Internment of “enemy aliens” during WWI — Brandon camp held 800 people

by Bruce Cherney

Prime Minister Paul Martin recently announced that an agreement-in-principle had been signed with Canada’s Ukrainian community to articulate “a shared vision for the acknowledgement, commemoration and education of Canadians on the experiences of Ukrainians who were affected by the War Measures Act in Canada during the First World War, and in highlighting the contributions that Ukrainian-Canadians have made to building Canada,” according to a federal government press release.

Under the War Measures Act, some 5,000 Ukrainian-Canadians were interned in camps across Canada as “enemy aliens” during the First World War.

“Although we cannot rewrite history,” said Martin, “we can learn from the past and make sure that such incidents never happen again.”

Under the agreement, the Ukrainian-Canadian community will receive $2.5 million for research, educational and cultural initiatives to teach Canadians about this episode in the nation’s history. The $2.5 million is part of the $25-million federal government’s Acknowledgement, Commemoration and Education program to fund proposals that recount the historical experiences of ethnocultural communities affected by wartime measures such as internment and immigration restrictions.

Under the War Measures Act, Japanese-Canadians were unjustly interned as “enemy aliens” during the Second World War. In 1988, the Japanese-Canadian community received a $12-million development fund, and $21,000 was given to every survivor of Canadian internment camps.

The War Measures Act of 1914 was implemented by an order-in-council of the Canadian government and allowed for the internment of 8,567 “enemy aliens” of which over 5,000 were Ukrainians who had immigrated to Canada from territories that were under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Another 80,000 people were registered under the act as “enemy aliens.” They were obliged to report regularly to local police or the North West Mounted Police and were issued with identity papers that had to be carried at all times. Non-compliance with this measure could result in arrest and imprisonment.

Although the vast majority of those imprisoned and forced to register were Ukrainians, other groups suffering a similar fate were Poles, Italians, Bulgarians, Croatians, Turks, Serbians, Hungarians, Russians, Jews and Romanians. 

Internees of German nationality and German-speaking Austrians were separated from the other internees and placed in more “comfortable” facilities.

To house the internees, 24 camps and receiving stations were formed across Canada.

One of the reasons put forth to justify the government’s actions was a letter before Canada entered the war by Bishop Nykyta Budka which urged Ukrainians to return to defend Austria against a threatened invasion by Russia. Although his motives were probably related to defence of the Ukrainian homeland from a Russian invasion, rather than support for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the letter was misguided given the circumstances that led to Ukrainian settlement in Canada.

Ukrainians fled their homeland to escape the oppression of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which, among other measures, demanded conscription to fill the ranks of the emperor’s army.

Wasyl Zahara, a leader of Ukrainian settlement in Manitoba, was forced to make nine separate trips to the village authorities in Bridock in the western Ukraine to beg for his release from state-sanctioned serfdom. When he was eventually allowed to leave by the sheriff, he was compelled to promise that once his sons reached adulthood they would return to serve in the Austrian army.

Some 170,000 Ukrainians, primarily from the provinces of Bukovinia and Galicia in western Ukraine — eastern Ukrainians were not classified as enemy aliens because they were under Russian control, an ally during the war until the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917 — answered the siren call of Canada at the turn of the last century. They came because they were denied an education beyond elementary school, saw their already small land allotments received from wealthy landowners they toiled for diminish with each new generation, faced harsh taxes, and were required to undertake three years compulsory service in the Austrian army.

By most accounts, the bishop — who has been maligned by some Canadian historians for his letter written prior to Canada entering the First World War — wasn’t such a bad fellow. Shortly after on December 19, 1912, Bishop Budka arrived in Canada to become the first bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada with his residence in Winnipeg.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand,  heir to the Hapsburg monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on June 28 by a Serbian nationalist threw Europe into a series of sabre-rattling military camps. The Austro-Hungarian Empire with the support of Germany threatened to invade Serbia to avenge the death of the archduke. 

Meanwhile, Russia mobilized to support the Slavs of Serbia. Russia, in turn, was allied with France and Britain.

Prof. Stella Hryniuk of the University of Manitoba said the letter from the bishop can just as easily be interpreted as a call to save the homeland in the Ukraine from Russian invasion, rather than a call of support for Emperor Franz Josef’s Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

By August 4, the smoldering cauldron of nationalistic militarism erupted into the First World War. Canada was automatically at war on the side of Britain since its foreign policy was still dictated by Whitehall.

With the entry of Britain and Canada into the war, Bishop Budka had reversed his earlier position. In a pastoral letter of August 8, 1914, he wrote “our new homeland, Canada, calls on its faithful subjects to rally around the English flag ready to give up their property and lives ... So at this time when England turns to us as its faithful subjects ... we Canadian Ukrainians have a great and holy duty to stand under the flag of our new homeland that we swore loyalty and duty ...”

Bishop Budka said the Ukrainian settlers had sworn an eternal oath to King George V and called for the formation of Ruthenian (Ukrainian) regiments to “show that Ruthenians in Canada are true citizens prepared to sacrifice everything, even their lives, for their homeland.”

Furthermore, he said the letter of July 27, “which referred to that moment when the war was exclusively between Austria and Serbia . . . no longer applies under the changed political situation and must not be read publicly in the churches. Instead, we order all priests to read this, our pastoral letter ... about our obligations to the British state.”

But, this call to arms in support of Canada and the British Empire was quickly forgotten by politicians, the press, Ukrainian leaders of other churches in Canada and veterans. The first letter would be remembered and used as a pretense for interring Ukrainians as enemy aliens and to label Bishop Budka as a traitor.

In reality, using the letter in such a fashion served the purpose of reinforcing already deep-seated suspicion and overtly ethnic hatred of Ukrainian settlers.

The Winnipeg Telegram on May 13, 1901, had said that “few people will affirm that Slavonic immigrants are desirable settlers, or that they are welcomed by the white people of Western Canada.” The newspaper went on to call their customs repulsive and their civilization primitive. “Better by far to keep our land for the children, children’s children, of Canadians; than to fill up the country with the scum of Europe.”

With the outbreak of war, the anti-Slavic tirades had escalated to such a fever-pitch that a group of Ukrainians took it upon themselves to write the Winnipeg Tribune in 1915 to point out they were not “Austrians and anti-Allies” and that the “irresponsible utterances in the press” had transplanted into the public’s mind “intolerance and hatred towards anything that is foreign,” which resulted in looting of property, disruption of church services, raiding of private homes and personal attacks “of the gravest kind.”

“The Ukrainians ... of Western Canada ... have found themselves heavily handicapped since the outbreak of the war by the fact of their Austrian birth, which has led ... the Dominion government, as well as Canadian employers of labour, to unjustly class them as Austrians, and therefore enemy aliens,” said a letter published in the July 17, 1916, Manitoba Free Press and signed by six Ukrainian-Canadian newspaper editors following a mass meeting in Winnipeg on July 2.

“Many have been interned, though they are no more in sympathy with the enemy than are the Poles ... (yet) Ukrainians in Canada are treated as enemy Austrians. They are persecuted, by the thousands they are interned, they are dismissed from their employment, and their applications for work are not entertained. And why? For only one reason, that they are so unhappy as to be born into the Austrian bondage.”

This was just one of numerous appeals by Ukrainians who had come to Canada expressing their loyalty. In November 1914, Paul Wacyk of Komarno, Manitoba, wrote to R. Fletcher, the deputy minister of the department of education in Winnipeg: “I have heard no movement on the part of the people here which would in any way indicate that they were disloyal to the British Empire.”

Many Ukrainians expressed their loyalty by joining the Canadian army. Of course, this was difficult given their classification. To enlist, many had to misrepresent where they were born and others change their surnames to “Smith.”

“To estimate the number of Ukrainians who have enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces would be very hard as they are enlisting in various battalions from the Atlantic to the pacific coast, but it is safe to say that, to the approximate half million soldiers in Canada, if the figures of the War Office were available, it could be 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,” wrote Edmonton east MP H.A. Mackie to Prime Minister Robert Borden in October 1918 just before the end of the war on November 11 of that year.

The irony is that some of those who had enlisted in the CEF and were discovered later to be “Austrian” were arrested and then interned.

“These people came to Canada looking for freedom, and they were put in prison” said Lubomyr Luciak, when a plaque was unveiled in Lac Beauchamp, Quebec in 1999 to recall the imprisonment of 1,200 people at that camp, most of whom were Ukrainian, between 1915 and 1917.

When the War Time Elections Act was enacted most Ukrainian-Canadians were disenfranchised, that is, their vote was taken away.

One camp for internees was established in Brandon and operated from November 17, 1914 to July 29, 1916, in the Brandon Agricultural Building which no longer exists. A plaque was placed at the site of the former camp by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association on November 27, 1997. About 800 people  were kept at the Brandon camp. 

“By unveiling our plaque on the very same date on which the first internees were brought to Brandon, we will be reminding all of those present of just how difficult an experience this was for these unfortunate men,” said Borys Sydoruk, the UCCLA’s director of special projects.

When trying to escape from the Brandon camp with 17 others, Andrew Grapko, 18, was shot to death in June 1915. He was one of six people killed while trying to escape from the camps. Another 101 died of illnesses.

Ironically, as the war progressed, the government allowed 6,000 internees to sign loyalty oaths for work in factories because of the labour shortage caused by the war. But, they were still required to regularly report to police.

The internees’ only real crime, according to Canadian historian Desmond Morton, was being unemployed during a deep Canadian recession. When the camps closed in 1920, no evidence was ever presented to show that Ukrainian Canadians posed a threat to national security. 

Confusion over language could also account for some of the internments. It was reported that when some Ukrainians were asked if they were “pro-German,” they said yes because in their language pro is a short form for proty which means against.

In 1915, the British Foreign Office had actually informed the Canadian government that Ukrainian-Canadians should be treated as friendly aliens. The foreign office said that the Ukrainians, like other nationalities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were opposed to Hapsburg rule and would show no sympathy for the empire during the war. 

The government of Sir Robert Borden at first heeded the message from Britain, but an election was looming, so the Union government began to listen to voters who firmly believed in the myth of the enemy alien in their midst.

Despite his calls for support of Canada, Bishop Budka was also branded an Austrian sympathizer. In 1918, the bishop was arrested in Hafford, Saskatchewan, and tried for disloyalty, although the charge was dismissed for lack of evidence.

In 1919, the Great War Veterans Association of Winnipeg laid another 11 charges against the bishop and urged that he be deported. This was done after the Russian Revolution when there was a widespread belief circulating that there existed a Bolshevik conspiracy reaching into Canada to destroy “the civilization of Anglo-Saxonism.” War veterans and hoodlums smashed windows of North End shops and buildings associated with Ukrainians, Poles and Jews and demanded that anyone with an alien appearance swear allegiance to the Union Jack. 

But, a judge during the judicial enquiry firmly said there was “not a title of evidence” to support the charges against the bishop who was shown to have consistently supported the Canadian war effort.

In 1918, the Great War Veterans Association also called for the suppression of “enemy alien” newspapers, compulsory badges for “foreigners” — something the Nazis enacted against Jews in Germany and occupied territories during the Second World War — and forced labour for “Austrian” and German men in Canada.

The Canadian government did declare a number of newspapers and organizations illegal.

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia also provided tinder for those who wanted to remove Ukrainians from Canada. Several hundred were deported just after the end of the war.

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was also used as an excuse to deport Ukrainians. A delegation went to the Manitoba legislation demanding that more Ukrainians be interned and then deported because they were allegedly preparing for a Bolshevik-style revolution.

“When the war is over, when peace is restored, and when we come to normal life, when we shall send out immigration agents to Europe again as we did before, do you believe that our Canadian immigration agents, when they go among the Galicians, Bukovinians (Ukrainians), that these different races will be disposed to come to this country, when they know that Canada has not met its pledges and promises to these people, who have settled in our midst ... if it be said in Canada that the pledges which we have given to immigration 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 promises which we made to them, then I despair for the future of this country ...,” said Wilfred Laurier, the former prime minister of Canada, when he registered his protest on September 10, 1917, in the House of Commons against the continued mistreatment of so-called “enemy aliens.” 

Of course, it was Laurier who first recognized the worth of these “peasants in sheepskin coats,” and supported Interior Minister Clifford Sifton’s promotion of Eastern European immigration to Canada’s West, starting in 1896.

Despite their mistreatment during the second decade of the 20th century, the promise of a new beginning in a new land remained strong for Ukrainians, and immigration from Ukraine restarted in 1925-26 when sanity once again returned to Canada.