Environment Minister Jean Charest betrays an unusual arrogance when he tells Ukrainian Canadians that the internment of immigrants during the First World War is "not, in and of itself, of national historic significance."
Does Charest own history? What would he think if the descendants of Alberta's first Ukrainian settlers told him that a certain battle on the Plains of Abraham had no national historic significance? Or that Quebec shouldn't bother to erect monuments to Louis-Joseph Papineau because the famous patriot lost the nationalist fight of 1937?
Charest might reply: "These historic events may not be significant to you on the Prairies, but to my family, and my province, they remain important."
He should look at the request from the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association in the same light. If First World War detainees, and their families, want historical markers at 25 prison sites and one interpretative centre at the Castle Mountain site in Banff National Park, they have already decided on the significance of the imprisonment. It is significant to them.
The request is hardly excessive. Charest could easily oblige, but instead chose to inform the Ukrainian group, rather abruptly, in February that the installation of a simple plaque at the Castle Mountain work camp was "precluded". By whom? On what grounds?
Canadian history doesn't belong to one cabinet minister any more than it belongs to the English and French colonial gentry who populated our school textbooks for generations. Some myths about Canada still need to be punctured: primarily, the nostalgic notion that this country was settled peacefully by bucolic farmers who spoke respectfully to one another in just two languages.
Canadians of all backgrounds need an occasional reality check. If the descendants of Ukrainian detainees, or indentured Chinese railway workers, or Japanese-Canadian fishermen, or aboriginal people still fighting for lost land, together force this country to abandon the blinders of a Road to Avonlea view of Canadian history, well, so much the better.
That said, the Ukrainian Canadians pushing Charest for a change in policy should not pin too much hope on 25 markers in the wilderness.
Historic plaques are slabs of metal, nothing more. They can't change history, settle old scores or even teach people very much about the past.
Even the most perceptive scholars will never completely fathom the decisions of the dead. It would take more than a few words on a roadside marker to explain why a wartime government interned 5,000 Ukrainian Canadians and other immigrants. And no government in 1993 can erase the pain of the detainees' experience even with a state apology. financial compensation, or a few terse words of regret in the House of Commons.
We have to live with history. We are not responsible for the actions of our grandparents. We have no more reason to feel guilty about their mistakes than to celebrate their achievements. That was their life; this is our own.
There is enough pain and joy in our own society, in our own time, to deplore and to celebrate. We owe our first apologies to the oppressed, and the forgotten, who live in our midst without hope. (Even more, we owe them our effort.) Our only obligation to history is to contemplate the past, learn what we can from it, and correct any living injustice where we find it.
A plaque at Castle Mountain? It's only a small way of bowing to ghosts. Even so, Ottawa should not stand in the way if Ukrainian Canadians want the country to acknowledge their history. Charest will only deepen their sense of grievance with his condescension.
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Document URL: http://www.infoukes.com/history/internment/booklet02/doc-079.html
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: Wednesday December 4th 1996.
Date last modified: Thursday October 30th 1997.