Leaders of Manitoba's Ukrainian community unveiled plaques Friday honouring thousands of Ukrainians and other eastern Europeans interned by government order during the First World War, part of countrywide commemorations of their plight which, until recent years, had been largely unknown to most Canadians.
In all, 115 plaques depicting internees behind a stretch of barbed wire some time between 1914 and 1920 were presented at 11 a.m. local time at churches, museums and other cultural sites in different parts of the country.
The event marked the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the War Measures Act. It followed years of lobbying by descendants of the mostly Ukrainian internees branded "aliens of enemy nationality" because they had immigrated to Canada from what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire, which fought against Canada and its allies in the war.
'This became lost in history because documents were destroyed. But it's a part of the history of Canada's development. These internees were used to help build Canada'
Lesia Szwaluk, executive director of the Shevchenko Foundation, a cultural organization named after Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko, presented a plaque at a branch of the Carpathia Credit Union at 952 Main St.
"I hope people will see it and go and find out a little bit more about the internments," Szwaluk said. "This became lost in history because documents were destroyed. But it's a part of the history of Canada's development. These internees were used to help build Canada."
The foundation administers the $10-million Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, created after the federal government acknowledged the internments in 2008. In all, 8,579 people were rounded up and held at two dozen receiving stations and internment camps stretching from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.
There are 23 plaques in Manitoba, with other sites in Winnipeg including the German Canadian Congress, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church on Bannerman Avenue, St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church on Yale Street in Transcona and the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral at the corner of Mountain Avenue and Main Street. Plaques were also unveiled at Canada's National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, the Arborg and District Multicultural Heritage Museum, the Broken Beau Pioneer Heritage Museum in Beausejour and in Brandon at 410 9th St.
Records show there was a camp in Brandon and a staging area in Winnipeg. But no one now knows what jobs were assigned to the Manitoba internees.
Szwaluk said internees at other camps were enlisted to build what later became iconic sites. Those at a camp at Banff National Park worked on the golf course behind the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
"I hope people see these plaques and remember, learn and never forget," Szwaluk said.
Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., and the creator of the project, said he wanted to create awareness across the country of the internments.
"We have to remain vigilant with human rights," Luciuk said. "There's a lot of people who wouldn't know how much of the national park system was built by internee labour."
Luciuk said the photograph on the plaque, showing internees at the Castle Mountain camp in Banff, is a snapshot of emotions.
"You see one person trying to hide their face, another turned around, and another staring forward with his hands on his hips," he said. "In one photo you see despair, indifference and defiance."
In a statement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said governments had a "solemn duty to defend against legitimate threats in wartime, but we look back with deep regret on an unjust policy that was implemented indiscriminately as a form of collective punishment and in violation of fundamental principles of natural justice, including the presumption of innocence.
"In Canada, we acknowledge the mistakes of the past and we learn from them... as we remember the past, let us also remember to celebrate the achievements of the internees and their descendants, who overcame this hardship and contributed so much to the building of our country as loyal and dedicated citizens."
Mayor Sam Katz, in a statement, said the plaque unveilings "honour all those who endured internment camps and ensure we uphold and defend human rights always."