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Observe National Internment Commemoration Day

Oct 20, 2021 | Editorials, Featured

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

October 28 is National Internment Commemoration Day in Canada. On that day in 1914, the Government passed an Order-in-Council which expanded the scope of the August 1914 War Measures Act which started the registration of enemy aliens. This, in turn, led to Canada’s First National Internment Operations (1914-1920). Under that policy carried out between 1914 and 1920, 8,579 men, and some women and children, were interned as “enemy aliens” by the Canadian government, acting under the authority of the War Measures Act. That number included 5,954 Austro-Hungarians, most of whom were ethnic Ukrainians, although they were not recognized by that name at that time. Most often they were referred to as Ruthenians, or by the region they came from, as Galicians or Bukovynians.

That the majority of the internees were Ukrainian was no accident. They were singled out because they were considered the lowest of the low in Canadian society at that time. As a clergyman, Father Moris stated in Calgary’s Daily Herald on January 27, 1899: “As for the Galicians I have not met a single person in the whole of the North West who is sympathetic to them. They are, from the point of view of civilization, 10 times lower than the Indians. They have not the least idea of sanitation. In their personal habits and acts [they] resemble animals, and even in the streets of Edmonton, when they come to market, men, women and children, would, if unchecked, turn the place into a common sewer.”

What is also significant is that they were interned by the government of Sir Robert Borden against the advice of British authorities who urged Canada not to act indiscriminately against subject nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as they were in fact friendly to the British Empire. And it was quite unusual for Ottawa to buck London at that time since Canada had not yet become independent and its foreign policy was guided by the United Kingdom. When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Canada was automatically at war as well. Having gained independence under the 1931 Statute of Westminster, Canada waited a full week to declare war on Germany in 1939, and that came after a parliamentary debate and vote. It is also significant to note that the internment operation ended almost two years after the end of World War I.

Held in 24 receiving stations and internment camps across the country – from Nanaimo on the Pacific, to Halifax on the Atlantic, the internees were used as virtual slave labor. Much of their work was conducted in the national parks of western Canada, building roads, clearing bush, cutting trails and even building a portion of the golf course at Banff, Alberta. Others helped carve experimental farms out of the boreal wilderness at Kapuskasing, Ontario, and Spirit Lake, Quebec. Conditions were trying, the guards were sometimes brutal, and therefore resentment at what many regarded as their unjust confinement was widespread, provoking resistance, some passive such as work slowdowns. Other efforts were more determined, including escape attempts and even a massive riot involving some 1,200 internees at Kapuskasing in May 1916 that required the intervention of 300 armed soldiers before it was put down.

In total, 107 internees died in captivity, six were shot dead while attempting to escape, others succumbed to infectious diseases, work-related injuries and suicide. In many cases, they were buried in unmarked graves or cemeteries far from their communities and loved ones, their final resting places all but forgotten.

To mark this day, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress strongly encourages its branches and provincial councils to organize commemorative events related to it. Here are some of the suggested activities:

  • Organize a joint commemorative service/Panakhyda with local Ukrainian Canadian community at an internment camp site, local parish or commemorative plaque location;
  • Encourage students and Ukrainian youth organization to organize activities on the topic of Canada’s first national internment operations;
  • Write to local media about the centenary of internment;
  • Organize internment displays at local museums and civic buildings;
  • Organize screenings of films on the topic of internment such as: “That Never Happened (2018)”,”Jajo’s Secret (2009)”, “Freedom Had a Price (1994)”.

This year, the UCC has also launched a major online awareness campaign. This Internment Education Campaign will reach thousands of Canadians on various media platforms with emphasis on mobile devices and social media. The campaign will promote awareness of First World War Internment Operations using a series of innovative video ads and still images that will be featured on social media and with BellMedia partners (CTV News, TSN, Discovery Channel, etc).

So why should we remember the internment operations 100 years after the fact? UCC National Internment Commemoration Committee Chairperson Borys Sydoruk explains:

“On National Internment Commemoration Day, we remember the victims of this injustice and commit ourselves to ending oppression around the world. As we pay tribute to the victims of Canada’s First World War Internment Operations, we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of freedom and the dignity of all human beings – principles upon which our great country is built.

“By acknowledging that as Canadians we sometimes fail to adhere to our highest principles – we remind ourselves that we have a shared responsibility to ensure justice for all the citizens of Canada and all the world’s peoples.

“Reflecting on how the civil liberties of so many Canadians were revoked on two subsequent occasions — during the Second World War and the 1970 October Crisis — a child survivor of the Spirit Lake internment camp in northern Quebec, Mary Manko Haskett, reflected: ‘What was done to us was wrong. Because no one bothered to remember or learn about the wrong that was done to us it was done to others again, and yet again. Maybe there’s an even greater wrong in that’.”

So please remember and commemorate this day and take some personal initiative to make a difference. As the renowned philosopher George Santayana put it: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

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