Ukrainian association seeks to protect Spirit Lake Internment Camp cemetery

NEWS | FEBRUARY 22, 2016

Cemetery holds remains of 16 internees who died in the camp

Written by Mackenzie Burnett | Visual by Courtesy of Yurij Luhovy

It has been just over 100 years since the Spirit Lake internment camp opened in 1915 and 125 years since the beginning of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. The camp was located near Amos, six and a half hours away from Montreal.

This month, the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association is requesting the intervention of the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, to protect a cemetery containing the remains of 16 people who died at the Spirit Lake camp.

One of three internment camps in Quebec, the Spirit Lake camp was part of a national campaign to register an estimated 80,000 people and imprison 8,579 throughout the country. The majority of those who were interned were of Ukrainian heritage, from a region that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Spirit Lake camp would become the second largest of Quebec’s internment camps, as a result of the War Measures Act, and prejudice and panic during World War I.

Spirit Lake internee cemetery

Established by the Government of Canada in 2008, the Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund “has a formal mandate to secure and restore internee cemeteries.”

The council has done so successfully in Kapuskasing, Ontario and Fernie, British Columbia. According to a press release, “The Council has not, however, been able to acquire, repair, or re-consecrate the Spirit Lake internee cemetery, despite having made repeated inquiries over eight years, during which time the internee cemetery has further deteriorated.”

The land on which the cemetery is located was acquired in 1988 by a farming couple. Efforts made by the Spirit Lake Camp Corporation to incorporate the internee cemetery, or at least restore and secure limited rights of access, have been rebuffed by the owners.

Conditions in the camp

In an email to The Daily, Yurij Luhovy, an award-winning producer and director of Okradena Zemlya (“Stolen Land”), a documentary on the Holodomor 1932-33 famine-genocide in Soviet Ukraine, spoke about the conditions in the camps.

“It was grueling, strenuous hard work. Internees were used for hard labour with little pay. What little wealth some had, was confiscated. Some were bayonetted. Many suffered from accidents while cutting the wood,” he wrote.

“There was a pre-existing prejudice against these people in Canadian society that was exacerbated by war-time [panic].”

“[Internees] were forced not only to maintain the camps but to work for private concerns. Often they were mistreated by the guards. These harsh conditions and forced confinement took not only a physical but a mental toll on the internees,” he continued.

Lubomyr Luciuk, author and professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, told The Daily, “There was a pre-existing prejudice against these people in Canadian society that was exacerbated by war-time [panic].”

James Slobodian, chair of the Spirit Lake Center, told The Daily, “The people arrived on the first of January, 1915, in the cold. […] They left on the 28th of January, 1917, also in the winter.” He mentioned that “some were transferred to Kapuskasing, another camp, others were transferred down the Nova Scotia way.”

Legacy of internment

Canada’s World War I internment operations started in 1914 and ended in 1920, despite the war ending in 1918.

Luhovy wrote that, “Those that were interned felt humiliated, confused, not understanding why they were labelled ‘enemy aliens.’”

“Most of the people who went through the internment operations didn’t speak about it except perhaps in their own families.”

“As for the other Canadians, some were understanding and sympathetic to what the Ukrainians and others had endured, being unjustly interned,” he added. “Others, held an anti-immigrant feeling toward new immigrants arriving in Canada.”

Luciuk commented that “Most of [those who were interned] that I did get the chance to speak to said they preferred not to refer to or remember, most of the people who went through the internment operations didn’t speak about it except perhaps in their own families.”

In 2005, the Canadian government adopted the Internment of Persons of Ukrainian Origin Recognition Act, followed by the Canada First World War Internment Recognition Fund in 2008.

On the relationship between the Ukrainian Canadian community and the rest of Canada today, Luhovy wrote that it was very positive. He noted, however, that “It is important we know all aspects of Canadian history, and try to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.”

Cemetery almost lost to the forest


Interned Madonna statue.

Interned Madonna statue.

They have almost been forgotten.

The picket fence that segregated this hallowed ground from the surrounding boreal forest has collapsed. So have the wooden crosses that once marked their graves.

There are at least 16 bodies interred in a cemetery measuring only 35 by 25 metres. Most were men, a few were children. We know their names, thanks to the determined research of Vernon’s Lawrna Myers.

To protect what remains of their privacy, their surnames will not be repeated, save for one man’s — for his name was announced in newspapers published in those troubled times.

Six imprisoned infants perished of unknown causes between May 1915 and March 1916. Their names were Jeannette, Olga, Andrez, Jan and Carolka. Another boy, Iwan, died from an intestinal hemorrhage in December 1915.

Six men died between May 1915 and October 1916 — Pawlo, Aksenty, Geo, Wasyl, Stefan and Mike, taken by tuberculosis. Karol died in August 1915 from typhoid fever. Chronic nephritis killed Gregori in October 1916, and tubercular meningitis took Sotiri in January 1917.

Ivan Hryhoryschuk suffered a different fate. He was shot dead, on June 7, 1915, attempting to escape from the Spirit Lake internment camp. Ivan’s death warranted front-page coverage, for example, in the Manitoba Free Press of June 23, 1915. So the nation knew something about what was happening to those branded “enemy aliens” by the now-notorious War Measures Act. Most readers likely didn’t care.

Not all internees were recent immigrants. Some, like Carolka, were born in Montreal, making her a British subject. Her status did not matter. She became just another one of the victims of Canada’s first national internment operations, along with the rest of her family. His sister, Mary, one of the last survivors, explained why it was so important for Canadians to remember what happened in the First World War, reminding us it had happened again in the Second World War and yet again during the Quebecois Crisis in 1970. Standing on guard for civil liberties and human rights was particularly important, she counselled, in periods of domestic and international crisis. Perhaps if her little sister, Carolka, had not died at Spirit Lake, she, too ,would have been a mother, an aunt and a storyteller like Mary. She never got the chance.

At Spirit Lake (now La Ferme), in the Abitibi region of Quebec, the interned men were forced to work for the profit of their jailers and local businessmen, carving an experimental farm out of the woods, as other internees laboured likewise, to the west, at Kapuskasing. Many Spirit Lake prisoners had been residents of Montreal’s Pointe-St. Charles working class district, including parishioners of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian (Greek) Catholic Church. Additional internees were railroaded in from Petawawa, Beauport, Montreal, Kapuskasing, Toronto’s Stanley Barracks, Banff, and the Otter internment camp in British Columbia. At its maximum, the Spirit Lake population swelled to 1,312 internees, including some 60 families. Opened on Jan. 13, 1915, it was shut on Jan. 28, 1917 — Kapuskasing would not close its gates until Feb. 24, 1920, some 14 months after the end of the Great War.

When the American vice-consul, O. Gaylord Marsh, visited Spirit Lake in the autumn of 1915, the cemetery had a large cast-iron cross and several graves with cedar markers. By the time I first visited, in June 1999, one concrete and a few toppling wooden crosses were all that remained. By September 2008, most of those had fallen, so much so that even determining the locations of all 16 graves would have required concerted effort. This unique site is now in much, much worse condition, almost completely lost to the forest.

How did a Catholic cemetery established under federal authority fall into such disrepair? We know that in October 1918, soon after the military left, the Dominion Department of Agriculture assumed control over the property. Eventually, in May 1936, Ottawa let the province of Quebec have the land for a nominal sum. No one cared about the internee cemetery. The land was next sold to a farming couple in 1988. It’s now theirs. Whether they have ownership of the cemetery or of its skeletal occupants is another, more contentious, issue.

In the past few years, a permanent display about the Spirit Lake internment camp has been opened at La Ferme, largely thanks to the financial support of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund. Even earlier, a commemorative plaque (1999) and then a statute, titled “Interned Madonna,” were unveiled (2001). Unfortunately, every attempt to secure limited rights of access to the internee cemetery for the purposes of restoring and reconsecrating it have failed. Local feuds had made certain of that.

On Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s website, Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly is described as “a lawyer by training (who) is passionate about her city of Montreal and the power of positive politics.” That’s encouraging. For only the intervention of another Montrealer will recover the memory of the innocents transported from her city into the wilderness, whose tombs will forever be lost if she does not act, and soon.

Lubomyr Luciuk is a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College of Canada. The “Appeal” to Minister Joly is found at

Un bâtiment historique sous le pic des démolisseurs

L’ancien édifice des services de l’Immigration du Canada est en démolition. Le bâtiment fait pourtant l’objet d’un énoncé d’intérêt patrimonial de la part de l’Office de consultation publique de la Ville de Montréal. Sa destruction soulève à nouveau des questions sur la volonté de l’administration Coderre à protéger le patrimoine.

Un reportage de René Saint-LouisTwitterCourriel

Le bâtiment des services de l’Immigration, sur la rue Saint-Antoine, était l’unique vestige d’une époque où les migrants, provenant de pays en guerre contre le Canada, étaient internés. Construit en 1914, il servait de prison, surtout pour les Ukrainiens qui étaient ensuite répartis dans des camps d’internement à travers le pays.

Il est situé au 1162 rue Saint-Antoine Ouest, à proximité de deux édifices reconnus comme des lieux patrimoniaux du Canada : la gare Windsor et l’Édifice des postes. Il a été construit par Ross and Macdonald, l’un des cabinets d’architectes les plus marquants du début du 20e siècle. On lui doit entre autres la gare Union, le Maple Leaf Gardens à Toronto, le Château Laurier à Ottawa, l’édifice Price à Québec et l’ancien magasin Eaton à Montréal, devenu le Complexe les Ailes.

Pour le directeur des politiques à Héritage Montréal, Dinu Bumbaru, cette destruction n’est qu’un exemple parmi d’autres. Elle s’ajoute à celle de la maison Redpath, aux vestiges du Village des tanneries, et à l’agora Daudelin du square Viger.

« On n’est pas dans un univers très clair au niveau de ce qu’on entend par préservation. Il se peut fort bien que le règlement prévoie la préservation, mais que ça passe par la démolition. Ce n’est pas évident. Regardez la rue Saint-Laurent, à côté du Monument-National. Tout a été démoli, mais on dit qu’on a un programme de conservation du patrimoine là. »

Dinu Bumbaru soutient que la protection du patrimoine devrait faire partie des négociations entre le gouvernement du Québec et la Ville de Montréal, qui souhaite obtenir le statut de métropole.

« Il faudrait qu’on ait une discussion éclairée pour avoir une charte montréalaise du patrimoine. Et ça, ce n’est pas juste pour Montréal, mais ça devrait faire partie du statut de métropole pour l’ensemble de la région métropolitaine », a-t-il affirmé. Dinu Bumbaru soutient qu’une charte du patrimoine pourrait être un legs pour le 375e anniversaire de la ville.

L’autorisation de détruire le bâtiment des services de l’Immigration avait été demandée par le promoteur immobilier Cadillac-Fairview qui souhaite y construire une tour d’habitation de 37 étages.

Les élus de l’arrondissement Ville-Marie, dont le maire Denis Coderre, avaient autorisé la destruction du bâtiment en faisant fi des recommandations de l’Office de consultation publique et du Conseil du patrimoine de Montréal qui s’y opposaient.

Campaign revived to designate Quebec wartime cemetery a historic site

A cross marks a grave at an internment camp for those of “enemy nationality” at Spirit Lake in Quebec

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special

  • February 19, 2016

MONTREAL – A century ago, more than a thousand innocent men and boys were arrested during the First World War and shipped to an internment camp at Spirit Lake in the Abitibi region of Quebec, 600 km northwest of Montreal.

Many of them died in that wilderness outpost and at least 16 are buried in what today is an overgrown cemetery that should never be forgotten, says the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“At the very minimum this sacred space should be reconsecrated, repaired and restored,” said UCCLA chairman Roman Zakalunzny. “That would allow the descendants of those internees to hallow the memory of those who died at Spirit Lake.

“People were held behind barbed wire not because of any wrong they had done, but because of their ethnic origins, of who they were and where they had come from.”

Zakalunzny’s organization is leading a campaign to have the abandoned, century-old Ukrainian Catholic cemetery reconsecrated and declared a national historic site.

Most of the men and boys, all of Eastern European ancestry, who are buried in the graveyard died of tuberculosis. One of them was shot and killed trying to escape.

The internees were being held under the War Measures Act after being declared a risk to public security during the First World War.

The majority had been parishioners at St. Michael The Archangel Ukrainian (Greek) Catholic Church in Montreal. They were among the 8,579 innocent men, women and children arrested during the war because the government classified them as “an enemy nationality.” Held in 24 detention camps across the country, most were put to work at hard labour.

The Spirit Lake camp, which held 1,200 male internees, was the second largest internment camp in Canada. Women and children were interred at nearby Lilienville.

When the war ended the camps closed and the cemetery was largely forgotten.

The federal government sold the property to Quebec in 1936. After the province sold the land to a farmer in 1988, the cemetery in the wilderness fell into ruin. Little evidence of the graveyard or of the large cast-iron or wooden crosses which once marked its graves remains.

After years of lobbying by the UCCLA, the Liberal government of Paul Martin promised more than a decade ago to redress the injustice.

A statue of “The interned Madonna” was dedicated near Lilienville in 2001. Five years ago a $1.2-million interpretive centre commemorating the Spirit Lake camp opened in an old church at Trecession, Que.

The cemetery, however, is on private property beside the interpretive centre. It is almost inaccessible and relations between the farmer landowner and the corporation which runs the interpretive centre are strained.

James Slobodian, head of the foundation that runs the interpretive centre, says its board of directors and a special committee “are in the midst of crucial negotiations with the various parties involved in order to arrive at a positive outcome.”

The UCCLA wants Liberal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly to declare the cemetery a national historic site.

“We have been pleading for intervention for years,” said Royal Military College political geography professor Lubomyr Luciuk, a member of the UCCLA.

“We are very frustrated that nothing has happened. Somebody has dropped the ball.”

That said, Luciuk is not looking to put the blame on anyone for the lack of progress in restoring the cemetery.

“We don’t want to get involved in finger pointing at anyone. Our only interest is to protect the cemetery, put the fence and grave markers back up, and have it blessed and see if the farmer who owns the land will allow limited access.”

Petitions have been sent to all members of Parliament and senators. As well, Quebec Minister of Culture and Communications Helene David has been asked to protect the graveyard under the province’s Cultural Property Act.

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)