The post on social media caught our eye. “LAST CHANCE TO SAVE A CEMETERY,” the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association wrote on August 1. “Help us save the unique Ukrainian internee cemetery at Spirit Lake.”
Here’s the background: During Canada’s national internment operations of 1914-1920, those deemed to be “enemy aliens” because they came from countries then at war with the British Empire – including Ukrainians who emigrated from lands 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 were held, and Spirit Lake, in Quebec, was one of them. (To read more on this topic, we suggest the recent entry on “Ukrainian Internment in Canada” in The Canadian Encyclopedia (https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ukrainian-internment-in-canada/).
Those sent to Spirit Lake came mostly from the Montreal area; others were brought in from Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. At its peak, Spirit Lake held 1,312 internees, among them about 60 families. At least 16 burials took place at the camp’s cemetery; at least a dozen of these were of Ukrainians who died while interned. The camp today is the site of the evocative sculpture “Interned Madonna” by John Boxtel, a work that was commissioned by the UCCLA and unveiled in July 2001. There is also a small museum, run by the Spirit Lake Camp Corporation, that houses a permanent historical display. But access to the cemetery is contentious.
The UCCLA’s Dr. Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, explained: “The Spirit Lake internee cemetery has been in a deteriorating condition for many years. Despite many years of effort, this unique historic site will simply be erased from the cultural landscape if no determined government intervention occurs in the near future. It is most certainly up to Ottawa to redress this situation since it was the government of Canada that rounded up these civilians, transported them into the forests of the Abitibi, herded them behind Canadian barbed wire and then exploited their labor. Those who perished in these difficult circumstances were buried there, far from their communities and loved ones. Not one of the 16 men and some children who died at the Spirit Lake internment camp between 1915 and 1917 would ever have been there if the government had not branded them as ‘enemy aliens.’ …”
And here’s the problem: Canada’s Department of Agriculture sold the land on which the cemetery is located to the province of Quebec in 1936, and in 1988 Quebec sold it to a farmer. The current owner has rejected attempts to restore the hallowed ground and, according to the UCCLA, the cemetery is now “all but lost to the boreal forest.” The federal government, which established the internment camps, says this is Quebec’s problem. Dr. Luciuk argues: “…regardless of whom Ottawa sold the land to, or what happened to it in the decades following, saving this internee cemetery from oblivion is a federal obligation, and long overdue.”
The UCCLA has been involved in securing recognition, restitution and reconciliation for the grave injustice of the World War I-era internment operation. It has placed historical markers and statues at internment sites across the country, and it continues to work on raising awareness and educating the public about this shameful episode of Canadian history whose legacy is felt even today. Now it seeks to save the cemetery where Spirit Lake’s internees were buried. And not merely to save it, but to “secure, restore and reconsecrate this historic site.”
A petition initiated by Dr. Luciuk and sponsored by Member of Parliament James Bezan, who represents the Manitoba riding of Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, calls upon “the government of Canada to use whatever measures necessary to provide for the archaeological examination, restoration, re-consecration and limited ongoing site visits for commemorative and religious services to the Spirit Lake internee cemetery, working in collaboration with the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Ukrainian Canadian Congress, so hallowing the victims of Canada’s first national internment operations.”
We urge all our readers who are citizens and residents of Canada to sign the online petition (https://petitions.ourcommons.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-1643), which is open for signatures until August 15 at 4:57 pm EDT, according to the House of Commons site. Spirit Lake Cemetery must be saved.