Barbed Wire

Atonement for the past

The Gazette
6 June 1993

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Roll call of internees, Kapuskasing internment camp. (Photo courtesy of the Ron Morel Museum)

It would be impossible to undo all the damage caused by the various discriminatory and racist deeds of past Canadian governments. But even after several decades, several gross injustices continue to cry out for redress.

Surely Ottawa can improve on its stingy offer last month to apologize to the half-dozen groups seeking redress, and to make some token gestures to some of the groups or individuals. The groups include Chinese, German, Italian, Ukrainian, Jewish and East Indian Canadians.

In 1988, Ottawa finally apologized and allocated $300 million to compensate Japanese Canadians for interning them and confiscating their property during World War II simply on the basis of their race. Their case was unique because of its scope: all ethnic Japanese, whether or not they were Canadian citizens (most were), were excluded from the West Coast.

But there were other cases where Canadian citizens were treated differently from other Canadians on account of their ethnicity.

The internment of more than 5,000 Ukrainians during World War I, of 700 Italians during World War II and a total of 4,000 Germans during both wars was less far-reaching. Most members of those communities were not interned. But there was much hysteria, prejudice, injustice and arbitrariness in the internments. And many - though probably not most - of those interned were Canadian citizens.

The Ukrainians' internment was particularly ridiculous. They were targeted because many were citizens of Austria-Hungary, which was at war with Canada. In fact, they had little sympathy for Austria, which held Ukraine in its empire.

Even if the detention of some ethnic Germans and ethnic Italians was perhaps warranted - German and Italy were indeed at war with Canada, and there was some risk of subversion - the lack of due process was inexcusable. So was the confiscation of their money and property. And many of those detained appear to have been chosen for flimsy reasons. Thousands of other Ukrainians, Italians and Germans were branded "enemy aliens," and suffered stigma and financial losses accordingly (for example, lost jobs).

Then there are the appalling abuses committed under Canada's racist immigration policies.

An exorbitant head tax - which rose as high as $500 - was collected from all Chinese immigrants from 1885 until Chinese immigration was halted in 1923 by the Chinese Exclusion Act. The policy discouraged or barred prospective immigrants and separated families, causing enormous suffering to Canadian residents (some of whom would have been citizens but for the racist citizenship policies of the day).

Ottawa has offered medals and certificates to head-tax payers and their survivors. Instead, it should refund the $23 million it collected. Refunds that cannot be made to individuals should be used to establish a community fund.

Canada also should atone for the racist policies that excluded some immigrants altogether. Individual compensation is impossible, but those policies resulted in horrible injustices, even in the deaths of innocent people.

Two incidents stand out.

The worst was Canada's refusal to admit 907 desperate German Jews on the ship St. Louis in 1939. Ottawa turned down their plea for admission after Cuba refused to honor their visas. Adrift in a sea of indifference and prejudice, they had to return to Europe and the Holocaust.

In another case, 376 Punjabis, mostly Sikhs, sailed to Vancouver on the Komagata Maru in 1914. They were kept aboard the ship in great suffering for two months while their case was heard under racist rules stacked against them. In the end, they were sent back to India.

Apologies, education and monuments at historic sites are indeed needed, although Ottawa's proposal to build a "Nation-Builders Hall of Record" at the new national archives sounds unnecessarily grandiose. But some cases merit monetary compensation. True, the government cannot begin to pay moral damages for pain and suffering, or even for all of the economic losses caused by its actions. The losses were too great, and anyway, one cannot rewrite history.

But Canada should at least have the decency to refund the ill-gotten money that was unjustly confiscated from internees and collected from immigrants. Where possible, it should be given to the people it was taken from, or their descendants. Otherwise it should be used to establish funds for their ethnic communities.

It is useful for Canadians to know the unvarnished truth about our history. Even today, Canada's self-perception as a tolerant, non-racist society is exaggerated. But the past is far worse. Ottawa should rethink its miserly offer.

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