The Lost Turks of Brantford, Ontario

The internment of Turkish Canadians took place during the First World War. 

lost_turks-1 In 1890s Brantford, Ontario was the third largest industrial city in Canada, after Montreal and Toronto. Known as the “Birmingham of Canada,” it was a major centre of the new tractor and auto industries including Massey-Harris, (later Massey-Ferguson). A Brantford businessman visited the Sultan’s capital in 1895 looking for new markets in the Ottoman Empire which, at that time, included most of the Balkans and virtually of the Middle East. His visit resulted in more than exports of machinery.

In the following two decades, thousands of the Sultan’s subjects came as economic migrants to Brantford. Most were Armenian, but about 120 were Turks and Kurds. Almost all came from the same region in Anatolia indicating the relative peaceful relations at the time in the Sultan’s domains. What happened to this band of Brantford Ottomans is a mystery buried in Canadian history.

Up to 1914, they lived and prospered in Brantford. Deeply attached to their faith, they even purchased a lot in Brantford’s Mount Hope Cemetery. It survives to this day.

The local newspaper, the Brantford Expositor of 30 January 1912 contains an amazing story of the “first ever Mohammedan funeral” in the city. On this occasion, the deceased was a young Turk, Ahamed Osman and his funeral was an elaborate public procession along the main street. No less than 20 horses were on hand, leading a casket wagon in lieu of a hearse. Very prominently, the casket was wrapped with Turkish flags and a young man walked at the head of the procession carrying the Ottoman star and crescent.

No doubt this small group of Turkish Canadians must have looked strange and exotic to the highly conformist and staunchly British townspeople of Brantford.

Suddenly, their world ended in November 1914. England was now at war with the Sultan. This small band of Brantford Turks became “enemy aliens” under the hastily drafted War Measures Act in Ottawa. Many Ottoman Armenians were also targeted. Sadly, both groups were thrown out of work and then the Brantford Police came on a cold wintry night, rounding the whole lot of them and herding them into the city jail. A few days later, the city fathers, complaining of the cost of care, put them on a train to Fort Henry in Kingston. The authorities at Fort Henry were equally puzzled with the unexpected influx.

Suddenly, their world ended in November 1914. England was now at war with the Sultan. This small band of Brantford Turks became “enemy aliens” under the hastily drafted War Measures Act in Ottawa.

From Kingston, these Ottomans were sent to Kapuskasing in the wilds of Northern Ontario. Given axes, shovels and other tools, they were ordered to build an internment camp which housed a much greater number of Ukrainian, German and Axis nationals. The POW Roll of the Kapuskasing Camp contains several names which must belong to these Brantford Turks. One or two died in captivity.

No record exists about the fate of survivors of the Brantford Turks after the War. Maybe some returned to Turkey. There is scant evidence that a few of them might have moved to St. Catharines in southwest Ontario. But the majority remain lost.

After the Second Wolrd War, by order of the Cabinet in Ottawa, all records relating to the Kapuskasing internees were destroyed. So, it seems, we shall never know the real story of the lost Turks of Brantford.

Dr. Ozay Mehmet is a Senior Fellow of Modern Turkish Studies with the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.