BU researcher looking for WW1 internment stories

February 16, 2017

Large group of men at multiple tables in a black and white photo.
'Enemy alien' detainees pose for a photograph during Christmastime celebrations at a Canadian internment camp (probably in Brandon) during the First World War. (Library and Archives Canada)

A Brandon University (BU) researcher is tracking down stories from the Brandon First World War internment camp to use in a virtual reality project.

“I’m hoping to find pictures or stories of people who were there — or near there,” says Joe Dauphinais, a recent BU grad who has been brought on as a researcher for the project. “This is like crowdsourced research: There’s not that much currently out there, but I believe people may have family photos, or stories from their grandparents or great-grandparents that they might have heard.”

After collecting as much information as he can, Dauphinais will work with colleagues and students at Brandon University and Assiniboine Community College to turn the research into a virtual reality smartphone experience.

“The idea may be that you can go up and talk to some of the characters who were interned right here in Brandon, a century ago,” ACC media arts instructor Derek Ford said, describing the vision as a cross between virtual reality and choose-your-own-adventure.

Although there’s relatively good information about the internment camp itself, what’s missing are the stories of the people who were detained inside it.

“We know where the camp was, when it opened, when it closed, and about how many people were interned there,” says BU history professor Rhonda Hinther, who is leading the project with Ford. “What we don’t know are who those people really were, how they felt about their detention, and how they and their families coped.”

The First World War saw internment camps open across the country, as the Government of Canada began isolating so-called “enemy aliens” — immigrants who’d come to Canada from countries that were fighting against the British Empire. Those countries included areas under the control of Germany and Austro-Hungarian Empire, like Ukraine and Poland.

In Brandon, those foreign nationals were kept in barracks at the Wheat City Arena, a hulking open building that was stacked with beds and filled with men to house hundreds of internees. In Brandon, the camp was open from 1914–16.

All records of the internment camps were destroyed in the 1950s, making it difficult to piece together the lived experience of the camp.

“Along with this intentional destruction, it’s been more than 100 years since the internment itself. Floods and fires happen, few artifacts may remain,” Dauphinais notes. “But in this case, the information is more important than the artifact (though we’re happy to find those, too). Of course, we’d also like to see diaries, papers, photos that may still exist, but we’re most interested in collecting stories and remembrances to preserve a bit of an oral history of the Brandon camp.”

Anyone with information, remembrances, or family histories of time spent in the Brandon internment camp during the First World War is asked to email Dauphinais at josephdauphinais@gmail.com with details.

“Any information is welcome — even names and dates,” he says. “If anyone has stories of the wives or the families left behind, those stories as important as well.”

This project has been made possible by a grant from the Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund.

For more information, please contact:

Rhonda Hinther
Associate Professor, History


Grant Hamilton
Marketing Communications Officer