Barbed Wire

Ukrainian Internment in Canada

Written by Ihor Bardyn

[ This article originally appeared in the Alamanac of the Ukrainian National Association for the Year 1992. ]

Barbed Wire

In 1891 Ukrainians from Western Ukraine began a historic group migration to Canada. Over 170,000 chose Canada as their new homeland, on the government's offer of free land and promise of freedom. These were pioneers and nation builders who settled the vast unsettled prairies of Canada.

But soon after their arrival, a tragedy struck the community. With the beginning of the First World War, the Ukrainian Canadians were stigmatized with the label of "enemy aliens" and humiliated by the Government of Sir Robert Borden. Over 80,000 were classified enemy aliens, disenfranchised and almost 6,000 imprisoned in 26 internment camps throughout Canada. After their arrest by the police, they were kept in jails with common criminals pending transfer to one of the camps. Their property was confiscated, and in many cases, never returned. In Banff National Park, they built the roads and the golf course. In British Columbia they built rights-of-way for the railway and bridges. In Kapuskasing Internment Camp the drinking water they drank was contaminated, causing many to become ill with long lasting after affects. In Spirit Lake, Quebec, some died from extreme cold.

They were taken to work in dangerous mines. On September 10, 1915 one such internee, John Serna suffered a serious accident working in the Canmore Coal Mine. In January 15, 1916 he died from those injuries in the Canmore Hospital. Chief Inspector of Mines, John Sterling of the Department' of Public works wrote to the Mine Administration about the accident, "I note you are of the opinion that no person was to blame for this accident but it appears to me that the Examiner was of the opinion that the place was dangerous as he gave instructions for it to be made safe, and he should have taken the customary precautions in this matter". We do not know that steps were taken to make the mine safe, but we do know that the injuries and deaths continued. In the very same Canmore Coal Mine No. 2, a young 17-year-old Joe Arychuk was seriously injured on February 27, 1917. It is not known whether he survived the accident. The imprisonment of these innocent pioneers, as they were never found guilty of any wrong doing, their loss of rights and freedoms, loss of property, did not however go unnoticed. On September 10, 1917 Sir Wilfred Laurier (Prime Minister of Canada between 1896 and 1911) rose in the House of Commons to oppose the Union Government of Sir Robert Borden on the issue of the continued mistreatment of Ukrainian Canadians. Sir Wilfred Laurier said, "When the war is over, when peace Is restored, and when we come to normal life, when we shall send our Immigration agents to Europe again as we did before, do you believe that our Canadian immigration agents, when they go among the Galicians, Bukovinians (Ukrainians), that these different races will be disposed to come to this country, when they know that Canada has not met its pledges and promises to these people, who have settled in our midst. . . if it be said in Canada that the pledges which we have given to immigration when inviting them to come to this country to settle with us, can be broken with impunity, that we will not trust these men, and that we will not be true to the promises which we made to them, then I despair for the future of this country. . . I have been supporting the government on the war issue up to the present session. I am sorry that the occasion arose during this session when I had to discontinue my support for the Government on an issue of great importance. I am sorry that I have to again dissent with the Government on this measure, but I believe, and we shall all be judged some day by our actions here...that in this instance the Government is taking a step which will cause serious injury to the country". Sir Wilfred Laurier and other members of parliament came to the defence of the young pioneer community which had been invited to open the Canadian prairies and which often toiled under inhumane conditions to bring civilization to a vast unsettled land.

Newspapers of the day also took notice of, the treatment Ukrainian Canadians received at the hands of their Government. The Daily British Whig (now the Whig Standard) of Kingston, Ontario wrote in an editorial on September 8, 1917: "It is very probable that if this proposal [War Time Elections Act, 1917] 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 national humiliation, will remember it and sooner or later it will have to be atoned for."

Recently, publications such as "A Time For Atonement", by Lubomyr Luciuk, "Behind Barbed Wire", by David J. Carter and the soon to be released "Park Prisoners" by William Waiser, and "In the Shadow of the Rockies: The Diary of the Castle Mountain Internment Camp, 1915-1917" by Bohdan Kordan and Peter Melnycky, confirm that the Imprisonment of those innocent pioneers, their disenfranchisement, seizure of property and humiliation of the community, was brought on by an uncaring Government, without cause or reason. That action by the Government of Canada has never been acknowledged and never atoned for.

In 1932 the Canadian Government considered claims by persons of Armenian origin, naturalized as British subjects in Canada, for losses sustained in Armenia when occupied by Turkish forces. These claims were for the loss of life of close relatives, for loss of property owned in Armenia, for losses sustained by these claimants through the destruction of property. Two hundred and seventy-four claimants asked the Government of Canada to provide compensation to them for losses suffered as a result of a historical injustice, in another country. The Government decided that it was advisable that some compensation other than request for over $8 million made by the Armenians, should be made and awarded the 274 claimants the sum of $300,000. The award to the Armenians was during the depth of the depression in 1932. The Government of Canada decided that it was the right thing to do to help a community right a historical wrong. The claim was for losses suffered by the Armenian community during the years 1920 and 1921.

More recently, on September 22, 1988 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney rose in the House of Commons to issue an apology to Japanese Canadians for the wrongful internment of their community during the Second World War. In addition to the acknowledgement, the Government of Canada made an award to the Japanese Canadian community of $50 million and authorized a payment of $21,000 in a taxfree lump sum payment to each individual interned. All three political parties as well as civil rights groups and prominent Canadians applauded the Government's action in righting a historical injustice. Why are we, some 80 years later, petitioning our government to do what the government has done in the case of the Armenians and the Japanese Canadians?

There are firstly, relatives and friends of that first historic Ukrainian migration to Canada of which almost half, 80,000 were disenfranchised and some imprisoned. The humiliation of the community during the First World War has not been forgotten. After reading the reports of the meeting between the Prime Minister and representatives of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress held in Edmonton on November 13, 1990, the daughter of one internee stated on the National News: "My father never forgave the government because he came to Canada to find freedom, and what, after all, is life without freedom?" The father went to his grave with an unfounded accusation against him for a crime he did not commit. The community got some measure of vindication by volunteering for service in the Canadian Army to fight for Canada during the First World War. Of the 83 Victoria Crosses awarded in our country's history, Philip Konoval was one of the recipients for valour during that First World War.

We are petitioning our Government because Canada's first internment operation was carried out against an innocent pioneer community and that injustice must be acknowledged, and this sad chapter in our history recorded, to hopefully serve as a reminder to future governments that basic freedoms and rights cannot be taken for granted and must be vigilantly guarded by the Government. We are also petitioning our Government because for too long, in the history of our people, we have borne historical injustices silently. This has compounded the suffering and humiliation, and has served to pass on the hurt from one generation to the next. As a result, it has created within the community, a predisposition to accept unjust treatment as the fate of a dispossessed peoples in the past, or the fate of a minority group in Canada which, because it does not possess the necessary clout, should not therefore seek acknowledgement and redress.

Would it have been any different if the internment of innocent Ukrainian Canadians had not taken place? It is the opinion of historians, sociologists and community leaders that the Ukrainian Canadian community, but for the internment during the First World War, would have been much more in the mainstream of Canadian life and would have played an even greater role in nation building and more currently acting as a unifying force.

As well, the internment remains one of the little known chapters of our history known by few outside of the community. It is time to share that sad chapter with the rest of Canada. It is time to receive the Government's acknowledgement that our pioneer community was wrongfully imprisoned and that our forefathers were innocent and deserved better treatment by the Government. It is time that the historical blemish and humilation was removed from the shoulders of the community. We should ask ourselves the question - Why should some of Canada's injustices beacknowledged and redressed and the suffering atoned for while others such as that of the Ukrainian Canadian community, because that injustice occurred earlier in our history, be forgotten? Because that pioneer Ukrainian community bore its injustices quietly, is no reason to dismiss or diminish the hurt and humiliation still felt by individuals, families and the community. The Government should not dismiss away the injustices as has been suggested by one historian, because it occurred too long ago and because in part, the climate of the day was not tolerant of the settlers from Western Ukraine.

It would be a terrible condemnation of the Government and of our community, if other historical injustices were acknowledged and redressed, but the first internment, that of a pioneer settler community Invited to come to this land, went unnoticed and continued to be ignored. Evenhanded treatment must be accorded to all injustices for which a Canadian Government was responsible. On the eve of the celebration oi centennial, the community was finally, together with the Government, put behind it the impact of Canada's first internment operation. As a former Prime Minister once stated in Parliament, the internment wil cause serious injury to the country. That injury and that humiliatior must now be extirpated with the help of the government and the task of renewed nation building resumed by all of us.

Barbed Wire

Local Links:

Icon Return to Internment: Additional Articles Page
Icon Return to Internment of Ukrainians in Canada 1914-1920 Page
Icon Return to Ukrainian History Page
Icon Return to InfoUkes Home Page


We would like to acknowledge Walter Maksimovich for contributing and digitizing this article for these series of pages.

Document Information

Document URL:

Copyright © 1992 Ukrainian National Association

Page layout, design, integration, and maintenance by G.W. Kokodyniak and V. Pawlowsky

Copyright © 1997 InfoUkes Inc.


since Mar 1 1997
InfoUkes Inc.
Suite 185, 3044 Bloor Street West
Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada M8X 2Y8
Tel: (416) 236-4865 Fax: (416) 766-5704

Originally Composed: Saturday January 25th 1997.
Date last modified: Sunday October 26th 1997.