Montreal was founded by the French in 1642 as a mission and fur trade post. After the British Conquest of New France, Montreal grew in importance as a major economic centre, and by 1860 it had surpassed Quebec City as the largest city in Canada, as well as its undisputed economic and cultural centre. Many English and Scottish immigrants settled in Montreal alongside the original French-Canadian inhabitants, giving the city a strong Anglophone presence. Since the late 1800s however, most newly arriving Anglophone immigrants moved west into Ontario and the prairies, and Montreal gradually returned to its original French roots. Today it is the largest French-speaking city in the Americas, and the second largest city in Canada.
We respectfully acknowledge that Montreal is located on unceded Indigenous lands and is historically known as a gathering place for many First Nations, including the St. Lawrence Iroquois, Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. Today, it is home to a diverse population of Indigenous and other peoples.
Montreal Receiving Station
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One such incident occurred in Montreal on October 21, 1914 when an explosion leveled a tenement block, primarily occupied by working class immigrants. The explosion and resulting fire killed two men, injured many more, and caused a wave of panic to ripple across the city. Rumors claimed that the two dead men caused the explosion when a bomb they were storing for more "nefarious" purposes accidentally detonated. Although an investigation proved that the explosion was due to a faulty gas line, many remained convinced it was the action of enemy spies. The mayor even received a letter shortly after that warned of an organized and heavily armed group of German and Austro-Hungarian nationals who planned to enact more violence and destruction in the city.1
Despite the suspicion and hysteria of the general public, the government was initially more skeptical of the rampant claims of enemy sabotage. Investigations by the North West Mounted Police and other police forces turned up little evidence that Austro-Hungarian immigrants were allied with the enemy. One immigration report from northern Ontario reported, "It seems that as long as the majority of these foreigners are kept in work there will be no cause for anxiety" and that the German and Austro-Hungarian immigrants there were "quiet and inclined to mind their own business."2
Despite the lack of evidence, both government officials and the public grew increasingly nervous about the loyalties of the so-called "enemy aliens" in their midst. Anyone who was a reservist for an enemy nation was considered an enemy combatant and a threat to Canadian security that needed to be contained. On August 13, the SS Ruthenia, a passenger ship from Antwerp, docked at Montreal and was promptly boarded by a group of police. They arrested 13 of the ships' crew who were identified as enemy reservists and detained them at the immigration building as prisoners of war. Another 22 German and Austro-Hungarian reservists were already in custody - they had been arrested trying to cross the border into the United States.3
The immigration building on rue St Antoine had become the first official internment site as enemy reservists were taken there in increasing numbers. However, the immigration was not a suitable place to keep internees long term. As late August grew into September and beyond, several internment camps opened in quick succession across the country. For government officials, the camps could not be built fast enough.
Discrimination towards those of enemy nationality and an economic depression had put tens of thousands of German and Austro-Hungarian immigrants out of work. The situation was particularly dire in Montreal where an 1/8th of the Austro-Hungarian population was unemployed. The Austro-Hungarian consul general, Hermann Hann was particularly concerned about the risk of starvation and approached the Canadian government about providing aid to the destitute. However, the scale of the problem soon overwhelmed the aid plan that Hann had initiated. Within weeks, 4,000 people registered for aid.
While the depression was hard on everyone, "enemy aliens" were the hardest hit. Employers preferred to hire native-born Canadians over those from enemy nations, and were often pressured by employees to fire enemy aliens. In Montreal, a group of English-speaking French and Italian waiters pressured major hoteliers to fire over 400 German and Austro-Hungarian employees so that Canadian born men could replace them.4
The Austro-Hungarians were effectively stuck. While they could not find employment in Canada, they were also prohibited from crossing the border into the United States where they could be employed. Montreal industrialist Sir Thomas Shaughnessy wrote a letter to the Minister of Agriculture about the predicament, "If these men be permitted to reach a starving condition they will be dangerous, and, beyond doubt, some steps should be taken to deal with the problem. They are practically prisoners of war, and cannot leave Canada." He further recommended that detention centres be set up across the country, "so that any German or Austrian who applies for relief of is out of employment and cannot take care of himself, may be removed there and held under military supervision until the war is over, or employment offered."5
Even as this question was under debate at the upper levels of government, it became clear that internment facilities at Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto were at capacity and no longer sufficient for the increasing numbers of internees. In December, the first group of 100 internees from Kingston and Montreal were shipped to the Petawawa military camp outside of Ottawa. Internment officials immediately set them to work clearing land and winterizing the camp for the 600 internees that were to follow.6 As winter of 1914 set in, Canada's internment operations were truly underway and had shifted from holding enemy aliens to setting them to work. Increasing numbers of enemy aliens were arrested in Ontario and Quebec and sent to camps in the west where they were put to work clearing land for some of the nation's most stunning national parks. For those arrested in eastern Canada, Montreal was the receiving station that processed them all.
2. Ibid, 19.
3. Ibid, 44.
4. Ibid, 70.
5. Ibid, 73.
Then and Now Photos
Funeral of General D'Urban
Champ de Mars
St. Jacques Snowdrifts
St Jacques Street from Victoria Square
A Pastoral Scene
Flooded Cartier Square
The Lachine Canal
Streetcars in front of the HBC Store
On the Parade Ground
View to the Southeast
Crossing St. Jacques Street
The Silver Dollar Palace
Building Cartier Bridge
The Sun Life Building
Dorchester Street Bridge
Canadian Bank of Commerce