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A Forgotten History – Reflecting Ukrainian Canadians

There is one part of Canadian history that at times is vague and forgotten, not told in full, the internment of Ukrainians and other Europeans that settled in Canada during and after the First World War. The story about the time from 1914 to 1920 for the most part has remained untold.

The Great War of 1914 -1918 created difficulty for new Canadians to become natural citizens. Many Ukrainians came to Canada from a region that was under the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the start of the First World War. The Canadian government under Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier between the years 1914 and 1920 introduced internment camps throughout Canada. -known at the time as concentration camps. Why were these internment camps introduced? The Canadian government feared that Ukrainians and other eastern European immigrants would have some form of affiliation with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Therefore, Canada implemented The War Measures Act on August 22nd, 1914.

This Act led to Canada’s first national internment operation. Even though there was never any evidence of disloyalty, Ukrainians and other Europeans were imprisoned needlessly and forced to do heavy labour in 24 internment camps located in Canada’s frontier hinterland from coast to coast. These internment camps became a dark period in Canadian history. Thousands of innocent Ukrainians, Croatians, Slovenians, Serbs, Hungarians, Czechs, Italians, Jews, Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, Slovaks and other Europeans were unjustly interned in Canadian concentration camps during the First World War period. It is not because of anything they had done but only because of where they had come from.

These new Canadians were lured o Canada with promises of freedom and free land and yet suddenly found themselves as enemy aliens placed in camps, forced to do heavy labour, their valuables and properly confiscated. It is important to note that women and children were held in two internment camps, one in Vernon, British Columbia and the other in Spirit Lake, Quebec. The men internees were spread throughout Canada in the other 22 locations forced to do heavy labour. Some 8,579 Ukrainians-Canadians were sent to these camps and others were labeled as enemy aliens of the state.

This is an odd period in Canadian history where on one hand as many as 10,000 Ukrainian Canadians volunteered for service with the Canadian Forces during the First World War such as Corporal Filip Konowal who received the Victoria Cross medal. Then on the opposite side of the spectrum, thousands of innocent Ukrainians and other Europeans constituted most of the civilian internees.

The Ukrainian community in Canada since Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s time has been raising consciousness about Canada’s first national internment operation and making aware of this dark period in Canada’s history. In November of 2005, after a long grassroot campaign by the Ukrainian community, Bill C-331 recognized the internment of Ukrainian Canadians and called for negotiated settlement between the government of Canada and the Ukrainian community.

 In 2008, Canada established an Endowment Council to address the First World War Internment by allocating Funds to establish support in educating and commemorating this hollow memory in Canadian history. This reconciliation was made possible by the reclaiming of memory so that Canadians are always vigilant in defense of civil liberties and human rights, in times of national and international crisis. The day of October 28th has been officially addressed by the House of Commons as the National Internment Commemorative Day in Canada, acknowledging annually this forgotten tragedy in Canadian history.

About The Author

Peter J. Manastyrsky has written articles on political issues and a member of the Ukrainian community in Winnipeg.

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