top of page

Canada's Dark Chapter

In the early 20th century, the dominion of Canada was attracting many foreigners to immigrate to the land. However, this caused a certain uneasiness among many Canadians. 


“The sheer numbers of arrivals provokes considerable anxiety about how these immigrants will integrate into the economy,” said Kirk Niergarth, a history professor at Mount Royal University who specializes in 20th century Canada.


According to Niergarth, xenophobia was common leading up to World War One.


Anglo-Canadians wanted to make sure the new arrivals would assimilate into the country. During the First World War, Canada used the War Measures Act for the first time against members of the Austrian-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman Empires.


The War Measures Act was first active from 1914 to 1920 and enabled the Canadian Government to suspend civil liberties and modify existing laws as deemed necessary without normal government process.


It was enacted again in the Second World War resulting in Japanese internment and most recently in 1970 during the October Crisis in Quebec.


The Emergencies Act was created in 1988 to replace the War Measures Act and aimed to limit some of the power that had previously caused disarray.

In 1914, it was the first time the democratic government became a 'dictatorship', according to Mark Minenko, an Edmonton based lawyer pursuing his PhD in England.


“After World War Two, there was an American scholar that called this a constitutional dictatorship,” said Minenko.


“In essence, why he called it a dictatorship, was that both in the U.K. and in Canada, the parliament gave all of its powers to cabinet to do whatever the cabinet felt it needed to do.”


During World War One, the government was under a lot of pressure to control the enemy aliens.


An enemy alien is someone from a country that Canada is at war with. If you were not a citizen or British subject, then you were considered an enemy alien.


“An entire community, in fact several communities not just Ukrainians ... are rounded up and described as enemy aliens and forced to register and forced to heavy labor for the profit of their jailers,” said Lubomyr Luciuk, professor in the Department of Political Science and Economics at the Royal Military College of Canada.


An official announcement was made in 1914 that told all enemy aliens to lay low and the authorities would let them continue with their daily lives.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 12.24.02

Announcement posted in Toronto alerting enemy aliens to register.

Image courtesy of Olana Thompson.

“Two weeks after the war was declared it said, ‘if you mind your own business, do your own work and don’t try to escape to Austria-Hungary to join the military, we’re not going to bug you',” said Minenko.

However, in October of 1914, under additional pressures placed on the government, it was stated that every alien enemy must register if they lived within 20 miles of a registration centre and did not have a permanent residence.

Those who refused could be charged criminally.

“This new law required all enemy aliens of any nationality living or being in any part of Canada with no permanent place of residence or abode to report and register with the local police,” said Minenko.

If they did have a permanent residence, then they did not have to register. However, police and authorities often overlooked this fact.

“Over 1,000 Albertans were charged with a violation of this order, when they shouldn’t have been charged at all,” said Minenko.

“All these people with a criminal record that shouldn’t of had a criminal record.”  

However, things changed and as of September 1916, all Ukrainians were required to register regardless of where they lived.

For many, it felt like being a Ukrainian in Canada was a crime.


The internment camps officially opened in 1914.

“People were being rounded up and herded into Canadian internment camps not because of anything they'd done wrong but only because of where they came from,” said Luciuk.

Around 80,000 were required to register and 8,597 were interned, including some women and children.

Internment operations in Alberta did not cease until 1920, which is two years after the war had ended and the Armistice was signed.

This was also due to the xenophobia in the nation at the time. Many soldiers coming back from war did not want to give their jobs to enemy aliens and the government was also afraid of The Red Scare coming to Canada.

The Red Scare was a communist movement that had several motivating factors. These factors included the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that created world-wide fear that immigrants from Eastern European countries intended to overthrow governments such as the United States and Canada.

Missing Pages

The history of Canada’s first internment operations was almost lost due to cultural shame and the destroying of government documents. For many researchers, it has been a continuous battle finding historical records.

Historical Record - Experts

Luciuk, Boyko, Kenney and Luciuk speak of how difficult it has been to find the historical records of the Ukrainian internment camps in Canada.

In the 1950's, almost all government documentation surrounding the First World War internment operations was purposely destroyed.

According to researchers, this choice has lead to many years of confusion and hurt in the Ukrainian community.

Ukrainian internees did not speak about their time in the camps and some of them took the secret to their grave, not even sharing it with their children.

Royal Military College of Canada professor Lubomyr Luciuk was raised in a small Ukrainian-Canadian community in Kingston Ontario by two parents who were Displaced Persons (DP’s) and immigrated from the Ukraine to Canada after the Second World War.

Despite his Ukrainian upbringing, Luciuk was not aware of Canada’s first internment operations until he interviewed a man for a research project, who turned out to be a former prisoner.

“I’ll always remember — it was the 14th of February 1978 and my girlfriend at the time was not very impressed that I would be going to Toronto on Valentine’s Day to interview an old Ukrainian,” said Luciuk.

Image 3.jpg

Four men at the Castle Mountain internment camp.Image courtesy of the Glenbow Museum.

Luciuk met with the internee and interviewed him about coming to Canada and what it was like being an immigrant during this time period. He told Luciuk that he worked at Fort Henry during the war.

“I said oh so you were up there restoring the Fort? And he said no, I was a prisoner,” said Luciuk.

“And that’s how I found out about it.”

Luciuk was an instrumental part of establishing the Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund or Bill C-331, which is a $10 million dollar fund created by the Canadian Government used to remind Canadians of the events from 1914 to 1920.

The fund was created in 2008 and has funded projects such as 100 plaques commemorating the internment sites, the documentary That Never Happened and the interpretive centre in Banff among many more.


One of the projects funded by Bill C-331, this plaque sits at the base of a commemorative statue in Castle Mountain. Photo by Curtis Larson.

He worked closely with many politicians, including the current leader of the Alberta United Conservatives Party (UCP), Jason Kenney.

In 2008, Kenney was the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity under former prime minister Stephen Harper’s administration.

“Ultimately we came to —I think— a very good conclusion where we provided a $10 million endowment fund that’s managed by the community,” said Kenney.

“I must say, I wasn’t sure what we would see coming out of the fund in the beginning, I was hopeful, but this has far exceeded my expectations.”

The campaign was a beacon of hope for many members of the Ukrainian community, according to Borys Sydoruk.

Sydoruk was featured in filmmaker Ryan Boyko’s documentary That Never Happened and is an active member of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Calgary chapter and has spent a lot of time advocating for internees rights.

“I learned then that Canada had wiped pages of history that it was ashamed of and didn’t teach,” said Sydoruk

“When I heard the story of the internment of over 5,000 Ukrainians in Canada … I thought this story has to be told and then I started working on making this happen.”

According to Sydoruk, Ukrainians were treated as second class citizens compared to Germans and other Eastern Europeans that were interned.

“They were forced to work, which was against the law,” said Sydoruk.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 12.24.28

The front page of the Vancouver Sun in 1914 was full of stories about the beginning of the war. Image courtesy of Olana Thomson.

Many of Canada's national parks such as Banff, Yoho, and Jasper were built by Ukrainian internees under terrible working conditions, in the cold with very little food.

One of the reportedly most brutal camps was in Banff at Castle Mountain due to the nature of the work and the conditions.

“It’s a reminder that to those of us who enjoy Canada’s mountain parks that much of the infrastructure was originally created by what was effectively slave labour,” said Kenney.

Under the 1907 Hauge Convention it was considered illegal to force prisoners of war (POW) to complete manual labour. However, the Canadian government found a way around this by using Ukrainian citizens to do the work instead because they were not technically POWs.  

Kenney echoed Sydoruk’s claims and mentioned that the Canadian government approached the British Crown about what to do about the prisoners.

“The Imperial government in London that was leading the war effort actually told the dominion government in Ottawa not to proceed with the internment policy,” said Kenney.

“This was something the Canadian government did … it was not considered in anyway necessary to support the war effort.”

Many Ukrainians, like Sydoruk and Boyko, feel that the best way to gain closure is to never forget Canada’s history again.

“So for me I just hope that it's the beginning of the conversation. It’s certainly not the end,” said Boyko.

bottom of page