW camp, opened in October 1943 with the arrival of 440 PoWs from Camp 132 (Medicine Hat). Located on the shore of Whitewater Lake, the PoWs spent their winter working, hiking around the camp, skating on the frozen lake, or reading, but when the lake thawed in the spring, enterprising PoWs turned their attention to building canoes. Apparently the idea for building a canoe came from a Canadian magazine circulating through camp that featured a birch-bark canoe on the cover.
Lacking the skills to build such an intricate craft, the PoWs instead turned to the large spruce trees scattered around the camp. Although the Park warden had told them to save the spruce trees, some were not spared the axe. With these huge logs, groups of PoWs started carving out dugout canoes. Measuring between twelve and sixteen feet in length, the PoWs built one and two-man versions, launching them in the creek that ran along the camp’s southern boundary. The guards and camp commandant permitted PoWs to paddle on Whitewater Lake so long as they stayed away from the shoreline and returned before roll call. Eventually a small fleet of these canoes lined the creek shoreline but not ever PoW took up canoeing for a hobby. One former PoW recalled the canoes were not particularly stable and after falling in the water a number of times, he gave his away to one of his comrades.
Riding Mountain was not the only camp to have canoes. With logging camps scattered across Northern, Ontario, and many situated on lakes or rivers, dugout canoes and more advanced boats appeared throughout the region. But relatively unfamiliar with canoeing and boating on open lakes, a few PoWs drowned and orders from Ottawa restricted canoeing at all camps. At Riding Mountain, the commandant restricted access to those only under the direct supervision of a guard but was eventually prohibited.
When the PoWs left these camps, their canoes remained. Some of them were taken by locals for their own use or as water troughs but most sat where they had been left. Storms and rising water levels carried many away while nature claimed those left behind.
Some of the canoes made at Riding Mountain were still floating in the creek thirty years after the last PoWs left the camp. Two were pulled from the creek and taken to the Fort Dauphin Museum for preservation where they remain to this day. But if you look closely along the creek today, you can still find the remains of one canoe near the creek and others scattered in the reeds. However, every year I revisit the site, they get harder and harder to find.