It was, as described later, an “unusual parade” that formed in Terrace on the Saturday morning of Nov. 25, 1944.
Waving banners proclaiming “Down with conscription”, and “The zombies strike back”, the soldiers refused regular duty and were instead reacting to news the government was going to send 16,000 Home Defence soldiers to Europe at a crucial stage of the Second World War.
The conscripted Home Defence men were referred to sneeringly as “Zombies.” Borrowed from movies popular during the 1930s, the term suggested that conscripted men lacked the will of their own to volunteer for overseas duty.
On the evening of Friday, Nov. 24, three battalions of these embittered soldiers stockpiled 50,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, 15,000 rounds of Sten gun ammunition, and four boxes of hand grenades.
All that day they had angrily discussed the announcement of an overseas deployment.
Most of the men in Terrace had not volunteered for military service. Rather, they had been conscripted into protecting Canada’s national borders as part of the Home Defence.
In 1942, as reinforcements in Europe became increasingly urgent, a reluctant Prime Minister Mackenzie King implemented conscription. He maintained that these men would only be forced into compulsory service within Canada, which was a more palatable political option.
When the news of the deployment broke on the radio, many of the soldiers in Terrace (and elsewhere) felt betrayed.
They were restless and angry after months of fruitless training in an isolated community for the defence of a coast that they didn’t believe was in danger.
According to military scholar Reginald Roy, Terrace was likely the most remote military camp of its size in Canada.
Before the Second World War, the town itself numbered under 400 people, with several hundred more residing in the outlying areas. There were almost no amenities for the approximately 3000 soldiers and 3000 construction workers who flooded into the area in 1942.
There was not enough fuel in the winter camps to keep warm, fresh food was extremely limited, and an enormous gender gap—perhaps 300 women to 6000 men—led to friction between soldiers and workers, especially during dances.
“You wouldn’t sit out a dance even after spending your teen years as a wallflower,” recalled Mary Harris in a 1978 oral history.
Because of all of these factors, the fear of being sent to Terrace was used to threaten soldiers into obedience.
Those who were posted here were often miserable, adding to the anger exhibited on that Saturday morning of Nov. 25.
Les Fusiliers du St. Laurent, a mainly French Canadian battalion stationed on the Birch Bench, “came charging down the hill, whooping and shouting like a swarm of angry wasps,” remembered Floyd Frank, who witnessed the parade while delivering milk.
Frank noted that the men carried rifles and had filled the gas masks hanging around their necks with grenades.
The well-organized men next marched toward what is now the Royal Canadian Legion, where they met with the Prince Edward Island Highlanders, a battalion camped at Riverside Park. Together, the group picked up more recruits at the Hall St. camp of the Prince Albert Volunteers. Several hundred soldiers marched in the two-hour-long parade.
People gathered along the streets to watch. Some found it exciting. Others, especially those with family in the military, were furious: they saw the men as shirking their duty to protect their country.
Mary Harris remembered that “a sweet little old lady” with several sons overseas “cussed them up one side and down the other.”
Similarly disillusioned soldiers rioted over conscription in Vernon, Prince George, Courtenay, Chilliwack, Nanaimo, and Port Alberni.
Though violence and injury occurred elsewhere, the Terrace protest was peaceful and remarkably orderly.
In the report of the court of inquiry order afterward, Major-General George R. Pearkes writes: “It is worthy of note that the discipline of the dissidents within their own ranks was well maintained and their parades and guards were well organized.”
On Nov. 26, the Fusiliers – who were later charged with inciting the protest – composed a message to military officials explaining the protest.
“The recruits are not in favour of conscription,” the telegram read. Given that “all danger of invasion on the Pacific Coast is passed,” in their opinion, they demanded to return, unmolested, to Quebec. They marched again, this time gathering more than over 1,600 supporters.
Incidentally, many of the senior officers stationed in Terrace were in Vancouver for a conference about the conscription crisis when the protest broke out. The commander of the Mountain Warfare School, acting command of the brigade, instructed junior-ranking officers not to do anything, unless the protest became violent.
Very quickly, all non-commissioned officers were stripped of their ranks. “You’re Zombies, just like us,” the protesters jeered.
Men who had been threatened and hackled by their officers in the hopes that they would eventually cave and volunteer for active service were again bullied, but this time by their fellow soldiers.
“There [are] a number of boys that are definitely opposed to this sort of thing,” a war diarist for one of the regiments recorded, “but [they] are practically forced or threatened to tag along.”
On Monday, Nov. 27, the troops still had not returned to regular duty. Protests elsewhere had long since wrapped up, but the Terrace movement gained momentum.
Threats to blow up the Skeena Bridge (now known as the Old Bridge) circulated, and no one knew how everything would unfold. Many men, according to military records, were given drugs to calm their overextended nerves.
An advance group of Prince Albert Volunteers attempted to leave Terrace by train, and were prevented from doing so at gunpoint.
By Monday evening, senior officers had arrived back in Terrace.
The next morning, Nov. 28, one unit agreed to surrender their arms to a guard.
Commanding officers threatened the men with the legal consequences of mutiny and sedition but failed to convince them to return to normal duty.
The situation was officially declared a mutiny on Tuesday night, Nov. 29. Concerned about the ramifications of such a declaration, the Prime Minister belatedly organized media censorship.
On the same evening, most of the mutineers gave up, apparently with little resolution of their issues or concerns.
All of the rifles were relinquished – many with relief – and all of the pilfered ammunition was dumped in the Skeena River.
By Sunday, Dec. 3, all three battalions had been shipped out of Terrace. While charges were laid, there was limited political will to follow through with them.
Apparently, many men jumped off the train that was bringing them home to face charges, while their superior officers turned a blind eye.
Charges were dropped for those mutineers who agreed to serve overseas.
In the end, only a limited number of people were sentenced. For the most part, the government was happy to let the whole affair fade away quietly.
“It all seems like a bad dream,” war diarist Lt. Col. Costin mused.
Indeed, we know little, 68 years later, about the longest lasting mutiny in Canadian history.
It transformed conscription – a predominantly political issue – into a cultural, economic, and ethical issue. It makes us think, once again, about Terrace’s place within Canada.