Many people are aware of the U.S. Japanese internment camps during World War Two. Internment camps, however, are not unique to that conflict. There were camps during the Boer War. During World War I, the Canadian government established enemy alien camps.
Who was considered an enemy alien? The bulk were Ukrainians (referred to at the time as Bukovynians, Galicians and Ruthenians), but enemy aliens also included Germans, Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Russians, Jews and Turks. These groups were thought to be sympathetic to the German and Austro-Hungarian war efforts.
The War Measures Act forced members of these ethnicities to register, carry identification papers and regularly report to police or local authorities. Those who refused, tried to leave the country or were suspected of being dangerous were interned.
According to the act, “No person who is held for deportation under this Act or under any regulation made thereunder, or is under arrest or detention as an alien enemy, or upon suspicion that he is an alien enemy, or to prevent his departure from Canada, shall be released upon bail or otherwise discharged or tried, without the consent of the Minister of Justice.”
Twenty-four camps and receiving stations were opened nationwide in 1914. The majority of the inmates were men, but wives and children had no choice other than to follow the head of household into imprisonment. In two camps, entire families were interned.
When a person entered the camps, the government confiscated all his possessions and property. Prisoners also had their correspondence censored and weren’t allowed access to newspapers.
Prisoners were required to do menial work such as cutting firewood. Some men were employed in construction or the railroad, earning 25 cents a day.
More than 80,000 people were registered. Of those, 8,579 men were interned along with 237 women and children. More than 5,000 of the interned were Ukrainian.
Sometimes there were riots. More often, there was disease and despair. Insanity and suicide were common.
The Camps Close
Conditions varied greatly from camp to camp and by social class. Those interned in first class were housed in comfortable conditions, but those categorized as Galicians, Ruthenians and Greek Catholic faced worse. Their camps were in areas that experience harsh weather, and they were forced into labor.
Most internment camps closed in 1916 when a labor shortage forced the government to release the imprisoned. Those who were released, however, continued to be tracked by the government.
A few camps remained open until the war ended, with the final camp closing in 1920.
In the prewar years, Ukrainians were recruited to farm the prairie provinces. When war broke out, they volunteered to fight for Canada, but if the government discovered their nationality, they were expelled from military service.
In 1917, the War Time Elections Act disenfranchised Ukrainians. The following year, Ukrainian language newspapers were made illegal.
After the war, several Ukrainians were deported as suspected communists.
Today, Ukrainian-Canadians hope this tragic part of history is not forgotten.
“Canadians today should not be apologizing for something your grandfather did to my grandfather,” Lubomyr Luciuk, member of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association told CTV. “Acknowledge it, perhaps provide some kind of symbolic redress, but the most important thing really is memory.”
The Canadian government launched the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund in 2008, officially recognizing those affected by internment. And in 2014, plaques commemorating the camps were unveiled.
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Updated: 16 October 2020
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