Barbed Wire

First World War internees can be compensated without remaking history

Written by Barry Hill-Tout

The Whig-Standard
8 October 1988

Barbed Wire

Of the several groups claiming their treatment, like that of the JapaneseCanadians interned during the Second World War, deserves compensation or apology for an injustice, the ones similarly interned have by far the closest parallel. The largest of these groups is the original target of the War Measures Act of 1914: recent immigrants from eastern Europe, mainly the Ukraine.

It can take a moment to realize why people from that part of the world should have been considered enemy aliens. After all, isn't the Ukraine part of Russia, with whom we were allied during the First World War? Well, of course, it isn't. It's now so firmly entrenched in the Soviet Union we sometimes forget how drastically that war and its aftermath changed the boundaries. Before, the Austro-Hungarian empire sprawled over southeastern Europe. Just as Canada, as part of the British Empire, came in on the side of Britain when the fighting began in August 1914, so the various states comprising the Austrian empire came in on the other side.

Unlike Canada, however, those states were not a willing part of the empire. Most Austrian subjects were eager to get out, and many of them voted with their feet. Canada was a favored destination: From the late 1890s, this country had been actively encouraging immigration from eastern Europe with a view to settling the prairies. The decade prior to the war saw more immigrants than any other in our history, with an annual average of almost a quarter of a million.

Only a tiny fraction of the Ukrainian-Canadian community were incarcerated, but that was still over 5,000 men and, in a few cases, their wives and children.

Another 80,000, mostly Ukrainians, were registered as enemy aliens and placed under parole-like restrictions.

The criteria used to decide who was interned are not very clear at this late date. In his booklet A Time for Atonement, Lubomyr Luciuk writes that some Ukrainians "who had enlisted but were then discovered to be 'Austrian' were expelled from the army and interned. One such Ukrainian Canadian, Nick Chonomod, writing from a camp near Halifax to a Captain Adams of the 6th Military Division, recorded that not only had he joined a battalion being formed in Edmonton in August 1914, but that he had lived in Canada for seven years, married a Canadian born woman, become naturalized and taken up a homestead in Alberta. Having so affirmed his loyalty, he added that he could not understand 'on which charge I am being kept here.'"

At the beginning, Canadian government officials might not have been aware of the subtleties of European politics. However, a British government document Luciuk recently found, dated in January of 1915, instructed the Canadian government that the Ukrainian nationals were hostile to the Austro-Hungarian empire and should be considered as friendly aliens. If the continuing treatment of them as hostile was an early expression of Canadian independence, it was a singularly ugly one.

The camps where these aliens -- and non-aliens; many had been naturalized -- were held were called by a term that has since acquired more sinister connotations: concentration camps. Whatever they're called and in whatever part of the world such camps are, they have this in common: They are located where the surrounding territory is hostile to the inmates. The hostility can be from an unfriendly population, as the Nazi extermination camps, or from the climate, as the camps of the Gulag archipelago. Our camps were in places such as Fort Henry and Spirit Lake: surrounded by a populace as loyal to the British empire as there was, or climate and terrain -- in central Quebec -- as harsh as Canada has. Apparently the "enemy-alien" internees were more likely to be placed in remote camps; prisoners of war, who had been sent off to the colonies to get them out of the way, were more likely to be put in camps near cities.

In the first two parts of this series, we suggested three criteria for attempts to redress old misdeeds: Compensate the victims themselves, as individuals; the compensation should come from the perpetrators, including perhaps a government as an enduring body; and compensate only for things imposed on people without their consent. With these criteria, there should be no danger of getting on an endless road of trying to remake history.

Not many of the internees of the First World War camps still survive. A boy of 14 at the outbreak of war would be 88 today. But there are a few; and to them the Canadian government should apologize as one of the first acts of the next Parliament.

Beyond the extreme injustice of the camps, there were lesser injustices. One is worth singling out in conclusion. The War Time Elections Act of 1917 disenfranchised most immigrants since 1902. The measure aroused some controversy - an editorial in The British Whig stated:

"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 honor 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."

It did become law. The time has come.

Barbed Wire

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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: Sunday September 22nd 1996.
Date last modified: Thursday October 30th 1997.