Barbed Wire

Home front will test Canada's tolerance

Written by Desmond Morton

The Toronto Star
1 February 1991

Barbed Wire

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Major General Sir William Otter, 1917, Commandant, Internment Operations (Photo courtesy of National Archives of Canada)

Back in August, 1914, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire lumbered into mobilization, Bishop Nicholas Budka did his duty by the government that paid most of his wages. Solemnly, he reminded young men of his Orthodox faith of their duty to show up as reserve members of the Hapsburg army.

There was one small problem. Bishop Budka's diocese was based in Winnipeg in Canada, a country that had just gone to war with His Imperial and Royal Majesty, Franz Josef I. And news of Budka's mistimed patriotism helped make life a lot tougher for his fellow Ukrainians at the hands of their patriotic Canadian neighbors. It helped justify the internment of several thousand Ukrainian men whose chief offence was being unemployed in a deep Canadian recession.

Reaction to Budka took months to develop. Initially, Sir Robert Borden's Conservative government issued public statements urging tolerance and respect for people whose governments happened to be at war with the British Empire. As Ottawa struggled with the unfamiliar problems of being at war, it was notorious that anyone who really wanted to fight for Germany or the Hapsburgs had little problem slipping over to the United States. Yet as the war continued, with the inevitable tales of enemy atrocities mixed with enemy victories, popular hysteria rose. Communities, clergy, even trade unions insisted that the government lock up "enemy aliens." Miners at Nanaimo and the Crowsnest Pass went on strike until erstwhile comrades of foreign origin were put behind barbed wire. Perhaps Ottawa should have ignored the public storm but the Borden government expected an election in 1915 and was listening to voters.

Bishop Budka has long since been forgotten, not just by Ukrainian Canadians who want recompense for past injustices and old evils. Certainly Budka meant nothing to the Muslim imam in Edmonton whose response to the gulf war was to preach jihad against Canada's neighbor, friend and ally, the United States. Needless to say, this was a timely intervention only for bigots looking for an excuse to bully their Arab neighbors.

Any thoughtful person can understand the imam's passion. One can even understand the late Bishop Budka, though that does not undo the miserable experience of his contemporary co-religionists. Canadians can understand how old loyalties matter more than the frail affiliation to a Canada that, in normal times, scorns public expressions of patriotism as a dubious Americanism.

In December, 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought Canada in to the Pacific war, the Mackenzie King government considered issuing a proclamation reminding people of the loyalty and good citizenship of the 21,000 Japanese Canadians. Ministers rejected the idea, some of them on the claim that it was unnecessary to draw attention to what was obvious. Within weeks, the cabinet was making plans to intern those same Japanese Canadians on the argument that they could not be protected from attacks by bigoted, panic-stricken white neighbors.

These days, some Canadian Arabs are feeling a dose of what so-called "enemy aliens" felt back in 1914 or 1939 or 1941. School kids, with the cruelty of their species, make life miserable for Arab youngsters in the playground. Agents from CSIS, motivated by Saddam Hussein's appeals for Arab solidarity and his threats of worldwide terrorism, make their inquiries of people who have a well-founded terror of secret police. As the war continues and coalition forces face mounting casualties, setbacks and such sights as badly bruised pilots paraded on Iraqi television, will civility crack and shatter?

As in 1914, most Canadians start by promising themselves to be immensely tolerant and decent about the whole thing and gradually slip into the hideous old atavism that depicts the enemy as a subhuman monster.

The answer, for the majority, must be to cling to common sense and to understand. One can understand and even support the gulf war without turning Iraqis or even their leader into limbs of Satan. And vice versa. This is a war about power and a vital resource called oil. It is also, more sadly, a struggle between the technological power of the First World and the emotional power of a very significant part of the Third World. It is not a struggle between saints and devils.

If we can only remember that, we can save our own civility in the midst of a struggle none of us wanted but none of us can wholly escape.

Desmond Morton is an historian and principal of the Erindale campus, University of Toronto.

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Copyright © 1994 Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Copyright © 1994 Lubomyr Luciuk

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