Information on 100th Anniversary of Internment of Ukrainians and Other Europeans in Canada during the First World War

Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

What is it?

In response to the outbreak of the First World War, Canada implemented The War Measures Act on 22 August 1914, which led to Canada’s first national internment operations – the needless, forced internment of 8,579 Eastern Europeans, branded as “enemy aliens”, in 24 internment camps located across Canada from 1914 to 1920. These prisoners, part of Canada’s first national internment operations, came to the Dominion as peaceful immigrants desirous of becoming law-abiding Canadian citizens. Deprived of their freedom, and disenfranchised, many internees lost their personal wealth and were forced to do heavy labour on federal government projects. The first internment camp was opened on 18 August 1914 at Fort Henry, in Kingston, ON; the last internment camp was closed on 24 February 1920 in Kapuskasing, ON, about 16 months after the end of the First World War.

Ukrainians, who immigrated to Canada from territories under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, made up the majority of internees (approx. 5,000) in the 24 concentration camps set up across Canada. Another 80,000 Europeans, mostly Ukrainians, were forced to register as “enemy aliens”, carry identity documents, and report to police authorities on a regular basis. Approximately 3,000 Germans were actual prisoners of war (POWs), but majority of internees were civilians. Ukrainians and other Europeans constituted the majority of the civilian internees – the so-called “second class” POWs – with Bulgarians, Croatians, Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Polish, Rumanians, Serbians, Slovaks, Slovenes, and others rounded up only because they originated from the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some internees were from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, such as Armenians and Alevi Kurds. Germans and Austrians were considered “first class POWs” and were interned in urban areas, while the so-called “second class POWs” were unjustly sent to the frontier hinterlands of Canada.

Women and children were held in two internment camps, one in Vernon, BC, and the other in Spirit Lake, QC. The male internees in the other 22 camps were mainly single, young men who immigrated to Canada with promises of free land and freedom. In fact, between 1891 and 1914, 170,000 Ukrainians immigrated to Canada in the hope of building a better life. However, a few internees were actually ‘naturalized’ British subjects or Canadian-born individuals. As many as 10,000 Ukrainian Canadians volunteered for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces during the First World War, and one, Corporal Filip Konowal, would go on to win the Victoria Cross.

Internees were obliged to do heavy labour under armed guard and were used to develop the Canadian infrastructure as “forced labourers”. They often worked six days a week in primitive conditions and were paid only 25 cents a day for their efforts. The internees helped develop Canada’s National Parks, the logging industry in Northern Ontario and Quebec, steel mills in Ontario and Nova Scotia, mines in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia, and British Columbia’s infrastructure.

Overall, many were subjected to various state-sanctioned indignities, including disenfranchisement (with the implementation of The War Time Elections Act in September 1917), restrictions on their freedom of speech, movement, and association, deportation, and the confiscation of all their wealth and possessions, some of which was never returned. In fact, the 1992 Price Waterhouse report, “Economic Losses of Ukrainian Canadians Resulting from Internment During World War I” estimated the pecuniary losses in 2006 to be between $32.5M and $43.3M due to lost wages, confiscated cash and possessions, among other things.

Why commemorate it?

The effect of the forced internment was devastating to those interned, as well as their friends and families, and it had a lasting impact on the Ukrainian Canadian community as a whole and its development in Canada. And yet, most Canadians are unaware of this dark period in Canada’s history.

On 25 November 2005 MP Inky Mark’s private member’s Bill C-331, Internment of Persons of Ukrainian Origin Recognition Act, received Royal Assent. Following negotiations with the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko, and the Government of Canada established the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund on 9 May 2008, to support commemorative and educational initiatives that recall what happened to Ukrainians and other Europeans during Canada’s first national internment operations of 1914 to 1920.

2014 was an important year in Ukrainian Canadian history as it marked the 100th anniversary of the First World War Internment Operations. Project CTO (One Hundred), which was sponsored by the CFWWIRF, in association with the UCCLF, was organized to commemorate this anniversary. Many events were held across Canada, with over 100 plaques recalling this historic injustice unveiled on the same date (22 August 2014) and time (11:00am local time) from coast to coast, starting with Amherst, NS and ending in Nanaimo, BC, two of the 24 internment camp sites. It was meant to be symbolic – 100 years ago, a wave of repression rippled across Canada as “enemy aliens” were forced into 24 internment camps, from coast to coast. In 2014, 100 years later, a wave of remembrance spread across Canada in commemoration of the thousands of victims of Canada’s first national internment operations. Additionally, the Endowment Council of the CFWWIRF and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Internment Committee officially designated October 28th as the National Internment Commemoration Day in Canada.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done in informing and educating the public about this dark period in Canada’s past. It is important to remember that men, women, and children suffered during Canada’s first national internment operations, not because of anything they had done, but only because of who they were and where they had come from. And this unjust treatment of individuals was repeated several times later in Canadian history when The War Measures Act was used during the Second World War against Canadians of German, Italian, and Japanese heritage, and in 1970 against some Quebecois. Therefore, it is important to educate all Canadians about this historic injustice that occurred over 100 years ago and to remind them of the importance of remaining vigilant in defence of human rights and civil liberties, especially during times of domestic and international crisis.