Barbed Wire

The Price of Freedom

Fran Ponomarenko interviews Yurij Luhovy

Number 40
Summer 1993

Barbed Wire

Filmmaker Yurij Luhovy's new feature documentary, Freedom Had A Price, has as its subject Canadian Internment Operations during World War I.

When Canada entered the war in 1914, the Borden government received support fro the implementation of The War Measures Act and the curtailment of the movements and activities of "enemy aliens" -immigrants from countries with which Canada was at war. Those categorized as "enemy aliens" were - under the terms of the same War Measures Act that would later be used against Japanese Canadians (1941) and the Quebecois (1970) - subject to either imprisonment or registration. Between 1914 and 1920, 8,579 "enemy aliens" were incarcerated. Of this number 817 were actual "prisoners of war" of German and Austrian origin. All the others were civilians who had immigrated to Canada and were working in this country. Most were in the process of obtaining their citizenship papers. There were 1,192 Germans, 205 Turks, 99 Bulgarians, 312 persons of miscellaneous origins, and 5,954 Austro-Hungarians made up of Croats, Serbs, Slovaks, Czechs, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, and Ukrainians. Ukrainians made up the overwhelming majority in this category - over 85%. A further 88,000 civilians were required to report regularly to the local police authorities, and these people were also designated as "enemy aliens." At this writing the Canadian government has not yet issued an apology, nor has it offered any kind of financial compensation for the monies confiscated from these individuals.

Luhovy has edited Race for the Bomb, The Mills of Power and Kanehsatake, 270 Years of Resistance, and is the producer of Harvest of Despair, which won a dozen international awards. He is currently producing and directing Paul Almond: A Profile.

FP: After you produced Harvest of Despair, the documentary about the artificial famine in Ukraine of 1933, you began work on several other films, including one about the Oka crisis. Now you're completing Freedom Had a Price about the Internment Operations during World War I. Can you tell me why you are drawn to these kinds of issues? And does your background have anything to do with this?

YL: I'd love to do more comedy, but I seem to be drawn to social issues. Perhaps I have an empathy for the underdog who is fighting to be rightfully recognized and understood in mainstream society. And as our attitudes and prejudices are shaped by everyday information in the mass media, I think I should use my craft to bring some attention to events which are not generally centre stage.

As for my background, well, my family were victims of various occupations - Hitler's and Stalin's. They suffered as a result of Soviet repression. and it's miraculous that my parents managed to make it to the West. One of my uncles was tortured to death in Ternopil prison by the Soviets for his defence of Ukrainian culture. Another uncle was sentenced to 25 years of hard labour in Siberia for being active in the Ukrainian underground. My grandfather was shipped in a box car to Kazahkstan. He died one year later. My aunt was captured and tortured to death in Berlin for being a member of the resistance. This story is the story of millions of Ukrainian families. That kind of history leaves its mark.

FP: What brought you to the idea of doing a film on the Internment Operations?

YL: This project has been on my mind since 1974, when I stumbled on information about the existence of internment camps during World War I. I'd heard about Spirit Lake Internment Camp in Quebec and, although I tried in earnest to find it on contemporary maps, I couldn't. So I approached a cartographer in Quebec City who helped me out. Spirit Lake turned out to be 8 km. from Amos. Later the name changed, and today it's called La Ferme.

I filmed the site with one of the original barracks still intact. When I returned last year, the barrack was no longer there. There were some efforts made to erect a plaque to commemorate the internees of Spirit Lake, but the people were listed as Austrians and Germans. Yet 1,200 Ukrainian internees had been sent there. All this gave me the urge to locate other internment camps to see if there was still any visible evidence elsewhere, and there was. My worry was whether enough photographs could still be found documenting the actual internment during World War I. During the 1950s many valuable documents were destroyed in the National Archives for reasons that have yet to be ascertained. The challenge was to hunt for private collections and in small museums, and I came up with the most extraordinary finds. Stylistically, in the film, I try wherever possible to use the technique of matching old photos to the actual sites today.

FP: During the process of filming you visited several of the sites of the internment camps. How many of these camps were there across Canada?

YL: There were 26 internment camps across Canada, plus 5 receiving stations. If you go to Castle Mountain in Alberta, you'll still find the barbed wire lying on the ground and posts with rusty nails in them. When we were in B.C. looking for the Field Internment Camp, we almost didn't find it. It was a Parks Canada employee who led us to the actual site. We made a gruelling trip on mountain bikes through the forest along a dirt path. I hadn't been on a bicycle for over twenty years! Because the camera was too heavy, it had to be dismantled, and each crew member carried a section of it. You can't imagine what we found. There at the bottom of a ravine stood the internment camp. Some of the original houses lay collapsed on the ground. The severe winter climate of this region, where the temperature drops to -60F, preserved not only the wood in the old structures, but even articles that the internees once wore. Coming out of that, I felt as if we were thrown 75 years back into the past. Many Canadians have probably visited some of the internment camps without even being aware of it, such as The Citadel in Halifax and Fort Henry in Kingston.

FP: You interview a few of the last survivors when you were making your film. How did they feel about your project?

YL: The first survivor I interviewed made a lasting impression on me. Nicholas Lypka of Winnipeg was interned in Brandon. Later he was transferred to Castle Mountain Internment Camp in Alberta. When I met him he was ninety-three and living in an old age home. He was a spry fellow. The day before I did the pre-interview with him, he told me he couldn't sleep all night, because this was the first time he would share his story. He cried when he described what happened to him and his friends in the camps. He saw all kinds of things, internees getting prodded with bayonets, slapped, and forbidden to speak. Lypka himself was put into solitary in the so-called "black holes," or dark cellars. The camp guards really abused and mistreated the men in this camp. They lived in horrible conditions. They slept on rubber sheets with only one blanket, the food was bad, and even when the men fainted on the job they were ordered to work.

Mary Haskett, another survivor, was six years old when she and her family were interned at Spirit Lake Camp. The Quebec camp and the one in Vernon, B.C. permitted wives and children. Mary's little sister died in the camp, and Mary told me that when she recounted her story to her children, they did not believe that such a thing could happen in Canada. It was only a few years ago that they realized their mother was telling the truth.

FP: What did you discover about daily existence in these camps?

YL: It varied somewhat from camp to camp. But there was a strict regime imposed by the military on the internees. After all, these were prisoners, with no recourse to the courts or to legal counsel. They generally worked ten hours a day. They cleared forest, built bridges, and expanded golf courses. The guards treated the internees as dangerous people, even though Major General William Otter, the Director of Internment Operations, tried to remind the guards that these were innocent civilians. Between 1915 and 1916 he closed several of the camps due to the continued abuse of the internees in some of the camps.

I guess the internment camp at Castle Mountain in Banff, where there were 600 prisoners and nearly 200 guards, was the harshest. According to existing documents in archives and in private collections both here and in the United States, and according to the historians I spoke to, torture was used on the prisoners. Internees were prodded with bayonets and even strung up by the wrists as punishment. I've also seen a photograph of a man with a yoke around his neck being dragged through the waters of the Bow River. How often this kind of thing was practised is not known.

In 1974 I interviewed a carpenter who worked at Spirit Lake, and he recalled seeing a prisoner bayoneted in the leg by a guard. It seems the reason for this punishment was that the prisoner had refused to work in a ditch full of water because his boots were completely torn and he didn't want to get sick. In letters written by the internees of various camps, you read about depression, bitterness and a total bewilderment about why they were imprisoned. The difficult working and living conditions and the enforced confinement not only undermined the health of the internees, but also shattered their nerves, and in some cases drove them completely mad.

FP: Was there any kind of resistance in the camps?

YL: Passive resistance was common, but strikes did occur at Spirit Lake Camp and there was a full scale riot at Kapuskasing in Ontario, involving some 1,200 prisoners and 333 guards. Some of the internees were shot. There were also numerous escape attempts. Ivan Hryhoryschuk was shot trying to flee Spirit Lake Camp. And a 17 year old, John Kondro, was killed trying to escape Castle Mountain Internment Camp. He was actually a Canadian citizen by this time. His was a tragic story. His father tried in numerous ways to obtain his release. In the meantime, John and some other internees couldn't take their incarceration any longer, and when they tried to make a run for it, they were shot by the guards. There were also a number of suicides.

The Glen Bow Museum in Calgary has an amazing collection of weapons and other artifacts made by the internees. There are makeshift shovels made of wood and tin, as well as a most ingenious fan that was used to provide oxygen in an underground tunnel. About 25 internees from the Lethbridge Camp escaped this way when they dug a tunnel underneath the barbed wire and fled to the American border. This is why Lethbridge Camp was closed.

FP: Why were so many Ukrainians targeted as "enemy aliens"? Over 5,000 were incarcerated.

YL: After 1890 Canada lured immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe to come here and clear land, build homesteads and provide a much-needed source of labour for various industries. About 170,000 Ukrainians arrived before World War I. But from 1913 to 1916 the unemployment levels in Canada were critical. And with widespread demonstrations in cities like Winnipeg, there was a build-up of anti-immigrant feeling among Anglo-Canadians. Unemployed migrant labourers became a good target. Add to this the war hysteria and the passing of The War Measures Act, and you can see how hostility to the `foreigner' grew. Internment became a social and political solution, even though there was absolutely no evidence of any disloyalty to Canada on the part of the Ukrainian Canadians. They just happened to be born in an area of Ukraine that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that made they suspect.

FP: A further 88,000 citizens, mainly Ukrainians, who were not incarcerated but who were nevertheless designated as "enemy aliens," were required to report regularly to the police. How were these people treated by the general Canadian population?

YL: They found themselves humiliated and harassed by the authorities and the public. There are accounts of many abuses that took place on the local level that went unchecked. Mayor Stephen Olynyk of Greenfield Park recently told me that his father had to register with the police every month and was continually threatened with internment. In addition, he was forced to pay $2 a month to a dishonest policeman who pocketed the money. In his fear, Mayor Olynyk's father paid. But this represented quite a sum of money for him, and it meant cutting back on food for his family.

FP: During this period a total of 143,000 Ukrainians were disenfranchised. This is a large number, and it included many who were already naturalized Canadians. Could you comment on why this took place?

YL: Yes, Canadians born in `enemy' countries and naturalized after March 31, 1902 were disenfranchised. This meant that they were not able to vote in federal elections in 1917 to 1919. This law affected the majority of Ukrainians living in Canada. This can only be seen as political manipulation. Prime Minister Robert Borden was entering elections in 1917 and was probably afraid of losing to the Liberals. So, this was a way to control the votes. It was the Minister of Justice, C.J. Doherty, who conceived this scheme.

FP: How do you think this experience has affected the Ukrainian community in Canada?

YL: Let's face it, that was a bad time to be a Ukrainian in Canada. Even as late as 1918 the government declared several Ukrainian language newspapers and organizations illegal. And right after the war during the period of the "Red Scare," hundreds of Ukrainians and other nationals were deported for fear they might be harbouring "Bolshevik ideas." As for the internment camps, some of them were kept operating until 1920. The internees were forever traumatized. In some cases this left a mark on the children who tried to hide the fact that their fathers had been arrested as "enemy aliens." It probably accelerated assimilation too. Canadian history books still do not address this episode, and its has only been in the last eight years that the Internment Operations have sparked a renewed interest among researchers and academics.

I'm still moved by my visits to the internment sites. At Kapuskasing, while the crew was packing their equipment, I returned alone and bid farewell to the internees. Feeling their presence around me, I promised that their story would be told.

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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.