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The Stories Were Not Told: Canada's First world War Internment Camps.

Unknown to most Canadians today, at the outbreak of the First World War, Parliament used the War Measure Act to designate which of Canada's citizens were now 'enemy aliens' and needed to be detained for security reasons. Having been encouraged to come to Canada, many people from eastern Europe now found that their previous homelands were, as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, enemy territory, and their loyalty to Canada suspect. Stories of lost lives and livelihoods reverberate in families to this day.

The British government urged Canada not to act indiscriminately against subject nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were in fact friendly to the British Army and hostile to Austro Hungary. Despite this caution, however, civilians from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were interned and treated differently.

Many enemy aliens had been doing hard physical labour under very bad conditions in Canada prior to war. It made sense, "from the federal government's point of view, to call upon them to perform the same kind of demanding work during their detention." The interned civilians identified themselves as Ukrainians, Poles, Italians, Bulgarians, Croatians, Armenians, Kurds, Serbians, Hungarians, Russians, Jews, Slovaks, Slovenes, Czechs, Romanians, and others.

Most were ethnic Ukrainians, Galicians and Bukovynians, whose lands were being ruled over by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This created a class system within the internment camps with the Germans being prisoners of war who did no forced labour and often lived under better conditions in camps such as Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario; the Citadel, Halifax, Nova Scotia; Vernon, British Columbia; and Amherst, Nova Scotia.

As one of the thousands who had to carry identity papers and report each month, former internee Nicholas (Nick) Lypka describes his experience in Yurij Luhovy's documentary film Freedom Had a Price: "I felt like a criminal. No one understood why I had to report to the police, every month, get my registration card stamped. I felt that I had lost all my freedom."

He recounts how five hundred unemployed workers gathered in Winnipeg when they heard that there was work in the United States. The younger men decided to go on foot, walking lawfully to the side, so as not to block traffic. When they reached Emerson, the Mounted Police were waiting for them. Lypka thought that perhaps they had work for them, but "Instead they fed us and took us to Brandon Detention camp. There were four hundred men, one hundred to a room, in single beds. The lights were left on all night."

They were stripped of what few possessions and money they had. Maksym Boyko lost everything, including a watch he brought from the old country, when he was picked up in Ottawa. Yurko Forchuk lost this homestead while imprisoned and then hid out after his escape. Enemy aliens were forced to labour at twenty-five cents a day, one-fifth of the going rate. Many did not receive money owed them, even upon their release. They became a form of cheap labour and a way of bringing dollars into communities that were struggling during the war. Also, in Freedom Had a Price, [Desmond] Morton explains, "In a lot of communities Ukrainians were interned because they were a threat and a charge on the local taxpayers and their rights were of no great significance. The work gave the local citizens a pretext to set up an internment camp with some corollary benefits, of course, that there would be contracts to build a camp, build the buildings, feed the people and so on, so that the local people, particularly of the right political stripes, could make a little money on the side."

In the winter, the internees were forced to get up early in freezing weather to labour cutting trees and clearing the land. The government did not want them to be seen to "laz[ing] about at government expense while Canadian soldiers lost their lives on the battlefields of Europe."

Dominion Parks Commissioner James Bernard Harkin could make use of their time and strength. He had a vision of Canadians' access to wilderness as a kind of tonic to help heal the Canadian soul after the war. With parks' budgets slashed in half when war was declared, Harkin made a deal with General Otter to use enemy aliens' labour to build roads and facilities in the mountain parks. The road around Lake Louise was built by internees with shovels and picks. It opened that area to tourists. The Banff Crag & Canyon published an article on September, 2,1916 called "Banff to Castle Mountain" that extolled the beauty of the area: "Three miles up further along the trail and the internment camp, a veritable white city, is reached." The writer goes on to describe staying overnight in the camp and awakening to a fine breakfast: "A substantial breakfast in the officer's mess, followed by the run to Banff in the fresh, cool air of the morning makes one think that this old world is a mighty pleasant place to be." The internees' reality was very different.

Internees laboured under guard all day with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows, and were inadequately fed. Each of the camps across Canada had a different agenda and designated work for the internees both for the camp itself and the immediate community or area. Shelter for the internees was provided by government buildings at Fort Henry in Kingston, the Citadel at Halifax, and the armouries in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Beauport, Quebec; in civic buildings such as the arena in Brandon, Manitoba; a hotel in Morrissey, British Columbia; and railway cabooses at Eaton, Saskatchewan, and Munson, Alberta. Where buildings were not available to house the internees, they were forced to build their own barracks or bunkhouses and to cut the wood to keep themselves warm. The town of Kapuskasing began as an experimental farm, cleared by the internees. Internees from Morrissey and Mara Lake worked to build roads through the mountains. Bridges, ice palaces, golf courses, railroads, and roads were constructed. With soldiers sent overseas, a shortage of workers in Canada made it lucrative to parole internees out to private businesses, companies, and farms at less than market rates. Farmers in the Brandon, Manitoba, area requested that internees work for them. Albert Bobyk spoke to me of how a woman farmer would ride a horse carrying a whip to keep the internees in line as they worked in the fields. Slave labour, he called it.

Of 309 attempted escapes, 136 were recaptured. Gwen Cash, a former reporter for the Vancouver's The Province and an officer's bride in the Vernon camp, wrote about the break from monotony that escape attempts created. One athletic German sailor jumped the wire entanglements and surrounding ditches just at the time that children from the city were being released from school. The guards didn't dare fire and he got away. Cash writes:
   Under the leadership of a young civil engineer, the
   prisoners tunneled from under the dining-room of the
   second-class prisoners. They used, we found afterwards,
   to carry loose dirt out in their pockets and put it down
   the holes in the floors of their shacks. The tunnel was
   about sixty yards long--went way under the barbed wire
   and ditches, which in summer were dry. One dark night
   the engineer leading the way escaped, but the second
   man, fat anyway, tried to take too much dunnage with
   him, dislodged some dust and sneezed. He, with eight
   others, was caught in the tunnel. After this the shacks
   were raised on piles but the prisoners, ever hopeful,
   started another. This time the authorities knew all about
   it from the beginning. Used to in fact go along it and
   inspect its progress. The prisoners were furious when,
   in the course of time, they found they had been allowed
   to dig to "keep them happy."


The authorities were astute in their psychological manipulation. For the prisoners, a sense of agency, being able to do something for themselves, would have helped them endure incarceration. The often-sophisticated attempts to escape in camps such as Amherst, Brandon, Castle Mountain, Lethbridge, Vernon, Kapuskasing, and Spirit Lake were an indication that internees were willing to risk their lives to get out of the camps. Ivan Hryhoryschuk was shot dead after escaping from the Spirit Lake Internment Camp on June 7, 1915. Eighteen-year-old Andrew Grapko was shot dead as he tried to get through a stable window in the Brandon arena. "In the wake of Grapko's death, the incidence of escape and insubordination at Brandon declined sharply," Melnycky writes, "as Ukrainian internees accepted their daily routine without great opposition. Other internees were controlled with the use of the pitchfork." Some, such as Yurko Forchuk, succeeded and changed their names to make new lives for themselves.

In the 1980s, my father spoke of the struggle First Nations in Canada endured. He talked about the creation of dependence as a national strategy: "We have done everything we can to put First Nations down and are doing everything we can to keep them down. By taking away their means of making a living and excluding them from the current economic model in Canada we made them dependent on us," he said. Control over time and the means for survival, food, shelter, and what the internees did on a daily basis, made internes dependent upon those who saw themselves on the side of the law. Dependence erodes self-esteem, the will to act on one's own or with others. Andy Antoniuk's uncle was the senior man in the family and a member of several community boards. One moment, contributing to family and society, and then imprisoned in Jasper the next moment.

Authorities questioned even harmless acts. Nick Lypka picked up shells from the bullets an officer had been arrogantly shooting off in the internees' dormitory. For that act he was put into a black hole for three days. The guard checked up on his prisoner to see "how he was liking it," Nick Lypka said. "Then one of our fellows came to see if I had a blanket. I slept on the floor without anything--there was no bed, no chair, no window, nothing. They just brought me a cup of water and one ration of bread: here, eat, like a dog." Lypka spoke of telling stories, "anything not to be alone, not to fall apart. But some of them did. Thinking about this is so painful. But we endured it. Who didn't live through it would not understand. War is good for no one."

Excerpted from The Stories Were Not Told by Sandra Semchuk [C] 2019. All rights reserved. Published by University of Alberta Press.

www.uap.ualberta.ca

Caption: LEFT: An internment camp at Morrissey BC. Internees were often seen as cheap labour to accomplish Projects in remote areas. (LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA).

Caption: ABOVE RIGHT: Rt. Hon. Robert Borden, Canadian Prime Minister 1911-20, with Winston Churchill in 1912. Borden offered the protection of law to all citizens but the War Measures Act made it possible to round up any deemed a 'security risk'.

Caption: ABOVE RIGHT: Understandably subdued Christmas celebrations are held in an internment camp in 1916. (LAC)

Caption: ABOVE: Entire families found themselves interned, here at Spirit Lake, Quebec, (LAC PA-i70S23)

Caption: ABOVE RIGHT: Government buildings were used to house internees. This is Fort Henry, Kingston, (LAC)

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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Title Annotation:HISTORY FEATURE
Author:Semchuk, Sandra
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2019
Words:1892
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