Barbed Wire

How Ukrainians were exiled to Quebec gulag

Written by Daniel Maceluch

The Gazette
11 May 1985

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Internees hauling in stove wood, Spirit Lake internment camp, Quebec (Photo courtesy of Y. Luhovy)

Nineteen black crosses are about all that remains of a prison camp where 1,200 "enemy aliens" -- mostly unemployed Ukrainian immigrants -- labored for two years clearing forests and building roads during the First World War.

The Spirit Lake camp, where two men were shot trying to escape and 20 others died from tuberculosis and pneumonia, is an almost forgotten part of local history in this lumber town, about 600 kilometres north of Montreal.

Now, however, some Ukrainian Canadian groups are starting to revive the story of camps like Spirit Lake. They want an apology from the federal government for what Joseph Slogan of Winnipeg, a former member of Parliament, calls "a shameful episode in Canadian history, a black mark we should not forget."

The Spirit Lake camp was one of 23 across Canada in which 8,800 immigrants, some of them Canadian citizens, were held as prisoners of war during the First World War. Another 88,000 had to register with immigration officials, checking in as often as once a week.

Story untold

Most of the internees were single, unemployed men who posed little if any threat to national security. Their crime was to have come from countries allied with Germany, which was at war with Great Britain.

Until now, their story -- unlike that of the 21,000 Japanese Canadians who were stripped of their homes and fishing boats and imprisoned during the Second World War -- has raised little interest.

But with Japanese Canadians seeking redress for the persecution of their families, Ukrainians say they also deserve an apology.

"There's no question we're riding the coattails of the Japanese," said Slogan, national president of the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Federation.

"Like the Japanese, we urge the government to recognize the internment of Ukrainians and other ethnic groups as an injustice."

One of the Ukrainian immigrants who had to check in regularly with immigration officials at the Montreal immigration building on St. Antoine St. was Samuel Olynyk, father of Greenfield Park Mayor Steve Olynyk.

Mayor Olynyk says his father, now 97 and living in Greenfield Park, was treated "like a criminal."

"My dad arrived in 1907, seven years before the war. He was and always has been a good Canadian citizen," Olynyk says, clutching his father's wrinkled registration card.

"He told me he felt like he was back in Europe where they used to keep close tabs on Ukrainians. This wasn't the country he thought it would be."

John Drozdowich, now 91 and living in a small flat in Point St. Charles was 18 when he came to Montreal in 1913 from the western Ukraine.

He remembers the war years as "a bad time to be Ukrainian."

"They started to investigate our people right after the war was declared," Drozdowich says.

Because he had a job -- as a laborer with the Grand Trunk Railways -- he wasn't put in a prison camp. But local immigration officers asked him to report once a week, although his employer persuaded authorities to cut that down to once a month.

"I had good connections in the company. Because I was losing hours of work, they helped me report only once a month. But the soldiers would visit me at work sometimes. I had to show them my papers.

"They took some of us to the woods to cut down trees. They told me that, if I didn't report, they would take me to the forests."

Between 1915 and 1917, Sprit Lake's inmates, which included 60 families, cleared more than 500 acres of forest. They were paid 25 cents a day and, as one resident who built bunk houses for the internees recalls, they were fed "cabbage, cabbage and more cabbage."

Amos Mayor Marcel Lesyk says few people talked about the camp when he was growing up in the area. "Now, hardly anybody talks about it. There's no interest."

Only 100 were German

Residents who do speak about the compound call it the German camp, although only 100 of those interned there were German.

Of the 8,800 immigrants imprisoned across Canada between 1914 and 1920, more than 5,000 were Ukrainians, while only 2,000 were Germans. The rest were Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians.

Although 10,000 Ukrainians enlisted in the Canadian army, Slogan say, thousands of other Ukrainians lost jobs, faced summary arrest or were verbally and physically abused -- during the war and for years after.

"Here you had this land being painted to them as the land of opportunity, the land of milk and honey. But what did we do? We threw them into camps, took away their rights and made them second-class citizens.

"Even after the war, it took a number of years to get over this prejudice and the stigma of having been interned. It made it very hard for the Ukrainian community to advance."

Slogan says there's enough "damning" material to have the issue debated immediately in the House of Commons. But he says the Ukrainian community will wait until the Japanese question is settled.

The National Association of Japanese Canadians this year rejected a symbolic apology from the Canadian government in the form of a $6-million educational foundation.

Although the Progressive Conservative government says it recognizes that "other groups were treated unjustly" during the two wars, it has made no official decision to apologize to Ukrainians or other ethnic minorities, an official with the Multiculturalism Department says.

Douglas Bowie, assistant under-secretary of state for multiculturalism, says government officials plan to meet Ukrainian representatives to work out a deal and are open to any suggestions.

Slogan says Ukrainians want the same deal the Japanese get, especially if any money for research is to be handed out.

"We want (money) to document the nature and extent of our injustice, too," Slogan said.

Liberal and New Democratic Party officials say they will push the government for an apology to all minorities mistreated in Canada during the wars.

"If there was an injustice, then there should be an apology made to anyone who asks for it," says Tim Woods, an aide to NDP leader Ed Broadbent.

In a recent letter to the Montreal branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Committee (UCC), Multiculturalism Minister Jack Murta said the government is reviewing its apology to Japanese Canadians.

He said the Conservatives are "sympathetic to the fact that individual hardships" resulted from government policies and that such policies "would no longer be tolerable in light of current understanding and human-rights legislation."

Seventy years ago, Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden made a similar declaration: Immigrants from countries at war with Canada would be protected from abuses that could result from wartime hysteria.

Gave assurances

At the outset of the First World War. Borden assured immigrants from Germany and regions under the Austro-Hungarian empire, from which the majority of Ukrainians came, that, as long as they did nothing to aid the enemy, "they are entitled to the protection of the law."

Because the immigrants were "invited to become citizens of this country, we owe to them, in the trying circumstances in which they are placed, the duty of fairness and consideration."

But the public didn't go for the government's policy of tolerance.

Business and labor groups, mostly in western Canada, demanded that all enemy aliens, either immigrants or naturalized Canadians, be dismissed from their jobs and thrown into internment camps. Some asked that a $1,000 head tax be placed on any new immigrants from eastern Europe.

Miners in Fernie, B.C. went on strike until the company they worked for fired all German and Austrian employees. Within weeks, a special camp was built for about 80 immigrants.

Justice Minister C.J. Doherty put public opinion into law June 15, 1915. The Conservative government passed legislation forbidding enemy aliens from competing for jobs with Canadians. He defended this action by saying that "allowing alien enemies to work or compete with others" would lead to a "serious danger of rioting."

Growing unemployment among the half-million eastern Europeans living in Canada pushed the government to take action.

On Aug. 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany.

Three days later, Ottawa passed the first in a series of laws that curtailed normal rights and freedoms for German and Austrian immigrants.

A week later, legislation was introduced giving local police the right, without "any particular evidence," to imprison or detain anyone who attempted to leave the country or assist the enemy.

On Aug. 21, the government passed emergency powers legislation known as the War Measures Act, the same legislation used 30 years later to lock up Japanese during the Second World War and many Quebecers during the 1970 crisis which followed kidnappings by the Front de Libération du Québec.

The War Measures Act prohibited enemy aliens from leaving their homes or being near bridges, waterways and railroads. It also gave local police the right to search their homes for weapons.

Other measures introduced during the war prevented enemy aliens from buying farm land, printing newspapers or magazines in their own language and, finally, from voting.

Catherine Storozuk, 71, who lives in Southwick, Mass., says her father, a Ukrainian immigrant, took the family to La Macaza, a small community north of Mont Tremblant, shortly after war broke out. Because he was unemployed, he feared he'd be interned.

"My parents heard the news they were catching all those immigrants. So we ran away from Montreal.

"They told me we had to run because we were Ukrainians. It was a hard time for us."

The federal government set up the first registration centre in Montreal in August 1914 and began setting up internment camps across Canada, including three in Quebec, in October.

An armory in Beauport, near Quebec City, operated for more than two years but never held more than a few dozen immigrants. The Valcartier army base was also used but was open for only seven months in 1915.

200 guards

The Spirit Lake facility was created especially as a prisoner-of-war camp.

For two years, more than 200 soldiers guarded the compound, which was surrounded with barbed wire. The 2,200-acre complex included a mess hall, kitchen, bakery, general store and warehouses.

In a documentary film by Montreal filmmaker Yurij Luhovy, Ukrainians in Quebec, carpenter Donat Brouillette of Amos described the prisoners as "firstclass people. They were big, strong men who would tell us, 'Do not strain yourself; we are here for that purpose.'"

Other camps were built in Nova Scotia (where Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was held for a while), Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. By the end of the war, the camps had cost taxpayers $3.2 million.

Maj-Gen William D. Otter, a career military man who had fought in the Métis uprising of 1885 and the Boer War of 1899, was in charge of internment operations.

Of the 8,800 internees, Otter classified only 3,138 as true prisoners of war, either men who were in army reserves in their home countries or were captured carrying arms.

Otter also noted that "the tendency of municipalities to unload their indigent was the cause of confinement" of about 4,000 men.

With so many able men imprisoned and posing no threat to security, Otter recommended that "thousands of harmless Austrians" be released into the work force.

By the spring of 1917, 6,000 men had been let go to work in mines, on farms and on railroads.

This, Toronto historian Lubomyr Luciuk says, proves that most men were far from the "dangerous saboteurs and subversives" they were made out to be.

Instead, they were harmless, law-abiding citizens who suffered needlessly under "discriminatory and prejudiced government policies."

"You had people who lost two years of their lives in camps just because someone didn't like them," Luciuk said.

"That's a national disgrace."

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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: Saturday September 21st 1996.
Date last modified: Thursday October 30th 1997.