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.)