National Symposium on Internment Operations

By Marta Iwanek

It was a meeting of minds. More than 50 activists, scholars, archivists, educators, museum curators, internee descendants and artists from across the country met together June 17 to 20, 2010,  at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. to discuss initiatives on how to commemorate and make known Canada’s first internment operations during WWI.A memorial service was held at Fort Henry to end the weekend Symposium on Internment Operations in Kingston, Ontario

“There are no more excuses that the money isn’t there,” said Lubomyr Luciuk, who was one of the key leaders in bringing the issue to light 25 years ago and now sits on the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund’s (CFWWIRF) Endowment Council which organized the conference. “Now we need ideas.”

Between 1914 and 1920, about 8,500 men, women and children, whom the government deemed as “enemy aliens” because they originated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were interned in 26 camps across Canada. About 5,000 were ethnic Ukrainians from Galicia or Bukovyna which fell under Austro-Hungarian rule at the time. Research and a campaign for redress began about 25 years ago, spearheaded by the Ukrainian Canadian community. In 2005, the Canadian government passed Bill C-331: Internment of Persons of Ukrainian Origin Recognition Act and in 2008 assigned a $10 million endowment fund for research and commemoration.

Topics during the conference brought up points on the importance of connecting the issue to bigger issues such as that of fundamental human rights and freedoms, how wartime xenophobia is just as relevant today, as well as humanizing the story and trying to tell individual stories of internees.

Work on the topic has been hardened by the fact that there are no more internment survivors and many of the original Canadian documents were destroyed by the government in the 1950s.

Bohdan Kordan, a researcher on the topic for 25 years and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said the symposium was a “cathartic” experience for him. He said he felt encouraged seeing all the different talents that could be used on the subject in one room together. “There’s a sense that we’re entering into a new phase, because from that symposium, there’s a lot of ideas about how to make this issue a part of the Canadian narrative.”

Through the help of a grant from the Endowment Council, he is beginning to culminate all his years of research into a scholarly book on the enemy alien experience during WWI.

FoAttendees of the Symposium on Internment Operations held in Kingston, Ontario, June 17 to 20.r others it was a learning experience. “I know my exhibit will change because of this weekend,” said Shirley Nickerson, manager of the Cumberland County Museum and Archives in Amherst, Nova Scotia, an area which had an internment camp. She said she didn’t realize how bad the internment camps were and didn’t feel like her exhibit reflected that. “I now know that they were somewhere they didn’t want to be and somewhere they didn’t deserve to be.”

Serbs, Hungarians, Croatians and others were also interned because of where they came from. Another 80,000 people, mostly Ukrainians were issued cards they had to carry at all times and were under police supervision.

Diane Dragasevich represented the Serbian Canadian community and is a member of the Endowment Council. She hopes that more Serbs will apply to Council with projects on the internment, but admits that awareness of the subject in the Serbian community is low.  Roughly estimating, 400-500 Serbs were interned. Most of them were single, young, new immigrant men who after their traumatic experiences most likely returned home. “We’ve got a lot of research to do,” she said. Dragasevich said the centennial of the internment operations in 2014 resonated throughout the conference. “The centennial is something to aim for to put things into context for that occasion. Whether it’s another commemoration, [or] whether we succeed in getting more information about the first national internment operations into the curriculum, we have a goal we can look forward to for 2014,” she said.

Some current projects the Endowment Council has helped fund include an internee exhibit at the Cave and Basin-Banff National Park, an interpretive museum at Spirit Lake Camp, Que., a book of photographs of all the internment camps by photographer Sandra Semchuk, and a 6 by 16 foot public mural in Prince George, B.C. by artist Betty Kovacic on the ethno-cultural experiences of communities affected by the internment operations.

Gordon Gordey, CEO of Ukrainian Shumka Dancers, also hopes to educate Canadians about the stories of the internees through art. “An artistic expression can connect to Canadians in an emotional way,” he said. The dance piece called Shumka Remembers: A tribute to those who served and wished to serve is a multimedia piece with a section designated to remembering the internment. However, Gordey said that after the symposium weekend, he is thinking of creating a separate dance, focusing on the large questions raised by Canada’s first internment operations. “On the one hand, when we enter into conflict, we fight for human rights. On the other hand, with internment, we took freedom away from individuals,” said Gordey.

The conference ended with a memorial service at Fort Henry, Canada’s first permanent internment camp. Ambassadors from Ukraine, Croatia, and Hungary, as well as the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Honourable Peter Milliken, were in attendance.

The symposium served as a way to give the Endowment Council direction and priorities for the future. “I think coming out of this symposium, the important thing is for the people who attended to carry forward the ideas that we heard,” Luciuk said. “It has to be spread to a much larger group than the core group in the Ukrainian community that began this campaign 25 years ago.”


1 - A memorial service was held at Fort Henry to end the weekend Symposium on Internment Operations in Kingston, Ontario

2 - Attendees of the Symposium on Internment Operations held in Kingston, Ontario, June 17 to 20.