Barbed Wire

'Enemy aliens' remember: Ukrainian-Canadians pry open internment files

The Edmonton Journal
8 October 1988

Barbed Wire

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Ukrainian Canadian internees at the Castle Mountain camp, Alberta (Photo from the G.W.H. Millican Collection, courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)

The long-closed file on Canada's first national internment operation is slowly being forced open by Ukrainian Canadians.

More than 70 years after the end of the First World War, the Ukrainian community is seeking acknowledgement that the treatment of its members during the war years was wrong.

It is a case Ottawa bureaucrats, their files overflowing with records after the Second World War, judged to be closed in the early 1950s when they ordered records of the internment destroyed.

"I feel we will never hear of these matters again...," wrote a government official.

The same official complained the records were in a "filthy condition because of so many years accumulation of dust and soot."

Blowing away the dust from the few remaining Canadian records and delving into British government files for further information researchers are unearthing the story of the internment camps and the case of mistaken identity that led Ukrainian Canadians to be declared enemy aliens.

In a presentation to the federal government's standing committee on multiculturalism, the Ukrainian Canadian Committee's civil liberties commission argued that the government should publicly acknowledge the "grave injustices perpetrated against Canadians of Ukrainian origin between 1914 and 1920.

"Although what happened can never be undone, a time for atonement has surely come."

Actions against Ukrainian Canadians came soon after Great Britain entered the First World War in August of 1914. The Canadian government issued an order in council in October which provided for the "registration and internment in certain cases of aliens of enemy nationality."

Ukrainians were designated enemy aliens because many had entered Canada with Austrian passports as their homeland was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Even though many had come to Canada to avoid compulsory military service under Austrian rule and despite protests from representatives of Ukrainians, they were viewed as supporters of Austria's aggressive ambitions.

Under the terms of the War Measures Act, 88,000 people were classified as enemy aliens, required to report regularly to police and issued identity papers. Many were Ukrainians, though the destruction of records has made it difficult to determine the proportion.

An estimated 5,000 Canadians of Ukrainian origin were among the 8,579 enemy aliens incarcerated in camps across Canada, including sites near Banff, Jasper and at Lethbridge.

Later in the war, the Ukrainian press was censored and the government disenfranchised all citizens born in enemy countries and naturalized after 1902.

E.A. Michener, the leader of the Conservative opposition party in Alberta, told prime minister Robert Borden in a 1917 letter that "foreignborn: voters had defeated Tory candidates in the provincial election because they feared conscription.

He warned Borden that the party would lose the election if the foreign-born retained the vote.

Yet for some Ukrainians, a desire to fight for their country landed them behind the barbed wire fences of the internment camps.

The Ukrainian Canadian Committee cites the case of an Alberta homesteader and naturalized Canadian citizen who joined a battalion in Edmonton in the first month of war.

After being discharged and then interned at a camp near Halifax, he wrote officials that he could not understand "on what charge I am being kept here."

Lubomyr Luciuk, who wrote the Ukrainian Canadian Committee's report on internment, says: "This is an incredible example but it is not that uncommon."

Many of the internees were placed in the camps because of their poverty.

Bohdan Kordan and Peter Melnycky, who are researching a book on the Castle Mountain camp near the Banff townsite, have found existing records often list the failure of aliens to report to police as the reason they were interned.

But the records show those interned were almost always listed as "destitute," suggesting that internment was for economic reasons rather than for the preservation of national security.

Major-General Sir William Otter, a retire officer who oversaw the internment operations, wrote that it was "the tendency of municipalities to unload their indigents (that) was the cause of confinement of not a few."

Melnycky's research also found cases that illustrated the tremendous discretionary powers granted government officials to decide who was to be considered an enemy alien. Files list acting in a "very suspicious manner" or showing "a general tendency toward sedition" as reasons for internment.

Once interned, the enemy aliens were expected to work. They cleared and cultivated land, built roads and repaired the railways. The national parks at Banff, Jasper, Field and Revelstoke all had internment camps.

Anyone who has driven the scenic highway between the Banff townsite and Lake Louise, stayed at the Banff Springs Hotel or relaxed in the hot springs at the Cave and Basin has enjoyed the fruits of internment labor.

Laborers were paid 25 cents a day, the equivalent of the shilling-a-day paid to imperial troops.

Escape attempts ended in tragedy. An 18-year-old Ukrainian was shot dead during an escape attempt from the Brandon camp. Another Ukrainian died while fleeing the camp in Spirit Lake, Quebec. Others committed suicide.

A total of 107 internees died in the camps and 69 were listed as "Austrians." Another 61 Austrians were placed in mental institutions and most were later deported.

While the camps operated from 1914 to 1920, a growing shortage of labor by 1916 led to many internees being paroled so they could work in coal mines or on the railways.

When the last of the internees was released or deported in 1920, there was still $32,000 left owing to workers. The unclaimed money was an accounting headache that vexed bureaucrats for years.

The operations left lasting scars on the Ukrainian-Canadian community. An RCMP officer reported that some lived "in fear of the barbed wire fence."

Luciuk believes the treatment of UkrainianCanadian during the war "conditioned the entire community to be very apprehensive about their government and their status as Canadians."

British foreign office records discovered during recent research in England show Canada was informed in 1916 that Ukrainians should be considered hostile to the Austrian war effort.

"Ten years ago my explanation would have been that it happened because the government just didn't understand," says the Queen's University professor. "It is now clear that the government knew but it went ahead anyway."

John Gregorovich, chairman of the Ukrainian Canadian Committee's civil liberties commission, says research is helping to establish the case that the government should acknowledge the wrongs committed and compensate the community.

While Japanese Canadians recently received $288 million in compensation for internment of 22,000 people during the Second World War, Gregorovich says Ukrainian Canadians have not yet determined what damages will be sought.

"At this point the most important thing we can do is bring the historical facts in form the cold," says the Vegreville native, now a Toronto lawyer.

"This has been a hidden part of Canadian history and the first step is to make the Ukrainian community and others aware that it did happen."

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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.