‘Why did it take nearly 100 years for this story to be told?’

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Crag & Canyon

Mary was born in Montreal. She was a child-survivor of the Spirit Lake internment camp. Instead of dwelling on her family’s suffering she wondered whether Japanese, Italian, and German Canadians would have been mistreated during the Second World War, or some Quebecois in 1970, if people had only remembered Canada’s first national internment operations. They didn’t. So wrongs done once were done again, then again.

Despite indifference, ignorance, even hostility, the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association installed commemorative plaques and statues at most of Canada’s 24 internment sites, while calling on Ottawa for acknowledgement and redress.

We never asked for an apology or compensation. Mary believed today’s Canadians shouldn’t pay for past wrongs. To put it another way: what your grandfathers did to ours is not something you should apologize for, nor we should gain from. UCCLA’s campaign evolved as Mary wanted — it was about memory, not money.

‘Enemy aliens’ were held in Banff from mid-July 1915 to mid-July 1917, at Castle Mountain and Cave & Basin, where a permanent exhibit opens tomorrow. The unpleasant story of forced labourers exploited in western Canada’s national parks will be hidden no more. Photographs of civilians behind barbed wire should mute the mutterings of those who still deny these men were kept under duress.

Why did it take nearly 100 years for this story to be told? The destruction of most records from the Office of Internment Operations didn’t help. And mainstream historians were generally content noting “Germans, Austrians, and Turks” were rounded up during the Great War, never wondering who they really were, whether imprisonment was justified. Parks Canada’s website still doesn’t admit most were Ukrainian. Until recently, nothing was taught about this in any school. Don’t be surprised if this is the first time you’re hearing about the internment operations of 1914-1920.

But why did Banff’s residents forget? Were they ashamed for never protesting as innocent men were herded into Canadian concentration camps, compelled to do heavy labour for the profit of their jailers? Or was it because the internees were not their social or racial equals? A hint of such prejudice extruded into the Crag and Canyon, 18 November 1916: “…the majority of our citizens are of the opinion that the scenic outlook is not vastly improved by the presence of the slouching, bovine-faced foreigners.”

Apprehension cowed entire communities. Sir Hugh Macdonald, son of Canada’s first prime minister, advised the Justice minister, in July 1919: “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 as easily controlled as a lot of sheep.” It worked. Nick Lypka, a Castle Mountain prisoner, admitted as much, but only decades later. He remained afraid “…because they could arrest me again.”

Remarkably, it was a former Manitoba MP, Inky Mark, a Chinese Canadian from a family of Head Tax payers, whose Bill C 331 – Internment of Persons of Ukrainian Origin Recognition Act, led to the formation of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, in 2008.

Additional monies were granted for a Cave & Basin internment museum, obliging Parks bureaucrats to recall a story they worked harder to erase than to remember.

That tale should be told at Cave and Basin. It won’t be. Parks Canada is about tourism, not truth.

Lubomyr Luciuk is a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.