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
Saturday, 20 September 2014 13:50

Sidelining “hidden history”

by Marika Washchyshyn (@Marika_AW)

Several thousand lucky people will be the first of many visitors to embark on a journey through human rights around the world, right in our own country. The stories included in the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights span from the violations of Aboriginal rights, to the Holodomor – the Soviet-led famine in Ukraine, to the Armenian and Rwandan genocides and the Holocaust, to name a few. But one inherently Canadian exhibit is missing from this national museum, critics say. 

According to communications between the concerned parties and the museum, the first national internment operations of World War I in Canada have gone largely unexamined, prompting many of these parties to boycott the opening ceremonies.

Opening amidst controversy

This weekend marked the opening of the much anticipated – and highly discussed – Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. For a project that has been surrounded by as much by praise as it has been by criticism, there was no shortage of unhappy voices at the time of the would-be happy unveiling.

On Monday, September 15, in a letter to Canadian Museum for Human Rights CEO Stuart Murray, several parties made clear their grievances about the “farcical” lack of attention towards what they call a “Canadian story of the utmost importance.” The communities include Ukrainians, Poles, Serbians, Armenians, Hungarians, Croatians, Germans, Austrians and many others.

“The insignificant attention given to First World War era internment operations represents a slight to all of the internees, enemy aliens and their descendants,” the letter reads. “An enlarged photograph and one short film clip buried in a documentary film does not, in our view, constitute an acceptable treatment of Canada's first national internment operations.”

This is not the first time – nor is it suspected to be the last – that the content of the museum has come under fire. The Ukrainian community has been one of the most vocal. They spoke out over a year ago, indicating that although the museum is largely funded by private donations of the prominent, Jewish Asper family, those donations should not reflect any sort of ‘hierarchy’ in the exhibits. The Holocaust has a permanent place in the museum.

The communities include Ukrainians, Poles, Serbians, Armenians, Hungarians, Croatians, Germans, Austrians and many others.

Angela Cassie, the director of communications and external relations at the CMHR, said at the time: “There is no hierarchy [of genocides] here, and any suggestions of that is a gross misrepresentation of our intentions at the CMHR. Those comments divide, when our goal is to bring people together to recognize the humanity in others and take action for human rights.”

Roman Zakaluzny of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association said that over a year later, the museum has still not displayed fairness to all exhibits.

“We’ve been trying to talk to them for years without a resolution,” Zakaluzny said. “It came to the point where they were going somewhere with it, and I think UCCLA would have sent a similar letter sooner … but when you have this many involved, it takes some time.”

Marsha Skrypuch’s grandfather George Forchuk was interned in Jasper, Alberta, during WWI. She said the museum has completely sidelined the topic, a topic which she asserts – having written three books on it – so much of the Canadian population knows nothing about.

A "Canadian" Museum

“This is supposed to be a Canadian museum, a museum of human rights that has stories about Canada,”Skrypuch said. “What’s the point of even having that if it’s not showcasing those stories? They’re telling stories that most people know and neglecting ones that have not been told well … portions of hidden history that are being hidden even more.”

The museum did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But Israel Asper, the dreamer behind the museum who passed away in 2003, had his museum seen through by his daughter, Gail. She is the president of the board, and spoke with Jian Ghomeshi during his September 18 episode of Q, the eve of the opening.

"This is supposed to be a Canadian museum, a museum of human rights that has stories about Canada."

During her interview, Asper fielded questions about the controversies and criticisms, all the while upbeat and excited about the discussion and information the museum was going to bring to the masses. When asked about the internment exhibits, Asper echoed the aggrieved’s passion.

“My dad said he wanted people to know Canadian history, warts and all,” Asper told Ghomeshi. “Because in order to understand where a country is, you have to know where we came from. And so, yes, all of these things are going to be discussed.”

Asper said she thought this had been “the most consultative process any museum as gone through,” but Skrypuch emphatically disagreed.

“He’s [Stuart Murray] refused to meet with anyone,” she said. “We want consultation, listening to people whose families were unjustly treated … but you can’t do that if you don’t meet with them.”

And on opening weekend, is it too late?

Zakaluzny said that with so many groups involved, it took time to form a collective message to send to the museum. Their goal, he said, was to make a point that contrary to what the museum made it look like, not everyone was on board with the museum’s plan.

“Is this museum really what it claims to be, or are there issues with it?” Zakaluzny said. “These are the questions the public – who are largely funding this museum – need to be asking.”

In that same interview with Ghomeshi, Asper said that the museum was constantly on the move to improve and change, to inspire people to learn more when they leave.

“Will this museum improve and need to be tweaked and changed?” Asper said. “Absolutely, because human rights are dynamic and changing.”

"[T]he CMHR does not enjoy the endorsement or support of our communities."

Asper also urged critics to remember that when plans were released to the public 11 years ago, speculation and worry was inevitable because no one had stepped foot in the museum. Perhaps, when they see it, they will realize how much of an emphasis there is on the Canadian story.

“Of course the internments are a very, very important part of Canadian history,” she said. “In fact, the Canada gallery, ‘Canada’s Journey,’ is the largest exhibit in our museum.”

Zakaluzny said he and the fellow undersigned were trying to remain as optimistic as possible, knowing full well changes could be underway in the museum for years to come.

“We are very cautiously optimistic, but that optimism is fading,” he said.

The open letter of Sept. 15 concluded with these words and the following signatories, “We are making our views publicly known, and in advance of the CMHR’s opening, so there is no confusion: the CMHR does not enjoy the endorsement or support of our communities. Furthermore, we do not believe that the limited consultations held with stakeholder communities about the contents of this museum were given serious attention.”

Andrew Hladyshevsky, President of the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko

Olya Grod, Ukrainian Canadian Congress

Roman Zakaluzny, Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Borys Sydoruk, Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation

John Marion, President, Canadian-Croatian Chamber of Commerce

Ludwik Klimkowski, Canadian Polish Congress

Sima Aprahamian, Armenian Community

Suleyman Guven, Kurdish/ Alevi Community

Antony Bergmeier, German-Canadian Congress, National President

Diane Dragasevich, Serbian National Shield Society of Canada

Marsha Skrypuch, Internee Descendant

Christopher Adam, Editor-in-chief, Kanadai Magyar Hirlap (Canadian Hungarian Journal)

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

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