Ukrainian Internment in Canada

During Canada’s first national internment operations of 1914–20, 8,579 men, and some women and children, were interned by the Canadian government acting under the authority of the War Measures Act. While most were recent immigrants from the multinational Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires, some were Canadian-born or naturalized British subjects — most of the civilian internees came from the western Ukrainian regions of Galicia and Bukovyna. Held in 24 receiving stations and internment camps across the country — from Nanaimo, BC to Halifax, NS — these “second class” prisoners of war (POWs) were generally separated from “first class” German and Austrian POWs. Many were transported into the country’s frontier wildernesses and obliged to work for the profit of their jailers. Personal wealth and property was confiscated, not all of which was returned on parole or following the end of the internment operations.

Petawawa Internment Camp
Internees being marched off to dinner at the Petawawa internment camp during the First World War.

Discrimination and Prejudice

Canada’s first national internment operations were shaped by pre-war prejudices that were exacerbated by wartime xenophobia. Between 1891 and the outbreak of the First World War, some 170,000 Ukrainian immigrants arrived in Canada, lured to the Dominion with promises of freedom and free land (see also Dominion Lands Act).

Galician Immigrants
Galician (Ukrainian) immigrants at Québec, circa 1911.
Ukrainian women cutting logs at Athabasca, Alta, 1930 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-19134).
Ukrainian Settler
Ivan Lupul's Ukrainian home at Wostok, Alberta.

Only a few years after these pioneer settlers arrived in the North-West Territories, a clergyman, Father Moris, expressed his loathing for them in Calgary’s Daily Herald (27 January 1899): “As for the Galicians I have not met a single person in the whole of the North West who is sympathetic to them. They are, from the point of view of civilization, 10 times lower than the Indians. They have not the least idea of sanitation. In their personal habits and acts [they] resemble animals, and even in the streets of Edmonton, when they come to market, men, women, and children, would, if unchecked, turn the place into a common sewer.”

Such bigotry persisted in the immediate post-war period. An inflammatory editorial in the 10 February 1919 Winnipeg Telegram demanding “Enemy Aliens Must Go” questioned whether it was necessary to “import a race of inferior beings to do our work” or right for returning soldiers “to compete with the bohunks of Central Europe, who have been accustomed in their own country to submit to being driven like cattle, who are ignorant of every principle of sanitation, and lost to all sense of decency in living conditions.” The writer insisted that returned soldiers or any other “white man” must be given decent working conditions and “if those conditions in any occupation at present are unfitted for a white man then they must be made fit. It will then be unnecessary to depend upon enemy aliens for labor to develop the resources of Canada.” Evidently, the Ukrainians, Croatians, Serbs, Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans herded into Canadian “concentration camps” were not as White as some label them today — instead being racialized “others.”

 Internment Camp No. 2
Edgewood, BC, ca. 1916.
Internment Camp No. 2
Edgewood, BC, ca. 1916.
Morrissey Internment Camp, BC, ca. 1916-18.

Internment of Ukrainian Canadians

Several thousand people were imprisoned under the authority of the War Measures Act, which was adopted by Parliament on 22 August 1914 and gave the government sweeping powers to suspend civil liberties and govern by order-in-council. Approximately 80,000 people were obliged to register as “enemy aliens,” compelled to report regularly to the police and subjected to other state-sanctioned censures, including restrictions of their freedom of speech, movement and association. The passage of the Wartime Elections Act in September 1917 disenfranchised those who came to Canada after March 1902, undercutting any prospect of them protesting their mistreatment by voting against the Union Government. Ironically, even as the wives and daughters of men serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force were given the right to vote in 1917, thousands of “enemy aliens” were stripped of their right to do so.

“It is quite probable that if [the Wartime Elections Act] becomes law the alleged ‘foreigners’ and hitherto ‘naturalized’ Canadians will bear their reproach meekly, but they will have sown in their hearts the seeds of a bitterness that can never be extirpated. The man whose honour has been mistrusted, and who has been singled out for national humiliation, will remember it and sooner or later it will have to be atoned for.” Daily British Whig, 7 September 1917

Internees were exploited for their labour in the national parks of Western Canada, building roads, clearing bush, cutting trails and even building a portion of the golf course at Banff. Others helped carve experimental farms out of the boreal wilderness at Kapuskasing, Ontario, and Spirit Lake, Quebec. Conditions were trying, the guards were sometimes brutal, and so resentment at what many regarded as their unjust confinement was widespread, provoking resistance, some passive such as work slowdowns. Other efforts were more determined, including escape attempts and even a massive riot involving some 1,200 internees at Kapuskasing in May 1916 that required the intervention of 300 armed soldiers before it was put down.

Clearing wood at the Spirit Lake Internment Camp, Abitibi, Quebec, ca. 1914-20.
Spirit Lake Internment Camp, Abitibi, Quebec, ca. 1914-20.

In total, 107 internees died in captivity, six shot dead while attempting to escape, others succumbing to infectious diseases, work-related injuries and suicide. In many cases, they were buried in unmarked graves or cemeteries far from their communities and loved ones, their final resting places all but forgotten. Decades later, a former Kapuskasing prisoner returned to pay his respects at the internee cemetery, recalling: “Here, the men who cleared the forests lay forgotten by the world as if they were made by another God. But I had not forgotten them. As I walked back into town, I remembered what we all promised each other in the camp. We were going to tell the world about how we were tortured, and it would become part of history.”

Though many internees were paroled in 1916–17 — as labour needs obligated Ottawa to review internal security measures that kept otherwise able-bodied men behind barbed wire — those released remained subject to reporting conditions, left neither free nor forgotten. When revolutionary upheavals in the Tsarist empire, followed by the Bolshevik coup d’état of October 1917, precipitated a Red Scare, additional arrests occurred, precipitating a second wave of confinements, sometimes in notorious prisons such as the Kingston Penitentiary.

Wasyl Hasiuk's certificate of release from the internment camp at Kapuskasing, Ontario, 14 June 1916.

Selective expulsions of “dangerous foreigners” and “radical aliens” were common in the early post-war period, with some 1,000 men deported from the Kapuskasing internment camp alone. Despite the end of fighting on the Western Front following the signing of an armistice on 11 November 1918, the Internment Operations Branch, commanded by Sir William Dillon Otter, remained active until June 1920.

Anti-foreigner prejudices persisted. Herbert S. Clements, MP (Comox-Alberni), declared on 24 March 1919: “I say unhesitatingly that every enemy alien who was interned during the war is today just as much an enemy as he was during the war, and I demand of this Government that each and every alien in this dominion should be deported at the earliest opportunity. Cattle ships are good enough for them.” Such intolerance was echoed by Hugh Macdonald, Sir John A. Macdonald’s son. Writing as a magistrate, he addressed Arthur Meighen, acting minister of justice, on 3 July 1919. Referring to the Ruthenians, Russians, Poles and Jews he was dealing with in Manitoba as “a very bad and dangerous element,” he wrote: “Fear is the only agency that can be successfully employed to keep them within the law and I have no doubt that if the Dominion Government persists in the course that it is now adopting the foreign element here will soon be as gentle and easily controlled as a lot of sheep.”

Other Canadian statesmen stalwartly opposed unjust measures they felt undermined the architecture of Canadian society. Criticizing the Wartime Elections Act, Sir Wilfrid Laurier rose in the House of Commons on 10 September 1917 to say: “If it be said in Canada that the pledges which we have given to immigrants when inviting them to come to this country to settle with us, can be broken with impunity, that we will not trust these men, and that we will not be true to the promise which we made to them, then I despair of the future of this country.”

Official Records and Personal Accounts of Internment

Few internees left personal accounts of what happened, many being too ashamed or afraid to recount their experiences, even to family members or friends. The deliberate destruction of most official internment operation records decades later further erased this episode in Canadian history, though not every trace. Nick Olynyk, prisoner #98 at the Castle Mountain camp in Banff, wrote his wife: “As you know yourself there are men running away from here everyday because the conditions here are very poor, so that we cannot go on much longer, we are not getting enough to eat. We are as hungry as dogs. They are sending us to work, as they don’t believe us, and we are very weak.”

Katie Domytryk, then nine years old, wrote her father, arrested in Edmonton in March 1916, interned initially in the Lethbridge camp, then moved over 2,500 km east to the Spirit Lake camp in Quebec: “My dear father: We haven’t nothing to eat and they do not want to give us no wood. My mother has to go four times to get something to eat.… This shack is no good, my mother is going down town every day and I have to go with her and I don’t go to school at winter. It is cold in that shack. We your small children kiss your hands my dear father. Goodby my dear father. Come home right way.”

Women and children prisoners at the Spirit Lake Internment Camp, Abitibi, Quebec, ca. 1914-1920.

A letter published in Calgary’s Daily Herald on 29 February 1917 was signed by 12 women, reading: “We, the undersigned, Ukrainian and Austrian women, wish to bring before the notice of the women of Calgary [that] we came to this country to make Canada our future home. We are not spies. Thousands of our men are fighting under the British and Russian flags. We have been discharged from work because we are considered aliens but we are loyal to Canada. What are we to do if we cannot get work? Are we to starve or are we to be driven [to] a life of vice? Will not the women of Calgary speak for us?”

An article from Toronto’s Globe on 3 August 1918 read: “Under the order recently passed by the City Council the authorities at the City Hall have decided that an eight-weeks-old baby, born of Austrian parents, is an alien enemy, and it has been denied civic assistance at one of the hospitals.” It was reported that a kindly city official undertook to pay for the infant for two days to see if some way out of the difficulty could be found.

Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen

Corporal Filip Konowal, VC
Corporal Filip Konowal, VC. Unit: 47th (British Columbia) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (Imperial War Museums, Q69170)
Corporal Filip Konowal, VC
Konowal is the first and the only Ukrainian Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross, 1917 (Canada. Dept. of National Defence and Library and Archives Canada)

Many Ukrainians from the Tsarist empire enlisted voluntarily in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The most famous was Corporal Filip Konowal, whose valour at the Battle for Hill 70 in August 1917 was recognized with a Victoria Cross. They fought alongside thousands of “Austrian” Ukrainians who consciously misrepresented who they were in order to enlist. H.A. Mackie, (MP) Edmonton East, understood this. He informed Prime Minister Robert Borden, in October 1918: “To estimate the number of Ukrainians who have enlisted…would be very hard as they were enlisting in various battalions from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, but it is safe to say that…these people, per population, gave a larger percentage of men to the war than certain races in Canada have, after having enjoyed the privileges of British citizenship for a period of a century or more.”

Campaign for Recognition and Symbolic Redress

Efforts to secure acknowledgement and redress for Canada’s first national internment operations began in 1978, after Nick Sakaliuk provided testimony to Lubomyr Luciuk about his experiences as an internee at Fort Henry in Kingston and then in the Petawawa and Kapuskasing camps, telling a story the Ukrainian Canadian community had all but forgotten. Yet almost a decade would pass before a concerted campaign to right this historic injustice began, spearheaded by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) under the chairmanship of John B. Gregorovich.

Fort Henry, in Kingston, ON, being used as an internment camp during the First World War, ca. 1914-18.
Fort Henry, in Kingston, ON, being used as an internment camp. Photo ca. 1915-18.

Taking its cue from another survivor, Montreal-born Mary Manko Haskett, these activists accepted Haskett’s prescription that any campaign should be “about memory, not money.” Haskett was only six years old when she was exiled to the Spirit Lake camp where her younger sister Nellie perished. In January 1992, the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse produced a report, “Economic Losses of Ukrainian Canadians Resulting from Internment During World War I,” estimating that the losses suffered by victims of Canada’s first national internment operations could be valued between $21.6 and $32.5 million (in 1991 dollars); however, an official apology was never requested nor was individual compensation to survivors or their descendants sought. Haskett believed that contemporary society need not bear direct responsibility for what happened to her family, her or the other internees decades earlier. Despite articulating this stance, UCCLA’s volunteers were confronted by ignorance, indifference and even hostility on the part of some federal bureaucrats and politicians, obliging them to make concerted efforts to raise public awareness through initiatives such as the installation of historical markers and statues, beginning with a trilingual plaque unveiled by a Spirit Lake camp survivor, Stefa Mielniczuk, at Fort Henry on 4 August 1994.

Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act

These decades-long efforts were significantly advanced after Conservative MP Inky Mark submitted private member’s Bill C-331. Mark’s family had endured the Chinese Head Tax and so he understood the debilitating impact of racial discrimination. When the Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act became law on 25 November 2005, the stage was set for formal negotiations between the Government of Canada, the UCCLA, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko. On 9 May 2008, the Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund was established. An inclusive body, representing all ethnocultural communities affected by the internment operations, the CFWWIRF manages a $10-million fund dedicated to supporting commemorative and educational projects recalling Canada’s first national internment operations. Symbolically, the settlement was signed in Toronto’s Stanley Barracks, a “receiving station” for internees from 14 December 1914 to 2 October 1916.

Legacy and Significance

During the First World War, thousands of Eastern Europeans found themselves targeted for internment and other repressive measures not because of any wrong they had done but only because of where they had come from, who they were. The crippling legacy of what happened to them would endure and would be detected decades later by an RCMP informant who, in August 1941, told his superiors how some Ukrainian Canadians were still “in fear of the barbed wire fence.” Reflecting on how the civil liberties of so many Canadians were abrogated on two subsequent occasions — during the Second World War and the 1970 October Crisis — a survivor, Mary Manko Haskett, reflected: “What was done to us was wrong. Because no one bothered to remember or learn about the wrong that was done to us it was done to others again, and yet again. Maybe there’s an even greater wrong in that.”

Further Reading

  • Donald Avery, Dangerous Foreigners: European Immigrant Workers and Labour Radicalism in Canada, 1886–1932 (1979)

  • Frances Swyripa and John Herd Thompson, eds, Loyalties in Conflict: Ukrainians in Canada during the Great War (1983)

  • Lubomyr Luciuk, In Fear of the Barbed Wire Fence: Canada’s First National Internment Operations and the Ukrainian Canadians, 1914–1920 (2001)

  • Ian Radforth, “Ethnic Minorities and Wartime Injustices: Redress Campaigns and Historical Narratives in Late Twentieth-Century Canada,” chap. 12 in Nicole Neatby and Peter Hodgins, eds., Settling and Unsettling Memories: Essays in Canadian Public History (2012)

  • Bohdan S. Kordan, No Free Man: Canada, the Great War, and the Enemy Alien Experience (2016)

External Links