Barbed Wire

Injustice beneath the grass of Banff

Written by Lubomyr Luciuk

The Globe and Mail
22 September 1992

Barbed Wire

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Birch bark cross erected near the Castle Mountain internment camp site, Alberta (Photo courtesy of the Calgary branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress)

It was only a cross. It was 3 1/2 metres high, 1 1/2 metres wide, made of poplar. Erected by a roadway, set in concrete, it was to remind passers-by of a tragic, all-but-forgotten episode in Canadian history - the unwarranted imprisonment of thousands of innocent immigrants designated as "enemy aliens" during the First World War.

Nearby, someone had placed a small plaque to mark the location of the camp that held these unfortunates. At the foot of Alberta's Castle Mountain between 1915 and 1917, the prison-camp housed more than 600 souls, most of them Ukrainians. Under difficult conditions, they were put to work in what was then Rocky Mountain Park.

Today it's Banff National Park, the jewel in this country's national park system, visited by millions. But few Canadians or foreign guests know that some of the roads they drive on, the paths they follow and the golf-course they play on were built by imprisoned labourers.

When war broke out in August, 1914, western Ukrainian lands were still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So most of the 171,000 Ukrainian immigrants lured here to open up the prairie frontier came bearing Austro-Hungarian passports.

That was their downfall. Wartime hysteria and racist xenophobia created a hostile political atmosphere and several thousand single young men and a handful of women and children were imprisoned in 26 internment camps. Some were recent immigrants, some were born in Canada.

Despite being notified by the British Foreign Office in January, 1915, that Ukrainians and some other Eastern Europeans should be given preferential treatment as "friendly aliens," Ottawa continued to intern, disfranchise and otherwise mistreat these "dangerous foreigners," censoring their ethnic press, banning organizations and doing long-term harm to the Ukrainian-Canadian community.

There were serious economic losses. Some properties and valuables of "enemy aliens" were confiscated, and much of the wealth was never returned. Until a recent economic assessment by Price Waterhouse Ltd., the accounting firm, no one knew that those forced to work for low, government-set wages could claim compensation for lost earnings. The total is in the millions of dollars. The human costs remain incalculable.

Visiting Castle Mountain today is easy but visitors will probably miss the few relics that remain. Rusted barbed wire and tin cans, wooden fence posts and some whitewashed stones that once demarcated footpaths inside the wire litter the site. But nowhere in Banff National Park is there a display concerning the injustices done to "enemy aliens" three quarters of a century ago.

Despite nearly a decade of lobbying by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the government has yet to acknowledge that these internment operations were unjust or make any real effort at redress. The moral and legal precedent set years ago by the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement has been conveniently ignored. Ask what is being done and you will be told the matter is "under discussion in cabinet." It has been for years, even though Multiculturalism Minister Gerry Weiner promised in October, 1988, that it would be resolved "expeditiously."

A religious service was held at Castle Mountain in 1990 to honour the memory of those who suffered there. A similar memorial took place in Canada's first internment camp, Fort Henry near Kingston, Ont. Negotiations are under way to have a historic marker placed at the fort.

At Castle Mountain, a wreath was left behind. It soon disappeared. So did the cross and plaque put up in May this year. Both were torn down within weeks and the ground was levelled flat.

Why? Who doesn't want this injustice remembered? Who objects to a cross and a simple marker placed by a secondary road in a national park?

I do not know who erected the cross. I do not know who pulled it down. Probably Parks personnel - in a conversation in Banff, one of them said the administration would "never" agree to a commemorative marker or open-air display at the Castle Mountain site, as the Congress has requested. "Advertising" what happened would be "bad for business."

That makes me wonder. Does Parks Canada have an agenda to keep the public ignorant about this country's past? One of the department's own internal studies rejected the notion of marking the Castle Mountain site, apparently because that historical experience is considered irrelevant to the park's interpretive programs, which focus on natural history and recreation. But was Parks Canada set up to serve as a censor, a purveyor of only selected, palatable histories of this land?

What is upsetting is not a broken cross or even the lack of respect shown to the memory of the interned innocents.

At stake is whether we will bequeath an uncensored version of our nation's history to future generations of Canadians.

Lubomyr Luciuk is director of research for the Civil Liberties Commission of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

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