Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

A Christmas Story

Dec 24, 2014

In the commemorations of the centennial of the Great War we have now reached the Christmas when everyone expected it to be over by. 

Much is being made of the 1914 Christmas Truce and the famous soccer game. The British grocery chain Sainsbury's has even produced this video which has been viewed by sixteen million people as of this morning. That's a lot of tea and marmite. (For a less sentimental account of the Truce, try this.)

The CBC has chipped in with an item on Christmas in the internment camps which had been established in Canada to handle "enemy aliens," people who were citizens of countries with which Canada was at war. Initially after the outbreak of the war most aliens were required simply to register with the authorities, carry identity papers and check in monthly to registration centres. As public opinion hardened, however, more and more Germans, Austrians and other central European nationals were rounded up and placed in camps. By the end of 1915 there were 14 internment facilities across the country holding more than 7,000 men, who were sometimes joined by their wives and children.

Which brings me to my Christmas story about Canada's most notorious internee, with which I shall leave you for the year. (I am cribbing the story from my book, Seeing Reds, about the post-war Red Scare in Canada.)

Leon Trotsky was living in exile in New York City during the first years of the war but when word arrived in March 1917 that revolution had broken out in Russia he immediately headed for home. As a noted revolutionary, Trotsky had been under surveillance in New York so the British authorities knew he and his family had departed. The Allies preferred that socialists like Trotsky be kept away from Russia, where it was expected they would propagandize in favour of Russia's withdrawal from the war. When the freighter on which Trotsky was travelling with his wife and two sons put in at Halifax on April 1, naval officers came aboard, arrested him and marched him off to an internment camp at Amherst.

Unhappily for the British, they had bitten off rather more than they could chew. Trotsky refused to behave himself. He protested his incarceration to whomever would listen. He harangued his fellow internees with political speeches. To the dismay of the camp commander, he became "by far the most popular man in the whole camp." "If he had stayed any longer," recalled another guard, "he would have made communists of all the prisoners."

Trotsky's incarceration was basically illegal. He was a citizen of a country, Russia, with which both Britain and Canada were allies. All his travel documents were in order. And his internment was giving Canada a black eye internationally; in New York and Russia the country was being denounced as a tyranny. Finally, after a month in the camp, Trotsky won his release. A crowd of cheering prisoners lined the way as he walked to the gate, followed by an impromptu band trying its best to play the Internationale.

Trotsky and his family reboarded a ship and sailed away to make a revolution. He never set foot in Canada again.

Happy Holiday!