National Canoe Day

June 26 is National Canoe Day and I thought I would take a quick look at Prisoners of War and Canoes in Canada during the Second World War.

Prisoners of War in Canada spent the early war years in internment camps behind barbed wire but this changed when the Canadian government approved their employment in May 1943. Over the next three years, thousands of POWs were sent out to woodcutting camps across the country, most in Ontario but with some in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec. Logging in the 1940s relied on water to move logs so most camps next to lakes and rivers. Bush camps were remote, had no fences, and had limited opportunities for recreation, so POWs turned to their surroundings to help pass the time. The result: POWs started building canoes.

After seeing a photo of a birch-bark canoe on the cover of a magazine, POWs working in the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project (now more commonly known as the Whitewater Lake POW camp) in Riding Mountain National Park wanted to build their own but, lacking the skills, instead crafted dugout canoes. They built a small fleet and sailed their canoes (some seen below) around Whitewater Lake.

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Dugout canoes and boat at Riding Mountain National Park, 1944.

POWs in other camps even ordered boat kits and folding boats from the Eatons and other mail-order catalogues. Kayaks built by POWs near Kenora were used to paddle around Lake of the Woods and were even raced in small regattas. Some employers also allowed POWs to make use of company canoes or boats and it took little time before sizeable fleets could be found at many bush camps. Although most POWs loved canoeing, inexperience and unstable craft took its toll. Four POWs drowned in boating accidents between May-June 44, leading to a temporary ban on boating. This was lifted after authorities believed the ban would likely result in POWs refusing to work.

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POWs working for the Ontario-Minnesota Pulp & Paper Co. in their kayaks near Kenora, Ontario. Lake of the Woods Museum Collection.

When POWs were withdrawn from bush camps in 1946, they could not bring their canoes with them. But before a group of POWs left their #Kenora-area camp, they offered 10 POW canoes to the local YMCA camp on Lake of the Woods (likely Camp Stephens) in appreciation of the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA’s wartime relief work. It is unclear whether the canoes made it to the camp but the rest of POW canoes across the country were left behind. Exposed to the elements, the last 75 years have not been kind. This is one of canoes near Whitewater Lake in Riding Mountain National Park I photographed in 2010.

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One of the dugout canoes at Riding Mountain as it appeared in 2010.

Fortunately, some have survived. Two canoes from Riding Mountain National Park were removed from the site in the 1970s and are now in the collection of the Fort Dauphin Museum (Dauphin, Manitoba) while another dugout canoe from a camp in Northern Ontario is in the care of the Thunder Bay Museum (Thunder Bay, Ontario). A kanu-style kayak (seen below), is also in the collection of the Canadian Canoe Museum (Peterborough, Ontario). This vessel is believed to be from a bush camp near Longlac, Ontario and was removed from the camp sometime after it was abandoned.

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Prisoner of war kanu-style Kayak at the Canadian Canoe Museum.

If anyone has any stories or photos about POW canoes and kayaks, please comment below or send me a message!

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About michaelohagan

Historian studying German Prisoners of War in Canada during the Second World War

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