by Myron B. Kuropas

Canada's barbed wire fence

Imagine that you are Stefan Balansky. You were born in 1879 in Bukovina, then a region within the Austrian-Hungarian empire. You are illiterate, dirt poor and have little hope for the future. Canada beckons. A land of freedom and opportunity is opening its doors, offering jobs and homestead land for the taking.

Along with some 170,000 other Ukrainians, you emigrate to Canada, find a job and begin to build a future for yourself. The thought of confinement behind Canadian barbed wire is beyond anything you can possibly imagine. Confinement is for criminals, not for you.

Suddently your whole life changes. The first world war breaks out and in 1914 the Canadian government labels you an "Austrian alien," subject to forcible internment. You are arrested and sent to Valcartier and later to Spirit Lake, two concentration camps located in the cold northern regions of Quebec province. Your documents are confiscated and you are forced to work on various government projects. On July 20, 1916, you are released from the camp and shipped to Kenora, Ontario, to lay track for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Stefan Balansky was not the only Ukrainian Canadian who suffered internment and exploitation. His story and those of other Ukrainian Canadians can be found in Dr. Lubomyr Luciuk's recently published book "In Fear of the Barbed Wire Fence: Canada's First National Internment Operations and the Ukrainian Canadians, 1914-1920." Dr. Luciuk has devoted more than 10 years to researching federal documents, interviewing survivors and their families, and traveling around Canada gathering information for his monograph.

He writes: "Innocent of any disloyalty, thousands of Ukrainians and other Europeans were needlessly interned in Canadian concentration camps as 'enemy aliens' following the outbreak of the first world war on August 4, 1914." Included were "naturalized British subjects and even Canadians categorized as being of 'foreign-born' origins." They "found themselves herded together into what were often makeshift encampments, located in some of the Dominion's frontier hinterlands." They were interned not because of anything they said or did, but because of where they came from. Since they once lived in Austria-Hungary, they were suspect and were classified as "Austrian" - enemies of Canada.

"They had no legal recourse," Dr. Luciuk explains. "Wartime hysteria, ignorance, xenophobia and racism would combine over the following six years to fuel various repressive measures directed against them."

A total of 8,579 "enemy aliens" were eventually incarcerated, including 81 women and 156 children. "Over 80,000 others, of whom the majority were also Ukrainian, were obliged to report regularly to special registrars or to local or North West Mounted Police forces," continues Dr. Luciuk. As in the Soviet Union, they were obliged to carry special identity papers on their persons at all times; failing to do so could lead to arrest, a fine, or imprisonment. There were government restrictions on freedom of speech, movement and association for all "enemy aliens." Some had their bank accounts frozen. Others were forbidden to acquire land, power rights or other benefits from Dominion lands in western Canada for the duration of the war.

"Enemy aliens" were housed in primitive internment camps. Most were forced to clear land for roads, experimental farms and national parks. Their wages were those of a Canadian army private, far less than they could have earned were they part of the civilian labor pool.

The human costs were enormous. Personal property was confiscated or stolen. Correspondence was limited. Letters were censored. Escapees were sometimes shot and killed. And, according to a report filed by Maj.-Gen. Sir William Otter, director of internment operations, "insanity was by no means uncommon among the prisoners."

Given the undeniably harsh and undeserved punishment suffered by innocent Ukrainian Canadians, one would expect the Canadian government to have offered some form of reparations for this Bolshevik-like act. Japanese Canadians wrongfully interned during the second world war were compensated, so why not Ukrainians? Unfortunately, Ukrainians don't fit the proper ethnic profile.

Writes Dr. Luciuk: "The government of Canada has not acknowledged this injustice and continues to refuse to negotiate the restitution of that portion of the internees's confiscated wealth which remains in government coffers to this day. An application for funding by Emeritus Law Professor Ian Hunter of the University of Western Ontario under s.15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was submitted to the Canadian government's Court Challenges Program." Program Executive Director Claudette Topin responded in typical liberal doublespeak: "Panel members were concerned that the s.15 arguments were expressed in formal equality terms. Although this type of argument might win this particular case, it could have an important negative impact on jurisprudence." According to political science professor Ian Brodie, program panel members generally fund those groups with which they have an ideological affinity and refuse those with which they do not. Interpreted in Orwellian locution, this means that in Canada today some groups are more equal than others.

The most recent attempt for redress occured on April 4, 2001, when Canadian Alliance MP Inky Mark, a Japanese Canadian, introduced C-331, The Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act in Parliament. The bill has yet to be discussed and voted upon.

Has Lubomyr Luciuk given up? Hardly. As research director of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA), he has pursued governmental atonement relentlessly. His op-ed pieces and letters to the editor appear in Canadian newspapers on an almost weekly basis. And with the assistance of other UCCLA members, he has unveiled commemorative plaques at 17 out of 24 internment camps along with three statues.

Thanks to Dr. Luciuk and his UCLA compatriots, the Ukrainian internment issue is being discussed by the Canadian media and taught in some Canadian history classes. The restitution issue is far from dead.

Dr. Luciuk's book is available from Kashtan Press, 22 Gretna Green, Kingston, Ontario, K7M-3J2 for $20 (including shipping and handling). Order two books, one for yourself, one for your local library. Tell your friends to sign the book out. Librarians notice books that are popular with their public. Finally, invite Dr. Luciuk to the next meeting of your community organization. He's a dynamic speaker. You won't be disappointed.

Myron Kuropas' e-mail address is: mbkuropas@compuserve.com.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 20, 2002, No. 3, Vol. LXX

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