New Canadian Media

by Matt D'Amours in Montreal 

About 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Quebec, there is a remote plot of land where at least 16 people are believed to be buried. Many of the wooden crosses that once stood to mark their graves have fallen, and overgrowth covers much of the 35 by 25 metre cemetery.

Those buried there all shared a common experience, stemming from a dark chapter in Canadian history that remains as hidden as their final resting place: they were all captives of a Canadian internment camp called Spirit Lake, operated during the First World War for prisoners of war and immigrants designated “enemy aliens” by the government.

“A lot of historians who specialize in the First World War, for the longest time, refused to discuss, or even admit, that Canada had concentration camps,” says Myron Momryk, a historian and retired archivist. “The fact that Canadians had camps with barbed wire doesn’t quite fit with the image [we] have of ourselves.”

Between 1914 and 1918, 24 internment camps were opened across Canada, and the vast majority of the civilians incarcerated were of Ukrainian origin. One of those camps was Spirit Lake in Quebec, where 16 internees are said to lie buried in a small cemetery that was carved out of the surrounding forest. 

Almost 100 years later, an organization called the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) is trying to bring the cemetery out of the shadows of history. They’re appealing to the federal government to have the cemetery restored and reconsecrated, and to have it designated a national historic site.

The history of Spirit Lake Camp

The Spirit Lake camp was opened on January 13, 1915, less than five months after the passage of The War Measures Act, which made it possible to deprive those designated as “enemy aliens” of their civil liberties. Among those designated were immigrants with Austro-Hungarian passports, including Croatians, Serbians and mostly Ukrainians.

“There was never any evidence that any of these Ukrainians, or other Europeans, were guilty of any wrongdoing — they were simply rounded up because of who they were and where they came from,” explains Lubomyr Luciuk of the UCCLA. 

“The fact that Canadians had camps with barbed wire doesn’t quite fit with the image [we] have of ourselves.”

He continues, “The fact remains that the government of the day knew that these people weren’t necessarily pro-Austrian in terms of the war effort … but then the combination of wartime hysteria and pre-war racism changed the attitude, and a whole series of measures are taken that subject these people to different kinds of state-sanctioned repression.”

Internees were kept behind barbed wire under armed military watch. Women and children were housed separately, while men were forced to work on a farm for the profit of the Spirit Lake jailers and businessmen from the nearby settlement of Amos.

Many of the people rounded up and sent to Spirit Lake were members of Montreal’s Ukrainian community — a community that, Luciuk says, was “decimated by the internment operations.”

Demands for recognition

Among the Ukrainian Montrealers to be imprisoned was the late Mary Manko Haskett, who was only six-years-old when she and her family arrived at the camp. Her daughter, 81-year-old Fran Haskett, recalls how in 1988, Manko Haskett came across a Globe & Mail op-ed co-written by Luciuk of the UCCLA about Canadian internment camps.

Wanting to share her memories of an experience that was mostly absent in the history books, the former internee reached out to Luciuk to share her story. 

“She was very tenacious,” Manko Haskett’s daughter Fran recounts. “She wanted the recognition that an injustice had been done to her family and many others during that time.”

"They were simply rounded up because of who they were and where they came from.”

That recognition became official in 2008 when the Harper government established the Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund. The fund was setup to locate and restore internee cemeteries across the country and to educate Canadians on their country’s internment history.

However, the Council has been unable to restore the cemetery at Spirit Lake because, in 1988, the land was sold to a farming couple who have since refused any plan that would give limited public access to an area on their property. 

New appeals for restoration

Within its mandate, the Endowment Council cannot lobby on this matter, which is why the UCCLA sent an appeal to Mélanie Joly, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, to intervene. 

Minister Joly's office was unable to provide comment at press time.

“The desire is to say to [Minister] Joly, ‘do the right thing’, because there at least 16 people buried in this cemetery, which the Federal government should be morally responsible for,” Luciuk says. 

“She wanted the recognition that an injustice had been done to her family."

“Let’s not get bogged down in legalities … mothers had to bury their kids [here], and then one day, say goodbye to that gravesite and never get there again.”

While the UCCLA waits for a response from Minister Joly, Manko Haskett’s daughter underlines the importance of restoring the Spirit Lake Cemetery for the Ukrainian community. “These people died in the camps, and they shouldn’t even have been there in the first place,” she says. 

“So they should be honoured in death — they certainly weren’t honoured in life.” 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in History

by Abbas Somji in Toronto

On a chilly December weekend in East Toronto, a makeshift “tent city” appeared as the cool night air rolled in.

In the span of an afternoon on December 5th, roughly 75 campers had set up 30 tents on a patch of grass outside the city’s Church of the Resurrection on Woodbine Ave.

The event, called “Sleep Out for Syrians”, aimed to raise money for and show solidarity with displaced Syrians, many of whom live in tents in refugee camps in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

For Sam Benson, it was a scene that was all too familiar. He left behind family in Syria and moved to Canada 15 years ago to rebuild a life.

“Those people did not leave willingly,” says Benson of the displaced Syrians. “They got forced to leave. There is pressure that made them leave.”

Benson speaks from painful experience.

“I had to leave because of the lack of freedom of religion and political expression,” says Benson, insisting he’s now exactly where he belongs.

A "burning need to help"

Elizabeth Dove with the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) is the lead organizer for “Sleep Out for Syrians”.

Dove says the East Toronto community felt a “burning need to help” after seeing images of Alan Kurdi in the media. The three-year-old Syrian boy drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe with his family. He made international headlines this summer after his lifeless body was photographed, lying facedown on the shoreline.

Roughly 75 campers had set up 30 tents on a patch of grass outside the city’s Church of the Resurrection.

“My daughter calls it the picture of the boy on the beach, but she’s never seen it,” says Dove, who says she’s like one of many parents she’s encountered who struggle to explain the Syrian crisis to their children.

“You want to share some of these realities of the world and why it’s important to extend beyond your reach and understand your privilege, and there’s only so much horror that kids can take,” says Dove. Nevertheless, she insists that learning about these and similar issues and participating in events like "Sleep Out for Syrians" is all part of the process of her children becoming global citizens.

Helping new families thrive, not just survive

The Canadian government suggests that settlement costs for a new refugee family will total somewhere around $27,000 for the first year — the equivalent of a family on social assistance.

Dove insists that’s not enough. In order to raise more money for incoming refugees, DECA partnered up with The Neighbourhood Group, which has pledged to raise $120,000 to support three families.

The East Toronto community felt a “burning need to help”.

Says Dove, “This money will help set them up in terms of housing, in terms of the needs that they have around their home, around town, [so they can] buy metro passes, that kind of thing.” She also hopes the money will help them feel less stressed while getting used to a new language and a new culture here in Canada.

At “Sleep Out for Syrians”, the group more than doubled its fundraising goal of $10,000, raising more than $20,000 from the event and an accompanying charity dinner. 

Dove says the money raised will make the difference between incoming families surviving and thriving in Canada.

Welcoming new arrivals

As of this week, the first wave of Syrian refugees has begun to arrive at airports in Montreal and Toronto. From there, they will be sent to 36 destination cities around the country.

For Sam Benson, this is both a source of joy and concern. “I hope that they will be happier. They’re kids uprooted from their country, and being uprooted is not easy.”

“In my personal viewpoint, I would suggest a good screening because it’s not safe to get everyone in because who knows that those people were not seeded by the Islamic State,” he adds. “But they’re human beings, and we have to do something about it.”

With regards to public concerns over bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February 2016, Dove says there will always be dissent in these circumstances.

The first wave of Syrian refugees has begun to arrive at airports in Montreal and Toronto.

“You can’t ignore the fact that there is a stream of people who are afraid of the ‘other,’” says Dove.

This ‘othering’ has applied to many ethnic groups throughout history, not just Syrian refugees.

“People are afraid of the Irish, afraid of the Italians, afraid of the Jews, afraid of the Yugoslavian Muslims, and they’ve all become the fabric of our society,” says Dove. “Productive citizens, treasured neighbours, and people really need to open their hearts because there’s nothing that bares out this is going to be a problem.”

According to her, Canada’s sudden intake of Syrian refugees is all in keeping with the country’s history of welcoming those displaced. “I think we need to continue to educate and be patient with Canadians and also remind them that history is completely on our side.”

Once enough funds have been raised, Lifeline Syria has agreed to match a family to the sponsor group, whom Dove says could arrive in Canada within weeks.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Top Stories

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