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World War I Internment of Ukrainian Canadians

by Patrick Parkes

June 20, 2020 was the 100th anniversary of the end of Canada’s first wartime internment.  During World War I, some 80,000 Canadians of central and eastern European ancestry were declared “enemy aliens” and obliged to report regularly to police.  Almost 9000 of these “enemy aliens” (including some women and children) were selected for imprisonment in concentration camps (as they were then called) and many were used as slave labour.  Ethnic Ukrainians were disproportionately targeted, and made up the majority of internees.  Over one hundred internees died, mostly of disease and injuries.  A handful were killed attempting to escape, and there is evidence of internees being driven to suicide.


There were twenty-four concentration camps across Canada including nine in British Columbia, the nearest camp to Vancouver in Nanaimo.  Particularly notorious was the Castle Mountain Internment Camp, where prisoners were used (crassly) to develop infrastructure for tourists to Banff.  International observers condemned harsh conditions that violated the Hague Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.
In the 1950s, government archives related to Canada’s World War I internment were ordered to be incinerated.  For this reason, accurate data is hard to obtain, and many specific details are missing.

The internment was assisted by popular sentiment.  At the turn of the century it was uncontroversial to dehumanize Ukrainians (an 1899 Calgary Daily Herald editorialist wrote that Ukrainians “resemble animals”) and war hysteria made them a convenient target. 


During World War II, war hysteria again made it convenient to target groups who were unpopular, or whose ideas did not conform to received wisdom.  Early in World War II, Vancouver’s Ukrainian Hall was confiscated and its leaders jailed due to the AUUC’s support for the Soviet Union.  (The Hall was confiscated from 1940 to 1945. With the help of the Civil Liberties Association it was returned to the AUUC in January of 1945).   Japanese Canadians were targeted to a catastrophic degree, their internment also supported by the public at large, with mainstream community leaders (the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association as one notable example) openly expressing support.


The lesson to be learned is that when passions are inflamed and society finds itself moving dominantly in one direction, those with nonconforming identities and ideas invariably end up as “collateral damage” and are stripped of basic human rights such as freedom of movement and expression.  At such times we need to be self-critical and ensure that we do not assist such oppression. 
Above: Castle Mountain Internment Camp (1915-1917) - Castle Mountain Internment Camp Memorial Alongside Bow Valley Parkway at Castle Mountain. The Statue is Simply Titled "Why"   World War I Canadian internment camp established in 1915 near Castle Mountain, Alberta, Canada. Abandoned in 1917.​

Below: Canadian authorities rounded up thousands of immigrant families they considered "aliens of enemy nationality" in World War I. Photo shows women and children is from the Spirit Lake internment camp, Quebec. COURTESY OF THE UKRAINIAN CANADIAN CIVIL LIBERTIES ASSN
Spirit Lake photo.jpg
Further reading and viewing links:

Picture Book (family friendly):  Silver Threads

Ryan Boyko, Armistice Films: "The Camps" and "That Never Happened"

Canadian Geographic: That Never Happened Documentary

Internment Canada

Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Great War Centre

Freedom Had a Price 

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AUUC Mothers Day Tea.jpg
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