One hundred plaques, recalling Canada’s first national internment of “enemy aliens,” were recently unveiled from coast to coast to mark the 100th anniversary of the War Measures Act, which on August 22, 1914, was given Royal assent, and remained in effect until 1920.
“In 1914, tens of thousands of Ukrainian immigramts were required to register with the Canadian government under the War Measures Act,” said Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz on the day of the 100th anniversary of the act. “During the First World War, many were obligated to carry idenificatrion documents, kept in internment camps, and subjected to heavy labour at work sites.
“Today, as we witness the unveiling of the plagues, we honour all those who endured internment camps and ensure we uphold and defend human rights always,” the mayor added.
The 1914 act 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 then under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Another 80,000 people were registered under the act as “enemy aliens,” and had to report regularly to the 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, including one in Brandon.
One of the reasons put forth to justify the government’s actions was a letter written by Winnipeg-based Bishop Nykyta Budka, which urged Ukrainians to return to defend Austria against a threatened invasion by Russia. Although his motives were probably only related to defence of the Ukrainian homeland, issuing the letter was misguided and ill-timed in the extreme, since war drums were beating in Canada. In addition, Ukrainians had actually fled to Canada to escape the oppression of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
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 Tsarist Russian control, an ally during the war until the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917 — came to Canada because they were denied an education beyond elementary school, saw their small land holdings diminish with each new generation, faced harsh taxes, and were required to undertake three years compulsory service in the Austrian army.
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.
With the entry of Britain and Canada into the war, Budka 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.” Budka said 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 ... for their homeland.”
But, this call to arms in support of Canada and Britain was quickly forgotten by politicians, the press, other church leaders and veterans. The first letter would be remembered and used as a pretense to label Ukrainians as enemy aliens. In reality, using the letter in such a fashion served the purpose of reinforcing already deep-seated ethnic hatred of Ukrainian settlers. 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.”
“The Ukrainians ... have found themselves heavily handicapped since the outbreak of the war by the fact of their Austrian birth ...,” said a letter published in the July 17, 1916, Manitoba Free Press and signed by six Ukrainian-Canadian newspaper editors. “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.” 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 most nationalities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were opposed to Hapsburg rule and would show no sympathy for the empire during the war. Many Ukrainians expressed their loyalty by attempting to join the Canadian army. Of course, this was difficult, as they had to misrepresent where they were born, while others changed their surnames to “Smith.”
“To estimate the number of Ukrainians who have enlisted ... 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. 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.
“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, 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.”
Despite their mistreatment during the second decade of the 20th century, the promise of a new beginning in a new land remained strong, and immigration from Eastern Europe resumed in 1925-26 when a measure of sanity once again returned to Canada. Yet, the earlier lesson had not been fully learned, and Canada once again invoked the War Measures Act to unjustly intern Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War .