Review: The WWI Camps

Otto Boyko of Edmonton recalls the day he enlisted in the army during the Korean War, and went home to tell Mother he’d take basic training at Camp Petawawa, Ont. “Oh, that’s where your dad was held in the internment camp,” she said.

Another oldtimer, Andrew Antoniuk, remembered when his father bought his first car in 1937, he insisted on taking the family to see a clearing in the bush near Jasper, Alta. “He showed us the area where his eldest brother said he had worked clearing the forest in an internment camp,” said Antoniuk: “It didn’t mean that much, but now as I am reviewing the history, I see the place again and I think about it. Oh, my God.”

The Stories Were Not Told documents the First War internment of 8,579 people, most of them Ukrainians. Yes, detainees included women and children. Yes, men were shot trying to escape. Author Sandra Semchuk describes her work as an attempt at “gathering clues that have been emptied of meaning and forgotten.”

“While doing my research for this book, I found communities who did not want to speak about the internment at all,” writes Semchuk. “One man who refused to speak said, ‘Oh, I know what you are going to do.’”

Immigrants were forced from their homes as enemy aliens by a cabinet order signed October 28, 1914. Some 88,000 were initially required to carry ID cards and report monthly to police. One in 10 were then forced into labour camps. Two facts remain: Ukrainians’ detention served no military purpose whatsoever – the camps operated till 1920, long after the Armistice – and were not controversial at the time.

Semchuk notes Ukrainians were almost a sub-class of Canadian society, considered sturdy and dull-witted. Official documents likened them to livestock. One correspondent wrote then-Interior Minister Arthur Meighen in 1919 that Ukrainians could be “controlled as a lot of sheep.”

The Stories Were Not Told is a stark narrative. It is also beautiful. Semchuk is a skilled photographer whose works have appeared in the National Gallery. Readers are riveted by rare historic images of the camps, and before-and-after photographs that document the precise locations where detainees were held. “Barbed wire emerged from the core of a spruce tree at Castle Mountain and bound a cedar tree at Revelstoke, giving evidence to fact in time,” she writes.

Concealment of the WWI camps is no accident, Semchuk concludes. Cabinet in 1954 authorized the destruction of records from the Custodian of Enemy Property, and internees suppressed memories. “It was almost as if it was all a bad dream, a nightmare that would best be forgotten, certainly not something other Canadians would want to talk about with us, the victims,” Semchuk quotes one ex-child internee. “I can never forget what was done to my family and me.”

By Holly Doan

The Stories Were Not Told: Canada’s First World War Internment Camps, by Sandra Semchuk; University of Alberta Press; 352 pages; ISBN 9781-7721-23784; $34.99

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