Canadian Concentration Camps

Canadian History in the News: The past is always a part of the present. This blog series looks at current events and stories that have a Canadian history element to them and I offer my opinion on the subject.

More World War I stuff in the news; this time however the headlines are notably darker. “Remembering a time when Canadians were caged.” “A sad chapter in our history.” August 22, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the first implementation of the War Measures Act.


Men interned at the Stanley Barracks internment camp in Toronto. [Source: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 867.]

The internment of Eastern European immigrants throughout Canada from 1914 to 1920 is a rarely discussed topic. Canada’s first internment operation saw tens of thousands of civilians suddenly branded as “enemy aliens” as a result of widespread, xenophobic paranoia spurred by the war. Ukrainians, Germans, Bulgarians, Turks, and other Eastern Europeans were targeted by the government as a result of the War Measures Act. Ultimately, close to 8,600 were detained, denied habeas corpus, (the right to be brought before a judge following one’s arrest), and sent off to live and work in concentration camps. Those who were not interned faced higher levels of poverty and unemployment.


Luciuk, Lubomyr Y., ” A Time for Atonement”, The Limestone Press, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 1988, pages 4-5. Accessed from: http://www.infoukes.com/history/internment/gulag/

Deplorable living conditions and hard labour; life in one of Canada’s 24 camps was dismal. Men and women were divided by ethnicity and class (based on occupation and previous military service). Internees were forced to do construction and land clearing work and they were used as a low-cost labour source to build some of Canada’s national parks: Banff, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke, and Yoho. They were also instrumental in developing the logging industry, steel mills, and mines across the country and this benefit to Canadian corporations is why internment carried on two years after the war ended. Despite the awful conditions, most survived their ordeal as a final report on the camps noted that only just over a hundred died. Causes of death included disease, work injuries, failed escape attempts, and suicide.

Ottawa actually tried to cover up and ignore this chapter of Canadian history for decades. During the 1950s, the government went as far to destroy of a large percentage of official documents regarding WWI internment in Canada. With this in mind, the cross-country centennial commemoration that took place on this past Friday must have been all the more gratifying to those who fought for acknowledgement for years. 100 plaques dedicated to marking the internment were unveiled across 60 Canadian cities at Eastern European cultural hubs and churches.

An example of a plaque. The picture is of Ukrainian-Canadians interned at the Castle Mountain internment camp. What do you think of the plaque?

This subject ties into my previous ‘Canadian History in the News’ post about the politics of commemoration. Official recognition of Eastern European internment by the Canadian government did not occur until 2005. That’s over 90 years! As you can tell, I see this as an excellent step forward by the government. I personally do not remember learning about internment in Canada until I went to university and even then much of the focus was on what happened during World War II. That time involved the internment of Japanese, German, and Italian Canadians and it occurred on a much larger scale. Perhaps this commemoration will help get the ball rolling towards acknowledgement of other historical events that have been glossed over. Maybe?

Sources:

Internment of Ukrainians in Canada 1914-1920
http://www.infoukes.com/history/internment/

Banff National Park – Enemy Aliens, Prisoners of War: Canada’s First World War Internment Operations, 1914-1920
http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/banff/natcul/histoire-history/internement-internment.aspx

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