June 19, 2020

Marking the centenary of Canada’s first national internment operations

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June 20 marks the 100th anniversary of the close of Canada’s first national internment operations. Under this policy carried out between 1914 and 1920, 8,579 men, and some women and children, were interned as “enemy aliens” by the Canadian government, acting under the authority of the War Measures Act. That number included 5,954 Austro-Hungarians, most of whom were ethnic Ukrainians, although they were not recognized by that name at that time. Most often they were referred to as Ruthenians, or by the region they came from, as Galicians or Bukovynians.

That the majority of the internees were Ukrainian was no accident. They were singled out because they were considered the lowest of the low in Canadian society at that time. As a clergyman, Father Moris, stated in Calgary’s Daily Herald on January 27, 1899: “As for the Galicians I have not met a single person in the whole of the North West who is sympathetic to them. They are, from the point of view of civilization, 10 times lower than the Indians. They have not the least idea of sanitation. In their personal habits and acts [they] resemble animals, and even in the streets of Edmonton, when they come to market, men, women and children, would, if unchecked, turn the place into a common sewer.”

What is also significant is that they were interned by the government of Sir Robert Borden against the advice of British authorities who urged Canada not to act indiscriminately against subject nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as they were in fact friendly to the British Empire. And it was quite unusual for Ottawa to buck London at that time since Canada had not yet become independent and its foreign policy was guided by the United Kingdom. When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Canada was automatically at war as well. Having gained independence under the 1931 Statute of Westminster, Canada waited a full week to declare war on Germany in 1939, and that came after a parliamentary debate and vote. It is also significant to note that the internment operation ended almost two years after the end of World War I.

Held in 24 receiving stations and internment camps across the country – from Nanaimo on the Pacific, to Halifax on the Atlantic, the internees were used as virtual slave labor. Much of their work was conducted in the national parks of western Canada, building roads, clearing bush, cutting trails and even building a portion of the golf course at Banff, Alberta. Others helped carve experimental farms out of the boreal wilderness at Kapuskasing, Ontario, and Spirit Lake, Quebec. Conditions were trying, the guards were sometimes brutal, and therefore resentment at what many regarded as their unjust confinement was widespread, provoking resistance, some passive such as work slowdowns. Other efforts were more determined, including escape attempts and even a massive riot involving some 1,200 internees at Kapuskasing in May 1916 that required the intervention of 300 armed soldiers before it was put down.

In total, 107 internees died in captivity, six were shot dead while attempting to escape, others succumbed to infectious diseases, work-related injuries and suicide. In many cases, they were buried in unmarked graves or cemeteries far from their communities and loved ones, their final resting places all but forgotten.

As is often noted, both by politicians and Ukrainian Canadian leaders, the Ukrainians were imprisoned not for anything they had done, but for where they had come from. The experience was to leave a deep-rooted trauma for several generations. “The crippling legacy of what happened to them would endure and would be detected decades later by an RCMP informant who, in August 1941, told his superiors how some Ukrainian Canadians were still ‘in fear of the barbed wire fence,’ ” stated Borys Sydoruk, chair of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress National Internment Centenary Committee and the chair of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation, in opening “Twenty Days of Remembrance” on June 1.

Little was known about this dark chapter in Canadian history until 1978, when Nick Sakaliuk provided testimony to Lubomyr Luciuk about his experiences as an internee at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, and then in the Petawawa and Kapuskasing camps. Yet, almost a decade would pass before a concerted campaign to right this historic injustice began, spearheaded by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) under the chairmanship of John B. Gregorovich.

On May 9, 2008, the Canadian government established a $10 million fund for projects that commemorate the experience of thousands of Ukrainians and other Europeans interned between 1914 and 1920 and the many others who suffered a suspension of their civil liberties and freedoms. The funds are themselves held in trust by the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko.

So why should we remember the internment operations 100 years after they were closed? Because racism is still widespread around the world. Countries that acknowledge the dark periods of their history are countries can learn from their mistakes and move forward towards establishing pluralistic and tolerant societies. Countries that don’t, remain pariah states, Russia being the best example. As the renowned philosopher George Santayana put it: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Marco Levytsky may be contacted at ukrnews@shaw.ca.