Barbed Wire

The other shame: Do the more than 8,000 so-called enemy aliens interned during the First World War deserve an apology?

Written by Andy Blicq

Winnipeg Free Press
21 December 1984

Barbed Wire

Some members of the Ukrainian community say the federal government should apologize for interning their people during the First World War.

Mike Dechka, of Brandon, whose father was forced to report to police every week during the conflict, says the apology is appropriate now that JapaneseCanadians are seeking redress for persecution during the Second World War.

"It's the same deal isn't it?" asks Dechka. "In my opinion it is."

More than 8,000 people -- the majority of them emigres from the western Ukraine -- were imprisoned in Canadian internment camps during the First World War because they were from countries allied with Germany.

Freedom suspended

Ten were killed or wounded while trying to escape and 101 died from disease or accidents between 1914 and 1920 in the 24 makeshift camps which included the old Wheat City Arena in Brandon. About 80,000 so-called enemy aliens were also registered by the Canadian government. Many of them saw their freedom suspended when they were ordered to regularly check in with local authorities during the war.

Scholars agree that most of these so-called aliens posed little if any threat to national security and were unjustly treated. But little has been said about this dark episode in Canadian history -- despite suspicions of torture and corruption in the camps. The problem is compounded by the fact that potentially embarrassing documentation has disappeared.

Fearing further persecution and shamed by the imprisonment, the generation of internees -- most of whom were Ukrainians -- decided to go on with their lives and did not make an issue of it. And in the ensuing decades the internment camps have been almost been -- forgotten.

But due to recent efforts by JapaneseCanadians, there are some people in the Ukrainian community who say an acknowledgement of the wrongs of the earlier war may be in order.

"When Japanese raise this question and (the) Canadian government is prepared to express this kind of apology, absolutely the events should be mentioned of the first war when Ukrainians suffered very much the same," says Michael Marunchak, a Ukrainian historian, scholar and author living in Winnipeg. Although his people faced surveillance and imprisonment there was no evidence of subversive action, spying or sabotage.

Jaroslav Rozumnyj, professor of Slavic studies at the University of Manitoba, feels the facts surrounding the internments should be brought to the public's attention so that it never happens again.

"This is something this country should never have done."

There is evidence that the clampdown on Canada's immigrants resulted not from a need for national security, but from economic reasons, prejudice and the Anglo-Saxon population's war hysteria. The concern was fed by a Roman Catholic clergyman's suggestion that the Ukrainians should return and fight for Austria.

When war broke out, the federal government passed a series of regulations which tightened restrictions on immigrants and allowed for the summary arrest, detention and monitoring of aliens living in Canada.

"Only people who did not have citizenship where liable to wind up in the camps," says Edmonton historian Peter Melnycky, who has researched and published a paper on the internment. Struggling on poor land and faced with lack of work because employers preferred hiring Anglo-Canadian workers, the internment camps became the last stop for many out-of-work Ukrainians.

Many of the internees were rounded up at the border, for attempting to cross into the U.S. to work on the annual harvest without the proper papers. Some were interned for breaking wartime regulations.

Others were jailed for less important reasons. Research Melnycky has done show some were interned because they were deemed undesirable, or "of shiftless character", or used "seditious" or "intemperate" language.

The first internment camp was built in Montreal in 1914. Twenty-four were built across the country and prisoners were housed in everything from military barracks to railway cars and tents. Two camps existed in Manitoba, a receiving centre in a now unknown building in Winnipeg, and an exhibition centre in Brandon which has since been demolished.

"Insanity was by no means uncommon among the prisoners," wrote Major-General Sir William Otter, the officer in charge of the internment camps, in his final report to the Minister of Justice in 1920. A total of 106 prisoners were deemed to be mad by prison officials and confined to mental institutions. After the war all but three were deported. In some cases, suggests Otter "the disease possibly developed from a nervous condition brought about by the confinement and restrictions entailed."

With a few exceptions, much of Otter's report contains a similarly bland account of life in the camp. He states in his report that "very little friction occurred between troops and prisoners" and he had "but little complaint" about their conduct.

Reveals different side

Few internees survive and those who are alive are quite elderly. None could be located. But research conducted by Melnycky, who now lives in Edmonton, reveals a different side of the internment story.

In 1916, at the large Kapuskasing, Ont., camp, 1,200 prisoners rioted and a number of them were wounded when they clashed with guards.

Most of the prisoners in the various camps were kept behind barbed wire and, along with passive resistance, there were many escape attempts. Tunnelling, according to Otter, was a favorite method. Six men were shot to death trying to escape and four were wounded in attempts.

On a June night in 1915, 17 men from the Brandon camp, which operated for about two years and contained a predominantly Ukrainian population of about 800, attempted an escape. Andrew Grapko, 18, was shot and killed as he scrambled out of a window, according to Melnycky's research. There were few escape attempts from the camp after that.

Meanwhile, several thousand dollars worth of money and valuables confiscated from internees disappeared from a Toronto internment centre and Melnycky cites other cases where officials allegedly extorted money from prisoners.

Although little hard evidence exists, there also is some suggestion of prisoners being abused, Melnycky says, including reports that some inmates where beaten or hung by their wrists.

Melnycky notes that, while routine files were retained, controversial information on escapes or mistreatment of internees was weeded out and destroyed.

He says that the Ukrainians were treated as secondclass prisoners and about 2,000 German internees received better care and were exempted from the worst of the work.

Of the 107 prisoners who died in captivity, three committed suicide. The largest groups succumbed to tuberculosis (26), pneumonia (22) and heart disease (10). In fact, so many prisoners contracted tuberculosis that a special internee's hospital was established for them.

By most accounts camp life was monotonous. Reading material was strictly censored.

The Ukrainian clergy and others during this period fought against, what they called, the unfair internment.

"...for unknown reasons the Ukrainians in Canada are treated as enemy Austrians. They are persecuted by thousands, they are interned, they are dismissed from their employment and their applications for work are not entertained. And why? For only one reason that they were so unhappy as to be born into Austrian bondage," said the editors of the Canadian Ukrainian in a letter to the Manitoba Free Press on July 16, 1916.

Ironically, the Ukrainians had fled oppression in the Austro-Hungarian empire. When they first arrived in Canada, Ukrainian settlers erected crosses to commemorate the freedom they had found. But within two decades many of them found themselves imprisoned for political reasons they could not understand.

When war broke out, some wanted to fight for the Allied forces, but many were refused. Some even changed their names to become eligible for service and one Ukrainian soldier, Filip Konowal, was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery.

Prisoners 'paroled'

In the end, the paranoia surrounding the internees gave way to the practical needs of the country. Six thousand Austrian-born prisoners were "paroled" during 1916 and 1917 to replace Canadian workers who had joined the conflict in Europe.

Although they were released, the internees were made to sign an oath of loyalty and obedience and forced to regularly report to the police.

While the war ended in 1918, the last of the camps remained in use until February, 1920 and were used to intern those whom the government thought to be politically undesirable. Otter's budget shows the federal government spent more than $3.2 million -- a considerable sum in First World War Canada -- operating the camps.

Meanwhile, the persecution of Ukrainians continued after the war, says Marunchak. Individuals were assaulted by veterans and homes were attacked.

"Some people were extremely cautious and they felt that maybe silence was the best policy at that time."

Unlike Japanese-Canadians who were interned during the Second World War, there is no evidence that Ukrainian and other prisoners lost any property. But, as Vancouver poet Dale Zieroth suggests, imprisonment marked the internees and their families.

His grandfather came to Canada from Prussia in 1897 and later homesteaded north of Neepawa. A neighbour raised suspicions about him and his grandfather and uncle were interned during the war.

The shame of the interment became a part of the immigrants' culture and, says Zieroth, in his other families, the story was whispered to the younger generation.

Although many questions about the internment remain unanswered, Melnycky personally believes it was unjust.

"I think it must have been a terribly traumatizing experience. It says a lot for them that they didn't give up the dreams that they had.

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Copyright © 1994 Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Copyright © 1994 Lubomyr Luciuk

We acknowledge the help in the preparation of this document by Amanda Anderson

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

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Originally Composed: Thursday September 19th 1996.
Date last modified: Thursday October 30th 1997.