Some were killed while attempting to flee the barbed-wire confines of Canada’s internment camps. Others died by suicide, doing hard labour or from poor treatment. Often separated from their families, many lived in isolation and despair.
Successive governments in Ottawa, whether Liberal or Conservative, have never formally apologized for the First World War internment of Eastern Europeans, the majority of them Ukrainian, in what the government of the time called “concentration camps.” Years of lobbying eventually resulted in recognition – both by government act and memorial funding – of this sorry chapter in Canadian history.
But now a new national flagship exhibition in Banff National Park, which was built partly by forced labour, is mired in controversy.
A 1,000-square-foot pavilion titled Enemy Aliens, Prisoners of War: Canada’s First World War Internment Operations 1914-1920 opens this month in the birthplace of the national park system, and some experts are calling its content a government whitewash.
“Certain parties are not reconciled to the idea that you had an historical injustice and a wrong,” said Bohdan Kordan, a political scientist at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, who has written and consulted extensively on the topic.
Harsh terms, such as the phrase “concentration camps,” won’t appear. Racism has been played down, while other issues of the day, such as labour and global conflict, are highlighted. And the suffering felt in the camps is muted. A newspaper photograph of an escapee who was shot dead, for instance, will not appear.
“The government of Canada and Parks Canada looked to its own historians to craft this storyline that is much more palatable,” Prof. Kordan said. “In Banff, it’s been particularly unmovable,” he added.
“Why is that? Well, Banff is a jewel in the crown.”
When Britain entered the First World War in August, 1914, Canadian prime minister Robert Borden brought in the War Measures Act along with an order in council, which required those with “enemy nationality” to carry identity papers. Some were sent to the camps – 8,579 Eastern Europeans, including 5,000 Ukrainian Canadians, in 24 camps erected nationwide. Worth noting: The detainees were the same people Ottawa previously encouraged to come to Canada from lands under control of the oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The camps were places of forced labour used to build local infrastructure – roads, rail, even the camps themselves – and help churn the economy. Two camps were set up in Banff, one at Castle Mountain and the other in town adjacent to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Detainees helped construct the scenic Bow Valley Parkway, still a popular tourist drive through the park. One internee from the Castle Mountain site wrote about the miserable conditions in a letter to his wife: “We are hungry as dogs.”
By the end of the period, 107 detainees died in Canada’s camps, which stretched from British Columbia to the Maritimes.
Historians have long debated why any of this happened. Xenophobia, wartime anxiety as Canada sided with Britain against Austria-Hungary on European battlefields, and a homeland labour crunch were all cited as factors.
Wrongs such as the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, payment of discriminatory head taxes by Chinese immigrants and forced enrolment of aboriginal children into the residential school system, have been redressed through apologies and funding.
The Ukrainian Canadian community had never sought a formal apology for what happened or compensation to the survivors or their descendants. But recognition of the “the unacceptable, the untenable, the unfathomable experience” of detainees finally came in 2005 by Paul Martin, then Liberal prime minister. Ottawa also passed the Internment of Persons of Ukrainian Origin Recognition Act, and in 2008, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, established a $10-million Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund to funnel money into education and memorial projects.
Parks Canada received $3.3-million in separate federal funding and the bulk went to the Banff pavilion. Focus groups were called, documents were submitted and some heated discussions ensued. Ultimately, Parks settled on 5,000 words of text as well as original photos and documents to explain a “complex part of Canadian history.”
“We wanted to ensure that it was an inclusive portrayal,” said Steve Malins, the project’s leader with Parks Canada in Banff. “We totally understand that this is a sensitive and painful time in Canada’s history.”
He acknowledged the controversy: “We’re trying to let the history speak for itself.”
Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, and a member of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said, “Some people in Parks Canada continue to deny or downplay what really happened during Canada’s first national internment operations.”
Ivan Grbesic, chairman of the recognition fund, which had input into the project, paused when asked if he’s satisfied with the results.
“That’s a loaded question,” he said. “The story has many sides and it all depends on who’s writing the story… Not everybody is satisfied with the final wording, but people are satisfied with the fact that there will be an exhibit and the story will be evident to those visiting the site.”
Andrea Malysh, whose great-grandfather was an internee in Spirit Lake, Que., will proudly attend the ceremony in Banff on June 20, exactly 93 years after the internment operations were officially over. Ms. Malysh said placing the exhibition in Banff, an international tourist destination, speaks volumes. “It’s the heart of the country,” she said, “and it was built on internee labour.”