Barbed Wire

Haunted by history: Ukrainians, Italians and Chinese seek redress for historical ill-treatment by Ottawa

Written by Tom Philip

Alberta Report
17 December 1990

Barbed Wire

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Internees at the Kapuskasing internment camp, circa 1917, Ontario (Photo courtesy of Ron Morel Memorial Museum, Kapuskasing)

A few hundred yards from the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park, a strand of barbed wire lies rusting in the snow. Little else remains of the camp that once stood there. There is no commemorative plaque, though men died in this place. There is no interpretive centre, though the camp represents a compelling chapter in Canada's history. Here in the shadow of Castle Mountain, the government of Canada imprisoned hundreds of Ukrainians during the First World War - the same Ukrainians whom it had invited to settle the prairies short years before. Most were Canadian citizens. Many had volunteered to fight with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Europe. Yet their homeland - Galicia and Bukovyna in western Ukraine - was under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, and the government of Canada regarded them as "enemy aliens." Between 1914 and 1920 Canadian soldiers and police seized some 5,000 Ukrainians from the homesteads of the prairies, the lumber camps of Quebec and the factories of southern Ontario. Their cash and other valuables were seized by the Crown. The men, and in come cases women and children, were imprisoned in 26 camps strung across Canada in places like Spirit Lake, Que., Otter Creek, B.C., and Castle Mountain, Alta. Conditions were harsh. Several of the men committed suicide. At least two were shot while trying to escape. Although it occurred two generations ago, the impact of the internment is felt in the Ukrainian community to this day. "These people came here looking for freedom and, instead, they found themselves imprisoned," says Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., and a leading historian of the internment. "It was a traumatizing experience. As far as I'm concerned, it crippled our community."

For more than four years, Canada's Ukrainian community has been attempting to win compensation for the financial losses suffered by those interned during the First World War and an acknowledgement that their treatment was "unwarranted and unjust." In 1988 the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney concluded a similar agreement with Japanese Canadians whose property was confiscated during the Second World War. But progress for the Ukrainians has been slow. In October 1988, less than a month after the agreement with the Japanese, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) submitted a brief to Gerry Weiner, minister of state for Multiculturalism and Citizenship, outlining its case for acknowledgement and redress. "To our mounting disillusionment and disbelief," says Dr. Luciuk, the matter was promptly shelved.

After years of inaction, recent weeks have seen a marked change in the government's attitude towards righting historical wrongs. Speaking in Toronto in November, Prime Minister Mulroney offered an "unqualified" apology to Italian Canadians interned during the Second World War. Two weeks ago Mr. Weiner met with representatives of the Chinese Canadian National Council, which is seeking compensation for $23 million in "head taxes" paid by Chinese immigrants to Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And on November 13 the prime minister met in Edmonton with UCC president Dmytro Cipywnyk and other members of the Ukrainian community.

Reports of what was agreed upon at the meeting conflict. UCC officials claim that the prime minister pledged support in principle for a Ukrainian cultural endowment fund; Mr. Mulroney said later that compensation was not discussed. But, at the very least, the government appears prepared to acknowledge that a wrong was done, not only in the case of the Ukrainians, but to other groups as well. "There's two schools of thought," said Mr. Mulroney. "You ignore these things and say they never happened because if you acknowledge one then you have to deal with another. Or you deal with them in the belief that a strong nation is capable of looking at its past and resolving injustices when they occur, and that's what we're in the process of doing."

To say there are "two schools of thought" on the issue of acknowledgement and redress for Ukrainian Canadians and others is something of an understatement. By all accounts, Mr. Mulroney's government is deeply divided on the issue. "This whole redress thing is most unpopular in the caucus," says Douglas Fisher, a columnist for the Toronto Sun newspaper group and a former New Democratic Party MP. "They blame it on the fact that the PM is a small-l liberal and is trying to win the ethnic vote." Among those opposed to compensation for Ukrainian Canadians is Don Blenkarn, Tory MP for Mississauga South. "An acknowledgement would be one thing," says Mr. Blenkarn. "But to tie a dollar figure to it - no bloody way. Claims that go back to the Dark Ages are just unacceptable."

There is no question that compensation in such cases can prove expensive. Under the agreement concluded in 1988, the National Association of Japanese Canadians will receive $39 million to fund a Canadian Race Relations Foundation and various community programs. In addition, individual Japanese Canadians interned during the Second World War are entitled to a cash payment of $21,000. Initially, 12,000 were expected to apply. To date, more than 18,000 have done so, raising the potential cost of the program from its original estimate of $291 million to well over $400 million. Despite the cost, Mr. Blenkarn feels compensation for Japanese Canadians is justified because "there are a number of Japanese alive who suffered a real financial loss." By contrast, barely half a dozen survivors of the Ukrainian internment remain alive today. For the rest, says Mr. Blenkarn the time for compensation has passed.

The fear that compensation for one group will trigger an endless stream of claimants is a prevalent one. Among the more obscure groups who might mount a case, says Mr. Fisher, are the "zombies" of the Second World War - men who were forced to give up well-paying jobs merely to satisfy British demands for Canadian conscription but who were never asked to actually fight. Those with a more credible claim include veterans of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War but were denied the benefits to which those who fought Hitler a decade later were entitled. "Eventually we get back to the Acadians," says Mr. Fisher. Indeed, while campaigning in New Brunswick earlier this year, Jean Chrétien was asked when Acadians would get redress for the deportation of their ancestors to Louisiana in the 18th century.

To date, though, only a very few groups have pursued their claim with any vigour. Earlier this year, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the Chinese Canadian National Council, the National Congress of Italian Canadians and the National Association of Japanese Canadians formed the National Redress Alliance to co-operate and exchange information to further their claims.

Since 1984 Canada's Chinese community has been seeking an acknowledgement of the injustice endured by its members as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited all Chinese immigration to Canada from 1923 to 1947, even in the case of people with family members already in the country. In addition, the community is seeking $23 million, the actual total, in dollars of the day, of the "head tax" imposed on Chinese immigrants to Canada between 1885 and 1923. The tax, which had risen to $500 per person by 1903, "was two years' wages at the time," says Gary Yee, a Toronto lawyer and president of the Chinese Canadian National Council. As a result of the tax and the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act, says Mr. Yee, many Chinese "spent decades separated from their wives and husbands and other family members." Thousands of those who paid the head tax are still alive today.

Mr. Yee has little patience with those who argue that the present government cannot be held accountable for the sins of its predecessors. "I wonder why this kind of reasoning only comes up when we are dealing with ethno-cultural groups," says Mr. Yee, who cites compensation paid to those who suffered birth defects caused by the drug thalidomide in the 1960s as just one of the "numerous precedents" in which one government has taken responsibility for the failings of another. The federal government's approval of thalidomide "was just a mistake," adds Mr. Yee. "In our case we're talking about people suffering because of a deliberately racist policy of the national government."

The Canadian government appears to have made a similar racial distinction in the case of the Ukrainian internment. According to documents uncovered by Dr. Luciuk in the Public Record Office in London, England, the dominion government ignored advice from the British Colonial Office that natives of Galicia and Bukovyna, though nominally citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were in fact opposed to the Austrian cause during the First World War. Indeed, many of them had fled their homeland precisely to escape Austrian rule. Nevertheless, natives of Galicia and Bukovyna formed the majority of those rounded up and interned under the War Measures Act of 1914 - the same War Measures Act that would be invoked to suspend the civil liberties of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s and Quebecois in 1970.

Of the 8,759 "enemy aliens" interned during the First World War, only 3,138 were genuine prisoners of war. Of the remaining 5,441 men, women and children, approximately 5,000 were of Ukrainian origin. Under an order-in-council of October 1914, an additional 88,000 people, again mostly Ukrainians, were forced to carry documents identifying them as "enemy aliens" and to report regularly to the North West Mounted Police and other authorities. The passage of the War Time Elections Act in 1917 was the final insult. It disenfranchised every Ukrainian immigrant who had arrived in Canada after March 1902, depriving them of the right to vote against the government responsible for the repression.

Because the federal government destroyed most of the relevant records in 1953, it has been difficult to determine the value of property seized during the internment. As early as 1915, however, Major-General William D. Otter, the officer commanding the internment operations, wrote that "difficulties have ... arisen in accounting for the monies received." In a belated attempt to put right the accounting, the UCC has engaged the firm of Price Waterhouse to determine the value of any seized funds from the period remaining in the federal treasury. That figure will be used as a basis for negotiating financial redress with the federal government. "This is not a case of people lining up for a hand-out," says Dr. Luciuk. "There are very few survivors left today and none of them has expressed any interest in individual compensation." Rather, Dr. Luciuk believes any money given to the community should be used to establish an educational and community-development fund.

Just as important as the issue of redress is that of acknowledgement that the treatment of Ukrainians during the First World War was unwarranted and unjust. "There's a second dimension to this, and that's the whole question of the stripping away of civil liberties," says Bohdan Kordan, a professor of political science at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton and a member of the UCC's redress committee. The true lesson to be learned from the experience of the Ukrainians, Chinese, Japanese and Italians, says Dr. Kordan, is that "the history of Canadian statehood is fraught with state-sponsored abominations." In 1915 wealthy diners could sit in the Rundle Room of the Banff Springs Hotel and watch Ukrainian prisoners being put to forced labour building the hotel's golf course. "It must be impressed on Canadians that this is our reality, and it is not pristine," says Dr. Kordan. An acknowledgement that these things occurred, he says, is the best way to ensure that they will never happen again.

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

Copyright © 1996-1997 InfoUkes Inc.


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Originally Composed: Tuesday December 3rd 1996.
Date last modified: Thursday October 30th 1997.