Barbed Wire

More history, less dope

Written by Bohdan Kordan

The Toronto Star
4 May 1993

Barbed Wire

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Bohdan Kordan at Emerald Lake, site of a temporary work camp. Photo: Location shoot for Freedom had a Price.

In a recent letter to the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Jean Charest, leadership hopeful for the Progressive Conservative party and minister responsible for national parks, conveyed the recommendation of a 1991 National Historic Sites and Monuments Board meeting that a memorial commemorating the Castle Mountain internment site should not be contemplated.

Considering the significance of World War I internees in Canada's national parks, the Historic Sites Board stated: "The internment within Canada's national parks during World War I of ethnic Ukrainians, the great majority of whom were, at the time, citizens of countries at war with Canada, is not, in and of itself, of national historic significance."

Charest's decision has all the telltale signs of an uninformed judgment call.

One of the most striking features of the interpretive program in Canada's national parks is its pristine and untroubled presentation.

It is evident in the roadside markers pointing to the natural wonders of the park but which fail to mention to the anaesthetized traveller that the roads they drive on are paved with the toil, sweat and anguish of thousands of interned laborers. The same laborers, who, invited to the country in times of plenty, were rejected in times of crisis.

It is evident in the vista on the reverse side of the old Canadian $10 bill displaying the majesty of the mountains and clear waters of Emerald Lake, made accessible by the trails and roads built by internees whose temporary camp was cradled by the glacial valley but of which there can be no mention. It is also evident in the official histories of the mountain parks that, consciously or unconsciously, all but avoid topics that may prove awkward.

So what are we to make of the 17 members of the minister's statutory advisory committee on historical matters, that the minister is so proud to say represent all provinces and territories of Canada?

Not much, especially if we consider that at the time of writing the recommendation, archivists at the National Archives were unaware that documents relating to internment were contained in national parks files because no historical research on the subject had ever been conducted.

What we have here, then, is a rationalization that serves in lieu of critical analysis and sound historical research. The argument "citizens of countries at war with Canada, is not in and of itself, of national historic significance" is convoluted if not confounding.

These individuals were an integral part of a Canadian community, many living and working in Canada for 10 or so years.

That the domestic situation - high unemployment and a recessionary economy - was made more difficult by xenophobia brought on by a global crisis did not absolve the state's responsibility to these people and to the general principle of rule of law.

What, therefore, can we make of the advisors committee's stand? Simply that representativeness does not substitute for good and informed advice.

Perhaps we can excuse Charest's impolitic statements as a product of youthfulness and a lack of political acumen. But as a leadership hopeful, some serious doubts are raised about his abilities.

For one whose reach is so far, his vision is short. If nothing else, he should have been alert to the fact that history is not made by 17 paid consultants sitting around a table - in fact, it is usually around such tables that history is concealed - and be sensitive to the role and place of those communities which have combined to make a tapestry of Canada's history.

At this point, Charest, aspiring as he is to national office, should concern himself less with the business of whether anyone cares if he smoked dope or not and more with those he offends through his lack of knowledge of the history of both the people and country he hopes to lead.

Bohdan Kordan is a member of the department of political studies at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan.

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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

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Originally Composed: Wednesday December 4th 1996.
Date last modified: Thursday October 30th 1997.