It started with a phone call at home one evening.
“Are you Bill Waiser?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “Author of Park Prisoners?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered again. “Go get the book,” she told me.
Park Prisoners tells the story of the thousands of men (enemy aliens, transients, conscientious objectors, prisoners of war, interned citizens) who worked in Western Canada’s national parks during the two world wars and the Great Depression and built many of the facilities, especially roads, that visitors enjoy today.
When I picked up the receiver again, with book in hand, she told me to turn to page 235. That was the part of Park Prisoners where I talked about the German prisoners of war held in Riding Mountain National Park during the Second World War.
The page in question was about a raid on a farmhouse in February 1944, when camp guards found the local school teacher socializing with two prisoners.
“I’m the school teacher,” the caller announced.
Catherine Chastko was from Shoal Lake, Man. Because of a shortage of teachers in rural areas during the war, she had been asked to help out at the end of Grade 11. After a six-week training course in Winnipeg during the summer of 1943, she was placed at the Zaparoza school, near the southern boundary of Riding Mountain National Park. She was just 17.
Catherine wanted to talk to me about the February 1944 incident. That was the reason for her call. Having just moved to Saskatoon, she was anxious to tell her side of the story – what was not in the official report about the wartime incident.
Over coffee, Catherine explained that she felt isolated during her first few months in the one-room school and welcomed the opportunity in the new year to attend a Saturday dance at nearby Seech. At the dance, Catherine was surprised to find German prisoners of war. That is when she learned that they were regular visitors to the area. Local people also told her that she should not be afraid of them.
The Germans were based at a large wood-cutting camp in the heart of nearby Riding Mountain National Park.
What was most unusual about the camp was that there was no enclosed compound, let alone guard towers. Canadian authorities believed that the men were unlikely to wander off into the wilderness after a hard day’s work at the end of an axe and saw.
But the prisoners of war quickly became bored with wood cutting and would steal away at night, in small groups, to visit the outlying communities. They would return before roll call the next morning. The Germans were apparently favoured guests at the local dances and parties because they carried with them rationed goods.
Rumours soon began to circulate about the prisoners and their night-time antics, and the camp guards decided to conduct a raid one wintry Saturday night in February 1944.
That was the same night that Catherine was babysitting some local children and heard a knock on the farmhouse door. Outside stood two prisoners who wanted to come in and warm up.
Catherine hesitated, but let them in because it was snowing heavily. The Germans introduced themselves and offered to help with the jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table.
No more than an hour later, there was another knock at the door. This time, it was a camp guard who ordered the two prisoners to come with him.
The camp patrol then proceeded to Seech, where it broke up a wedding dance and nearly provoked a fight with the locals when five German prisoners were taken away.
Catherine returned home at the end of the school year. Her teaching days were over because a formal complaint had been filed with the Manitoba Department of Education. She headed east to Ontario in the summer of 1944 and found work on an assembly line in a munitions factory.
The Riding Mountain wood cutting camp operated until the spring of 1945, when the Canadian government decided to transfer the German prisoners to other work projects.
The dances at Seech were never the same again.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo courtesy: Bill Waiser
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