The plaque reads 'Recalling Canada's first national internment operations, 1914-1920' and depicts Ukrainian internees kept behind barbed wire.

WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER

The plaque reads 'Recalling Canada's first national internment operations, 1914-1920' and depicts Ukrainian internees kept behind barbed wire.

September 8, 2014
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

When the First World War began, Canada established internment camps to detain persons viewed as security risks. Prejudice and wartime paranoia led to the internment of several thousand immigrants, most of them Ukrainian civilians who had come from Galicia and Bukovyna.

A memorial plaque was unveiled in Edmonton's Ukrainian community centre as part of a nationwide initiative to mark the 100th anniversary of this dark chapter in Canadian history.

A campaign was started by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association in 1985 aimed at securing official acknowledgement and symbolic restitution for what happened. The association succeeded in conceiving and coordinating Project CTO, which saw 100 bilingual plaques unveiled at select sites across Canada.

The Ukrainian community of Edmonton unveiled its plaque Aug. 22 at the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex, 9615-153 Ave.

The plaque reads: "Recalling Canada's first national internment operations, 1914-1920" with a picture depicting internees kept behind barbed wire.

Immigrants coming to Canada at the turn of the century hoped to forge a new life and embrace new opportunities. Instead, Parliament enacted the War Measures Act, which led to the forced internment of legal immigrants who called Canada their new home.

"They were deemed to be enemy aliens only because of who they were and where they came from," said Yuri Andryjowycz, who emceed the plaque-unveiling ceremony.

FORCED INTO CAMPS

"Imagine their shock and dismay when the government began rounding them up and incarcerating them in internment camps. The national internments of 1914-1920 imprisoned over 8,500 Ukrainian Canadians and many other Eastern Europeans in 24 internment camps across the country," explained Andryjowycz.

The brief program included a prayer service in remembrance of the many victims of the internment operations, which included adults and children of Ukrainian, German, Hungarian, Serbian, Croatian and Armenian descent.

Leading a prayer and blessing the plaque was Father Anton Tarasenko, pastor at St. George's Ukrainian Catholic Parish.

"Our focus today is to commemorate the internees, raise awareness of what was done in the name of justice and righteousness, and educate others so this will never happen again," said Andryjowycz.

Those imprisoned were forced to do heavy labour for the profit of their jailers in blistering heat and mind-numbing cold, with poor rations and in miserable accommodations.

"When the First World War ended, the internees were returned to their families, but they were never quite the same," said Andryjowycz.

Jerry Bayrak and Bertha Mandrusiak are the children of Mary Bayrak, born in an internment camp in Quebec and the last known survivor of one of the camps. She died in 2008 at age 93.

"Growing up, we tried to be as un-Ukrainian as we possibly could. It was a way to survive. Today I am proud to say that I am a Canadian of Ukrainian heritage," said Bayrak.

He hopes the acknowledgement of the internment camps will become part of the school curriculum, and young people will learn the truth of their country's past.

Gene Zwozdesky, speaker of the Alberta Legislative Assembly, said 1914 to 1920 was not a proud time in Canadian history. "When men, women and children were imprisoned and held against their will behind barbed wire fences only because of their ethnicity, it didn't cause the world to stand up the way the world is standing up today.

"Today, when we look at events unfolding in Ukraine, we are reminded with heavy hearts of the price paid by our forebears, people who helped build this country," said Zwozdesky.

CRIME UNCOVERED

For decades, the Canadian government refused to acknowledge the existence of the internment camps. Zwozdesky said enterprising journalists and Ukrainian Canadians unveiled the truth, confirming that 24 such internment camps existed, including Castle Mountain Internment Camp in Banff.

"I have been to Banff to see the barbed wire that remains there as a constant reminder of what was hidden and even denied by historians and others, seemingly as though it had never occurred," he said.

Today, about one-fifth of Albertans claim Ukrainian ancestry, making it one of the largest Ukrainian communities outside of Ukraine.