June 12, 2020

Centennial of the end of internment operations


During the month of June, Canadians are commemorating the centennial of the end of the country’s First Internment Operations, a shameful episode in Canadian history that took place in 1914-1920 against the backdrop of the first world war.

During those national operations, persons deemed to be “enemy aliens” because they came from countries then at war with the British Empire – including Ukrainians who emigrated from lands that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – were sent to internment camps across the country. There were 24 such camps, where 8,759 men, women and children – Canadians of Ukrainian, German, Austrian and other Eastern European descent – were held. They were considered “enemy aliens” not because of anything they had done, but simply because of where they were from. The internees were disenfranchised, isolated, mistreated and used as slave labor to build roads and other infrastructure, experimental farms and more. It was Canada’s War Measures Act of 1914 that made this operation possible. (That same act was later used to justify the imprisonment of Japanese Canadians during World War II and of some Quebecois in 1970.)

About 5,000 of the internees were Ukrainians. We dare say that few of us as we were growing up knew anything about the internment operations. Perhaps in Canada there were those who were aware, but here in the United States? But even in Canada, this part of the country’s history was hidden, not spoken about, forgotten. (Read Lubomyr Luciuk’s commentary on the next page to learn how he found out about the internment operations and how that information changed his life.)

A decades-long campaign spearheaded by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (in which Dr. Luciuk played a leading role) resulted in the historic signing in 2008 of a redress settlement between the Canadian government and the Ukrainian Canadian community that led to the establishment of a $10 million educational and commemorative endowment managed by the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund. At the same time, Parks Canada was provided the resources needed to build a permanent exhibit about those first internment operations at Cave and Basin National Historic Site in Banff, Alberta.

In 2011, the Spirit Lake Internment Camp Interpretive Center, located 370 miles northwest of Montreal, was opened. In 2013, the first permanent exhibit devoted to Canada’s First National Internment Operations was opened in Banff National Park. Other memorial and educational projects throughout the country followed. The UCCLA saw to it that trilingual historical markers were erected at each of the internment camp sites.

This year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of Canada’s First Internment Operations, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Alberta Provincial Council announced it is “presenting informational written, visual and video posts that tell the story of the many victims and their descendants, as well as of the artists, authors and researchers who brought this tragic event in Canadian history into the open after it was unacknowledged for over 50 years.” Thus, each day from June 1 through June 20, the date the internment operations officially ended, the Alberta Provincial Council is offering online stories “to honor the internees and to inform our wider community.” Among the topics covered in the segments: the impact on descendants of internees, the early days of research into this historic injustice and the award-winning documentary film “That Never Happened.” We urge readers to take a look at the “Twenty Days of Remembrance” project by going to https://uccab.ca/internment-100/. Surely, the best way to mark this significant anniversary is to become informed and to inform others.