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Wartime internment of Ukrainians ignored British advice, paper says

Written by Margaret Polanyi

The Globe and Mail
11 October 1988

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Internees at work in the forest, near Mara Lake, British Columbia, 1916 (Photo courtesy of US National Archives)

The federal government was ignoring advice from British authorities that Ukrainians in Canada were friendly aliens when it put them in prison camps during the First World War, newly uncovered documents show.

The documents were prepared by the British Foreign Office early in 1915, shortly after the outbreak of war, in response to a request from the Canadian government for information on Austro-Hungarian subjects.

In one document, stamped Jan. 8, 1915, Ruthenes, or Ukrainians, are listed among nationalities considered to be hostile to Austro-Hungarian rule, and therefore "friends" of Canada.

Lubomyr Luciuk of the Ukrainian Canadian Committee, who uncovered the documents in May, said Ukrainians in Canada gave similar assurances of their loyalty to Canada's war effort, but these fell on deaf ears.

"The critical thing about those documents is the highest levels of government of the day, you have the Canadian government being told that these people are friendly aliens (and) they should be given preferential treatment," Mr. Luciuk said yesterday in an interview.

Instead, thousands of Ukrainians, many of them naturalized Canadian citizens, were classified as enemy aliens and either incarcerated or forced to carry identity papers and report regularly to police.

"I do not know why the Canadian government proceeded with these repressive measures, when it was very clearly told not to, but it did," said Mr. Luciuk, who unearthed the documents at the public records office in London.

Whatever the reason, the documents show for the first time that the repression of Ukrainians in Canada was definitely not just a mistake, or the result of wartime hysteria, Mr. Luciuk said.

Canadian records from that time do not exist because they were destroyed during the early 1950s.

"No one ever knew in the academic world or in our community that the government should have done otherwise, that it knew better, as it were," said Mr. Luciuk, research director for the Ukrainian committee's civil liberties commission. "The assumption was -- and it's a normal human one -- you just think it's a tragic mistake."

He said the new evidence will be put before Gerry Weiner, federal Minister of State for Multiculturalism and Citizenship, tomorrow when a delegation of Ukrainian Canadians meets him to continue their request for redress.

The representatives want official acknowledgement of the wrongs done to the Ukrainian-Canadian community from 1914 to 1920, Mr. Luciuk said, as well as compensation for survivors and the creation of a community project fund.

"We are saying now...this time we actually have documentary evidence to show that the government of Canada didn't have to do what it did, that it knew better or was told," Mr. Luciuk said.

He said the Ukrainian-Canadian case for redress is as strong as that of Japanese Canadians interned during the Second World War. They were recently awarded a settlement, worth about $300million, by the federal government.

Mr. Weiner, however, has said the Japanese-Canadian case should not set a precedent for compensating other groups wronged in the past. He said they had suffered in a "unique and unparalleled" way.

But Mr. Luciuk said there are many parallels in the mistreatment of the two groups, including their internment, forcible relocation and disenfranchisement.

His research has shown that from 1914 to 1920, 8,579 people classified as enemy aliens were incarcerated, among them women and children. Of them, 3,138 were prisoners of war. The other 5,441 were civilians, and Mr. Luciuk estimates that nearly 5,000 were of Ukrainian origin.

A further 88,000, most of them Ukrainian, were categorized as enemy aliens and were obliged to report regularly to their local police authorities or to the North West Mounted Police, his research shows. They were given identity papers that had to be carried at all times and faced arrest if they did not comply.

Mr. Luciuk, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, found in his research that Ukrainians living in Canada were rounded up if they had come from the Austrian-controlled areas of Galicia and Bukovina. While their citizenship was officially Austro-Hungarian, their nationality was nonetheless Ukrainian.

They were categorized as enemy aliens under the War Measures Act of 1914, the same act that was later to be used against Japanese Canadians in 1941 (and Quebec separatists in 1970).

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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

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