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2007 Maxwell Studentship Recipient - Alana Ramsay

Prisoners of the forest
While on a canoe trip north of Atikokan, Ont., 200 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, in 2005, Alana Ramsay stumbled on the remains of a logging camp where German prisoners toiled during the Second World War. The dilapidated buildings and rusted tools and machinery recalled an obscure chapter of Canadian wartime history: the internment of 38,000 prisoners, many of them held in isolated camps throughout Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.

RCGS grant recipient Alana Ramsay. (Photo: David Barbour)
But during one such conversation, a student asked Coleridge a question that made him forget all his troubles. "We're getting beat up by the weather," he recalls, "we're not keeping to our schedule, we're getting stressed out because things aren't going according to plan, and this student asks, 'How do you go pee?'" Coleridge laughs. “And you start to chuckle, realizing that the world is much simpler than the complex situations you create on a trip this big."

Ramsay, a geography student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., turned her discovery into the subject of her master’s thesis. With the assistance of a $5,000 Maxwell Studentship in Human Geography, awarded annually by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, she is studying the role of German POWs in northwestern Ontario lumber camps.

Between 1,800 and 2,000 German POWs worked as lumberjacks, relieving the forestry industry’s chronic labour shortage caused by the war effort. Ramsay is looking into the prisoners’ impact on the economy, as well as their relationship with the rugged landscape and how they altered it. “I’d like to know how they interacted when they were dropped off in the middle of nowhere in northwestern Ontario,” she says.

The prisoners’ Canadian experience was apparently favourable enough to prompt many of them to return to Canada after they were repatriated to Germany at the end of the war. One study claims that nearly one-quarter of the POWs eventually immigrated to Canada, though Ramsay has not yet confirmed those figures. She is particularly intrigued by the fact that many chose to go back to northwestern Ontario to put down roots. “That, to me, is very interesting and ironic: you’re a POW, yet you opt to return not only to Canada but to the place where you were held against your will.”

Ramsay may gain more insight into this question as she interviews a handful of former POWs still living in the Thunder Bay area and continues her fieldwork in former logging campsites scattered throughout a vast region, from Nipigon, on the north shore of Lake Superior, to Lake of the Woods, near the Manitoba border. She says there is some urgency to her study, since surviving former prisoners are now in their eighties and nineties. She would also like to locate and document as many camps as possible before they are lost completely to the encroaching forest.

— Monique Roy-Sole (Canadian Geographic, Inside Story, November/December 2007)

Power of the pen

German prisoners of war take a break from their duties at a lumber camp in northwestern Ontario.
(Photo: Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society)
For months after Canadian Geographic published a story about Alana Ramsay’s research on German prisoners of war (POWs) working in northwestern Ontario logging camps (above), we received letters from former POWs eager to tell their stories, as well as others involved in this slice of Second World War history.

“The response I got was unbelievable,” says Ramsay who, for her master’s thesis at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., interviewed several of the people who sent letters. She talked not only with former POWs but with a former prison-camp guard, men who toiled as teenaged labourers in lumber camps and residents who recounted childhood memories of encountering prisoners on their way to school.

All the POWs she spoke with returned to Canada after they were repatriated to Germany at the end of the war. “They claimed that from the moment they left Canada, they were trying to get back,” says Ramsay, who presented her findings at The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Annual General Meeting in November. “They spoke very highly of the area where they worked. And almost all of them went back to paying jobs in the lumber camps where they had been interned.”

— Monique Roy-Sole (Canadian Geographic, Inside Story, December 2008)

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