This is what happened to our people

‘This is what happened to our people’

 

Stella Kosick Sloan, holding a book written by her sister, wants to spread word about the little-known internment of thousands of Ukrainians in Canada during the First World War. - Boaz Joseph / The Leader

Stella Kosick Sloan, holding a book written by her sister, wants to spread word about the little-known internment of thousands of Ukrainians in Canada during the First World War.

— image credit: Boaz Joseph / The Leader

One event in this story took place aboard a train a year after the war started.

A 23-year-old man was being secreted away for work. His people were being persecuted, and he had to keep his head down.

If the authorities about to board his train at a station found him and saw his identification papers, he would certainly be taken to what was already being called a concentration camp.

His travel mates, who had proper documents, saw what was about to happen.

Quickly, they threw a pile of clothing and baggage on top of him, saving him from captivity behind barbed wire.

He would have one other close call during the war, but managed to evade capture.

This didn’t happen in Europe and it wasn’t the Second World War.

It was in Edmonton in 1915, on a train from Saskatchewan that was headed for the Peace River Region.

The 23-year-old was Fred Kosyk (born in 1892), who was to become Fred Kocuk, and then finally Kosick – such was the fate of a man always on the move to avoid the internment that thousands of Ukrainians experienced in Canada during the First World War.

Photo: Fred Kosick with his wife Katherine in a photo taken between 1920 and 1939.

Kosick immigrated in 1910, during the second decade of federally planned Ukrainian immigration.

For several years, Canadian officials, running short of English-speaking immigrants interested in living in the Prairies, lured Ukrainians with promises of free land, gold-lined streets and an escape from the oppression they experienced by authorities at home in Central and Eastern Europe.

Instead, they found themselves pioneers breaking a harsh land under a callous bureaucracy.

Years later, out of economic necessity, many would become migratory workers rather than farmers.

Ukrainians were described by Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton (1895-1905) as “stalwart peasants in sheepskin coats” – not a term of endearment – who were sturdy enough for the dangerous and backbreaking pioneering that was necessary in places such as Mayfair, Saskatchewan, about 140 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, where Kosick first began to build a homestead.

Four years later, married to Katherine Hancheryk and with his first kids, he was on the run, as Canada joined Great Britain in The Great War against the Central Powers, which included Austria-Hungary.

Under the War Measures Act, 80,000 Ukrainians (sometimes known as Galecians, Ruthenians, Bukovynians and Russians) in Canada were deemed enemy aliens; they were registered, closely monitored, and at a minimum, ordered to report to local officials on a regular basis.

They were under suspicion because being from Ruthenia or Bukovyna meant holding an Austrian passport, and Austria was at war against Russia, Britain’s ally.

At the time, Ukraine was not independent, and its people were spread out along the border of Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which included parts of present-day Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Romania and the former Yugoslavia.

To Canadian officials, one “sheepskin coat” was another.

Some didn’t realize that their lack of English skills landed them in trouble by confusing “proty” (“against” in Ukrainian) with the English word “pro” when asked if they were pro-German.

An estimated 8,500 citizens of Austria-Hungary, including about 5,000 Ukrainians, were interned in 24 camps throughout Canada, including eight in British Columbia: Nanaimo, Revelstoke, Fernie/Morrissey, Field, Edgewood, Monashee, Mara Lake and the largest, Vernon.

Whereas Germans were deemed more of a threat and held in urban areas where they could be watched more diligently, Ukrainians considered a high risk (about one in 10, including some women and children) were sent to remote areas, made to build their own fencing and lodging, and then work in lumber camps and coal mines and forced to clear land and build railroads.

Working in primitive conditions, they were paid 25 cents per day (a dollar less than soldiers) and worked six days a week. They were sometimes mistreated by guards.

Banff, AB, with many of its tourist spots (including the Banff Springs Hotel) built by Ukrainian hands in almost slave-like conditions, was among the worst places of abuse.

The internment camps in Vernon, and Kapuskasing, in Northern Ontario, were not closed until 1920, about 16 months after the war ended.

After the war, much of the property that was taken by the Canadian government was not returned and many documents were destroyed in the years to follow.

According to the Ukrainian Civil Liberties Association, PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that confiscated possessions, auctioned off by the Canadian government at the end of the First World War, would now be worth $33-35 million.

Fred Kosick never got his land back, and his daughter, 77-year-old daughter Stella Kosick Sloan, who lives in Surrey, still has questions about what happened and hasn’t found many records of his property.

She knows that he managed to avoid internment during the war, but not much more than the generalities – and stories pieced together by her sister Mary Kosick Goodwin, who wrote a book about the subject.

(Mary Kosick Goodwin, 92 and living in Nanaimo, was unavailable for an interview for this story).

Photo: The family gathers for the Kosicks’ 60th anniversary in 1975. Fred and Katherine are in the front row, third and fourth from left.

Fred, who died in 1977, never spoke to his family about his past.

“It was a closed chapter of a book to him,” says Stella.

Her memories of growing up involved regular family life – with nine siblings – in Saskatchewan in the 1930s and ’40s: The local churches, the singing, the dancing, the plays, the walks of two to five miles to school in 30-40 below-zero temperatures.

Her family has photos going back decades posted at www.kosickfamily.net

Today, few Canadians are aware of the internment – which happened more than two decades before the more famous incarceration of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War.

“There’s a whole layer of hidden stories – attic memories of Ukrainians, and other Canadians who suffered the indignity of being called enemy aliens,” says Dr. Lubomyr Luciuk, professor of political geography at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont.

“It’s a pretty traumatic experience to be interned or branded… it raises questions about citizenship, loyalty and identity.”

Many of the victims’ family members – and a handful of survivors – have told him over they years how Ukrainians in Canada at the time were abused, shaken down for money and forced to report to authorities at regular intervals.

Luciuk, who led a campaign for the federal government to acknowledge its past starting in the mid-1980s, says there was no formal redress until 2008, when the Harper government set up a $10-million Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund to support projects commemorating the experience of the thousands of Ukrainians and other Europeans interned between 1914 and 1920, and others who suffered a suspension of their civil liberties.

Even during his redress and public education campaign, some Ukrainians told Luciuk that he might stir up trouble by bringing up the subject – so long-lasting was their embarrassment and fear.

But it’s a story – a history – which Stella Kosick continues to investigate and to share with others.

“This is what happened to our people,” she says. “It’s been a hundred years.”