IT all began in Kingston, Ont. I was a young graduate student, working on an MA in geography under the direction of professor Peter Goheen at Queen’s University. He urged me to write about the city’s small Ukrainian community. I resisted, convinced the topic was parochial, quite pedestrian. But I did as I was told. Peter’s advice proved prescient.
Another Queen’s professor, the history department’s Richard Pierce, recommended I do oral histories, as the archival record about Ukrainians in Kingston was very limited. So, over several months in 1977-78, I went about with a tape recorder, asking questions of the sort you might expect ‚ all the while wondering how any of it would amount to anything deserving of an MA. Dick’s plan panned out.
I recall the day I went to chat with Mrs. Charitoniuk. A widow and interwar immigrant, whose husband had served in the Canadian Armed Forces in the Second World War, she was always generous when we came carolling at Ukrainian Christmas. Yet I also thought she was odd, so I wasn’t expecting much.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
What she told me altered the course of my life, personally and professionally. For when I asked if there had been Ukrainians in Kingston around 1914 she shared a name, one I had never heard before: Nick Sakaliuk.
I found him in Toronto, on Feb. 14, 1978, Valentine’s Day. When I asked whether he had been in Kingston during the Great War, he confirmed he had, and even told me the date on which he arrived: Oct. 17, 1914. I thought it remarkable how he recalled a precise date more than six decades after the fact.
Paying that detail no mind, however, I went on to ask about where he had worked — was it in the Davis Tannery, at the Locomotive Works, or perhaps at the grain elevators out in Portsmouth Village?
Nope, he said, "I was up in Fort Henry."
A mason repairing the fortifications, I questioned?
No, he nonchalantly replied, "I was a prisoner."
After that, I did not know what to ask. I had never been told or taught that Ukrainians and other Europeans were branded as "enemy aliens" under the War Measures Act during the First World War, or of how thousands were subsequently transported to 24 camps set up across the Dominion (including two in Manitoba). I did not know Fort Henry was Canada’s first permanent internment camp. And I am Kingston-born.
Most men confined up in the fort were "first class" (that is, German) PoWs. Those deemed "second class" — racialized eastern Europeans — would be dispersed into this country’s frontier hinterlands, held behind Canadian barbed wire, under armed guard, forced to do heavy labour for the profit of their jailers.
Sakaliuk was shipped to CFB Petawawa, to help carve an artillery range out of the boreal forest, then sent on to an even more distant location, Kapuskasing, to build an experimental agricultural farm that exists to this day.
Intrigued by what Sakaliuk recounted, I did more research and, in 1980, published Internment Operations: The Role of Old Fort Henry in World War One. After that, I did not think much about this subject until 1988, when Dr. Pierce’s Limestone Press published A Time For Atonement, my booklet’s title derived from a comment found in The Daily British Whig.
Writing on Sept. 7, 1917, about the War Time Elections Act, which disenfranchised thousands of "enemy aliens" even as it extended the right to vote to some Canadian women (so securing the electoral victory of Robert Borden’s Unionist government over Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals), an anonymous editorialist remarked:
"It is very probable that if this proposal becomes law, the ‘alleged’ foreigners and hitherto ‘naturalized’ Canadians will bear their reproach meekly, but they will have sown in their hearts the seeds of a bitterness that can never be extirpated. The man whose honour has been mistrusted, and who has been singled out for a national humiliation, will remember it and sooner or later it will have to be atoned for."
Inspired, I sallied forth to secure this predicted atonement. Unexpectedly, that campaign took decades. Finally, on May 9, 2008, the government of Canada, as represented by Jason Kenney, then minister for multiculturalism (and the present-day premier of Alberta), signed an agreement providing for symbolic redress.
Fittingly, this happened at the Stanley Barracks, in Toronto, once an internee "receiving station." This endowment has since supported various memorial and educational projects across Canada, including a permanent exhibit at Fort Henry and a statue on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature.
And all of the victims will be hallowed nationally, on June 20, the 100th anniversary of the end of Canada’s first national internment operations. I’m sure Nick Sakaliuk and Mrs. Charitoniuk are pleased.
Lubomyr Luciuk is a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College of Canada.