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Remember Canada’s internment camps

Article appeared in the Winnipeg Sun on Tuesday, November 10th

The year 2016 will mark the 125th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. Last year Canadians of Ukrainian heritage acknowledged the 100th anniversary of the First World War Internment Operations in Canada. The process evolved in the form 1891-1914 when more than 170,000 individuals, primarily Ukrainians, settled throughout Canada.
The Great War of 1914-1918 created difficulty for new Canadians to become natural citizens. Many Ukrainians came from a region that was under the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the start the First World War. The Canadian government under Sir Wilfred Laurier introduced internment camps between the years 1914 and 1920 fearing Ukrainians and other eastern European immigrants would have some affiliation with the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Canada implemented The War Measures Act on August 22, 1914 which led to Canada’s first national internment operation. This internment campaign 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 was not because of anything they had done but only because of where they had come from.

These new citizens were lured to Canada with promises of freedom and free land and yet suddenly found themselves as “enemy aliens” placed into 24 concentration camps, forced to do heavy labour, their valuables and property confiscated. It is important to note that women and children were held in two internment camps, one in Vernon, BC and the other in Spirit Lake, QC. The men internees were spread throughout Canada in the other 22 locations forced to do heavy labour. Some 8,579 Ukrainian-Canadians were sent to these camps and others were branded 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. Then on the opposite side of the spectrum, thousands of innocent Ukrainians and other Europeans constituted the majority of the civilian internees.

The Ukrainian community in Canada since Jean Chretien’s time has been asking to raise consciousness about Canada’s first national internment operation, not looking for compensation but to recognize and make aware of this dark period in Canada’s history. The request is to support commemorative and educational initiatives to recall what happened to Ukrainians and other Europeans from 1914 to 1920.

internment_statueThe government of Canada has listened and recognized the first national internment camps. In doing so, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Manitoba Provincial Council addressed a symposium in Winnipeg recently held an official unveiling of an internment statue by the Ukrainian Canadian community on the Manitoba Legislative grounds. As a Canadian of Ukrainian background it was an honour to be present at this commemorative event with many distinguished representatives from all levels of government and many Manitoba’s cultural community members. Hopefully Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will officially address October 28th as a National Internment Commemorative Day in the House of Commons to acknowledge annually this forgotten tragedy in Canadian history.

About The Author

Peter J. Manastyrsky an active member of the Winnipeg’s Ukrainian community.

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