Remembering a dark chapter in Canada’s history
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THE ongoing war in Ukraine is an unthinkable tragedy, marked by the destruction of cities, killing of innocent people, use of weapons of mass destruction and so on. Ukrainians are being displaced throughout their state, and many have become refugees in foreign countries.
Hopefully the current atrocity in Ukraine will end and will be forgotten in time. Without doubt, some awareness of what has transpired will remain for an indefinite period.
When we talk about awareness, we are reminded there is a historical tragedy that occurred 108 years ago in Canada, and that is not forgotten. It is remembered forever by Canadians of Ukrainian descent.
Every year around this time, the Ukrainian community throughout Canada launches an awareness campaign to mark a long-forgotten story in Canada’s history: the first national internment operation of 1914-20, which for the most part has remained untold.
This chapter in Canadian history deals with the internment of Ukrainians and other Europeans who settled in Canada during and after the First World War.
The Great War of 1914-18 created difficulty for new Canadians seeking to become naturalized citizens. Many Ukrainians had come to Canada from a region that was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the start of the First World War.
The Canadian government under prime minister Sir Robert Borden introduced internment camps throughout Canada. The government feared Ukrainians and other eastern European immigrants would have some form of affiliation with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In response, Canada implemented the War Measures Act on Aug. 22, 1914, setting the stage for Canada’s first national internment operation.
During this dark period, Ukrainians and other Europeans were imprisoned and forced to perform heavy labour in 24 internment camps located in Canada’s hinterland from coast to coast. Thousands of innocent Ukrainians, Italians, Jews, Poles, Croatians, Slovenians, Serbs, Hungarians, Czechs, Bulgarians, Romanians, Slovaks and other Europeans were unjustly interned, not because of anything they had done, but only because of where they had come from.
These new Canadians found themselves categorized as enemy aliens, and their property and valuables were confiscated before they were sent to camps. Women and children were held in two internment locations — one in Vernon, B.C., and the other in Spirit Lake, Que.
Men, on the other hand, were spread throughout Canada in the other 22 locations. Some 8,579 Ukrainian-Canadians, labelled as enemies of Canada, were sent to these camps.
No one leaves their home country unless inspired by some selfless ideal or compelled by reasons of an imperative nature, such as politics or economics. The first wave of Ukrainians settlers came to Canada between 1891 and 1914, establishing numerous new communities whose gradual success was the result of the new settlers’ love of freedom and determination to build a better life.
The same attitude is held by those affected by the current situation in Ukraine.
Canada’s Ukrainian community has been working, since the time of prime minister Jean Chrétien, to raise awareness of Canada’s first national internment operation. In October 2005, this dark period was acknowledged when the Ukrainian community received recognition that the internment of Ukrainians during 1914-20 did occur in Canada.
Reclaiming the memory of these events will help ensure Canadians are always vigilant in defending civil liberties and human rights, particularly in times of national and international crises. Oct. 28 has been officially recognized by the House of Commons as the National Internment Commemorative Day in Canada, acknowledging this largely forgotten tragedy in Canadian history.
Ukrainian Canadians are honoured that an internment statue was unveiled by the federal and provincial government on the Manitoba legislative grounds on Oct. 28, 2015. We now have a place, and a date, to remember the victims of Canada’s First World War internment program.
Peter John Manastyrsky is a member of the Ukrainian community of Winnipeg and past president of Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Manitoba provincial council.