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Looking back at the History of the Prisoner of War Camp in Mafeking

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It’s hard to believe it was once there, a Prisoner of War (POW) Camp in the community of Mafeking. Not much is left of the camp today, but the history has been well documented and some local memories are still floating about. 
POW Camp historian and blogger, Michael O’Hagan, has spent  much of his time documenting POW Camps in Canada. “I used to work as a summer student in Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP), where I became interested in the history of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project, a fuelwood cutting camp employing 440 POWs between October 1943 and October 1945,” said O’Hagan. “I was then doing my undergrad at the University of Manitoba and wrote about the camp for my History Honours paper and
graduated with my BA in History in 2011. My interest in the subject grew and I continued researching,
eventually turning it into a Masters and PhD in History at Western University in London, Ontario. My
PhD dissertation focused on POW labour projects in Canada and the experiences of the POWs in these camps.”
The use of POW Camps was a way the Canadian government boosted certain industries after the war. The
focus for the Mafeking camp came from the Manitoba Paper Co. needing workers for their bush camp.
“The camp at Mafeking was not a traditional POW camp or internment camp, but was one of almost 300 labour projects or work camps employing POWs across the country,” explained O’Hagan. “The Canadian
government approved the use of POW labour in May 1943, primarily to help boost the struggling agricultural and logging industries. Civilian companies could then apply to employ POWs, at which point military authorities and the RCMP would review the application to ensure that the proposed work was  appropriate and that there were no security concerns. 
“Companies were struggling to attract sufficient labour to meet the high wartime demand for pulpwood so
many turned to POW labour for help. Most bush camps employing POWs had previously been occupied by Canadian bushworkers, so they were virtually identical in terms of operation and layout.
These were rustic camps and, like Canadian bushworkers of the time, POWs generally lived in log or panel
buildings with no electricity or running water. 
“In October 1944, the Manitoba Paper Co., a subsidiary of Abitibi Power & Paper Co., applied to employ POWs at one of its bush camps near Mafeking, Camp No. 12 as well as two of its bush camps near Pine Falls,” added O’Hagan. 
“The company assigned the number ofthe camp, not military authorities. Camp 12  was about six miles
north and eleven miles east of Mafeking and had been built in the Spring of 1942. Military authorities subsequently approved the request and orders were sent to Camp 132 in Medicine Hat, AB, to provide 100 POWs for the work. The 100 POWs arrived at Mafeking by train on November 9, 1944. They were all German combatants, a mix of army, navy, and air force with many having been captured shortly after the D-Day landings. 
Prisoners then travelled to camp by truck.” These POWs who were placed in these camps were treated far
better and had more humane accommodations than POWs in other countries. They were paid for their work at the camp and got to enjoy leisure time as well.
“The prisoners were quite happy to find there were no barbed wire fences or guard towers surrounding the camp, only kilometres of forest,” noted O’Hagan. “There was, however, a small guard force of eleven men from the Veterans Guard of Canada to supervise the POWs and provide security. While there were
no guard towers or fences to keep POWs in, they were instructed to remain within certain bounds, generally a radius of up to a few kilometres. 
Anyone found outside these bounds would face disciplinary action. Prisoners therefore, had very little contact with residents or Mafeking itself, outside of perhaps hauling wood to the rail lines. 
The company employed a few Canadian instructors and staff in the camp, but they too were warned against fraternization. The POWs did apparently have some contact with Indigenous peoples near Pelican
Rapids but I’m not sure to what extent. “The POWs were hired to cut pulpwood eight hours a day, six
days a week. They had a quota of one cord per man per day and for this they received $0.50 a day. Some POWs would have been employed as teamsters, hauling wood from the bush. Cutting was done 
year-round, although the company generally switched POWs to hauling operations in the Spring months. A small number of POWs worked in the camp, as cooks and kitchen helpers, while a select few worked as a blacksmith to maintain equipment or as a barn boss to take care of the horses. In their free time, POWs were able to do as they please. Many hiked and explored around the area while others chose to spend
their time reading, taking correspondence courses, or building handicrafts like wood carvings and ships in
bottles. 
“There was an incident in January 1945, when POWs at Mafeking went on strike and refused to work,” added O’Hagan. “Additional guards were brought in and the camp was declared a Detention Camp. This meant forcing the POWs to work and reducing rations. The incident was eventually resolved and thePOWs asked to resume work.”
The Mafeking POW Camp ran from November 9, 1944 to April 19, 1946. When the camp closed, there were 125 POWs that had to be relocated. “In 1946, the Canadian government began transferring POWs to
the United Kingdom,” said O’Hagan. “Bush camps were gradually closed throughout the Spring and orders to close the Mafeking camp were received in March. The POWs at Mafeking were transferred to Camp 23 in Monteith, ON, on April 19, 1946, in preparation for their transfer to the United Kingdom, where they would work for the next year before being repatriated to Germany in 1947 and 1948.” 
It has been many years since the Mafeking POW camp was in operation, but there are still some residents in the Valley who remember when it was up and running. 
“The memories I have of the POW Camp in Mafeking are vague, because I was about four years old at the
time,” said Lauretta Formo. “I remember people in Mafeking being fearful at first, when the train brought
the first load of POWs into the community in the middle of the night. I remember people in general were very nervous about the POWs, but our family wasn’t. “Over time, my grandfather George Stevenson, got a job filing saws for the POWs to cut logs with. He built relationships with some of the POWs and really liked them. I remember my grandfather had given my sister and me, some handcrafted rings that the
POWs made out of Canadian coins. I had one that was made from a nickel. I wish I still had it, but I don’t. My father, Stan Stevenson, had also gone to the camp frequently. I’m not sure if he had a jobthere, but I do recall he enjoyed getting to know the POWs as well.
“I also remember going to the camp once, one winter night, to go see a movie. We had no such luxury such as that to see a movie in Mafeking,” explained Formo. “On the way there our vehicle had broken down and we had to walk to the camp. By the time we had arrived, we were too late for the movie, but we had snacks there in the dining room. I don’t recall ever meeting any of the POWs. Some of the
townspeople were resentful of the POWs because they had better living conditions than some in Mafeking.
They had a good ration supply that included butter, which people in Mafeking got in very limited portions. The POWs also had access to movies, which was unheard of in our little town.”
Only a few remnants remain of what was once the Mafeking POW Camp, but the actual site has little left behind to show what it once was. A book called Lasting Impressions has some local history about the POW camp and is available to view at the North-West Regional Library. To read Michael O’Hagan’s online
blogs about POW Camps in Canada, go to www.powsincanada.ca.