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And who says time heals all?

Written by Lubomyr Y. Luciuk and Bohdan S. Kordan

The Globe and Mail
28 October 1988

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The Mara Lake internment camp, British Columbia, 1916 (Photo courtesy of the Public Record Office, London)

National attention has focused recently on the federal government's decision to compensate Japanese Canadians for the way they were mistreated during the Second World War. But what happened to them was only a repeat of similarly repressive measures taken three decades earlier during Canada's first national internment program.

Between 1914 and 1920, thousands of Canadians of Ukrainian and other East European origins were uprooted and subjected to a confinement that had a traumatic and long-term impact on them. Given what some see as the precedent established by settlement of the Japanese Canadian claims, representatives of the Ukrainian Canadian Committee are consulting Multiculturalism and Citizenship Minister Gerry Weiner in the hope that the talks will lead to an equally satisfactory resolution.

On what are the Ukrainian Canadians basing their claims?

At the outbreak of the First World War, Ukrainian homesteaders, who had been attracted to Canada by government immigration agents to populate the Prairies, suddenly found themselves classified as "enemy aliens".

Having emigrated from the western Ukrainian territories of Galicia and Bukovyna, both of which were then crown lands of the AustroHungarian Empire, these pioneers were described as "Austro-Hungarians" and their political loyalties were deemed suspect.

Although more than 60 per cent of the 171,000 Ukrainians in Canada by 1914 were naturalized citizens, about 5,000 were sent to 26 internment camps set up across the country, while another 88,000 were obliged to register as "enemy aliens".

They were deprived of their freedom of mobility and association, and their properties and valuables often were confiscated. Not all of this wealth was returned when its owners were released.

Most of the Ukrainian internees, classified as "second-class" prisoners, were transported to camps far from their families and communities. There they were forced to labor under harsh conditions and, by many accounts, subjected to brutality by their guards. Major Canadian corporations, such as Abitibi Pulp and Paper, International Harvester, Algoma Steel, CN and CP railways, profited from their labor.

In 1917, the passage of The War Time Elections Act disenfranchised most Ukrainian Canadians, depriving them of any democratic means to protest against their mistreatment. Few other Canadians expressed outrage over this measure although Kingston's Daily British Whig rather presciently observed that:

"It is quite 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 extinguished. 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."

In 1918 an already censored Ukrainian-language press was completely suppressed, as were several Ukrainian-Canadian organizations. As for the internees, their appeals for justice, addressed to Ottawa and elsewhere, did little to improve their condition.

A case in point is that of Nick Chonomod, a Ukrainian Canadian who argued that his confinement was unjust because, as he wrote, not only had he lived in Canada for several years, homesteaded in Alberta, become a naturalized citizen and married a Canadian-born woman, he had even tried to enlist in a regiment being formed in Edmonton. Instead of being treated as a loyal Canadian, he was interned near Halifax, where he languished for the duration.

Under such circumstances it is not surprising that many prisoners grew despondent and that a few committed suicide. Others perished in escape attempts. How many suffered permanent physical and mental damage is unknown. But it is clear that no evidence of any disloyalty by these Ukrainian Canadians was ever uncovered.

The internment camps were kept open until 1920, two years after the war ended. Inexplicably, many of the "enemy aliens" rounded up in 1914 had, without ever leaving their camps, been transformed into "dangerous foreigners" and "radical aliens" after the Russian Revolution of 1917. A number of these men were summarily deported.

The impact of these various measures was so negative and profound that, as late as 1941, a special RCMP constable reported to his superiors in Ottawa that even the leaders of the Ukrainian-Canadian community remained "in fear of the barbed-wire fence." This observation was echoed in 1944 by analysis with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, who reported that "Ukrainian Canadians are still under a handicap resulting from their experiences in the First World War."

Researchers have discovered recently that much of what took place never needed have happened. By January, 1915, only a few months after the war began, the Canadian government was advised by the British Foreign Office that Ukrainian Canadians should be given "preferential treatment" as "friendly aliens". It was observed that Ukrainians, along with many of the other minority nationalities found within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were actually hostile to Austro-Hungarian rule. For reasons that remain unclear, the government ignored this counsel and a whole generation of Ukrainian Canadians suffered tremendous losses as a result.

There are two significant differences between the Japanese-Canadian and the Ukrainian-Canadian experiences. Many survivors of the Second World War are alive today to give witness about what happened in 1941. However, few Ukrainian-Canadian internees are with us now.

More important, perhaps, a large body of documentation was preserved in Canada's national archives about the Second World War measures, but much of the evidence about Canada's first national internment was deliberately destroyed during the 1950s. Despite these disadvantages, the Ukrainian-Canadian community has been able, by scouring British, U.S. and Canadian archives, to present a coherent case to Ottawa.

What do Ukrainian Canadians want?

First, they don't want Ottawa to apologize for something done so long ago. However, they do want a formal acknowledgement that, between 1914 and 1920, a wrong was done to citizens of Ukrainian and other East European origins.

Community spokesmen also have suggested that historical markers be erected at several of the places where Ukrainian Canadians were interned, such as the Cave and Basin campsite near Banff, Alta.; Fort Henry, near Kingston, Ont.; Spirit Lake, Que.; and Brandon, Man. Also, they would like changes in the new Emergencies Act, which replaced the War Measures Act used to legalize the internment of Ukrainians in the First World War, Japanese in the Second, and Québécois in 1970. The new act, Japanese and Ukrainian Canadians agree does not provide sufficient protection against history repeating itself.

Finally, as in the Japanese-Canadian redress package, Ukrainian Canadians have called for individual compensation for the few survivors of the internment and for "symbolic redress" to the entire community in the form of a trust fund.

What happened can never, of course, be undone. No amount of financial compensation can truly make up for the injustices experienced by these Canadians. But by dealing with this issue quickly, Ottawa can make good on its commitment to treat fairly any group of Canadians who, as a result of discriminatory and unjustifiable actions by federal authorities, suffered grievous damages.

By doing so the government will not only help to fill in a "blank page" in Canadian history but will, in the process, ensure that no other Canadians, of whatever ethnic, religious or racial origin, are ever again subjected to such national humiliation and gross violations of their basic human and civil rights.

Fundamentally, that is what Ukrainian Canadians are seeking. Had they been able to make their case earlier, perhaps what happened to their fellow Canadians in 1941 could have been avoided.

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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.