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Speaker sheds light on hidden chapter of history
Andrea Malysh attended school in Vernon on what was once the site of a World War I civilian internment camp.
Her great-grandfather was interned. Her grandparents were forced to carry cards branding them as enemy aliens and they had to report to police regularly.
And yet Malysh, like so many Canadians, for a long time knew nothing about this chapter in Canadian history.
Today she is program manager with the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, an organization dedicated to shedding light on the events in which more than 8,500 Canadians, largely of Ukrainian origin, were imprisoned during the First World War.
Malysh was guest speaker Saturday at the Osoyoos Museum and Archives at an event held in conjunction with Culture Days, a cross-Canada weekend encouraging Canadians to participate in the cultural life of their communities.
The decision to bring Malysh to Osoyoos was the result of “a happy coincidence,” said museum curator Ken Favrholdt.
Since August, the museum has been hosting an exhibit about the World War I internment called “The Barbed Wire Solution.”
The Ukrainian Research and Documentation Centre developed the exhibit, which runs into November.
About 30 people attended the talk as Malysh recounted the history.
Prior to World War I, many immigrants were encouraged with offers of free land to come to Canada from Eastern Europe to settle and farm in the West.
In order to make the trip, many, including those from what is now the Ukraine, had to obtain Austro-Hungarian passports.
When they came to Canada, their nationalities were recorded as Austro-Hungarian or Austrian rather than their ethnic nationality.
In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Canada and Britain, along with other allies, were at war with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Canadian government of Sir Robert Borden considered these recent immigrants to be enemy aliens and they were stripped of their rights.
Many of those interned were used to perform forced labour both for private business and to build public roads. Much of the development of Banff National Park was done by these prisoners.
The legislation used was the War Measures Act, which has only been used three times in Canadian history – to intern civilians on the basis of national origin in the two world wars, and to impose martial law in Québec during the 1970 FLQ crisis.
Malysh’s grandparents came to Canada to settle in Alberta in 1903. Unfortunately for them, they came a year after the 1902 cut off to be exempted from the wartime laws aimed at aliens.
So scarred by the experience were her grandparents that like many others, they never discussed it.
“They never talked about it,” said Malysh. “It wasn’t until we actually opened up their passports and found the registration cards inside. My father had these documents for many years and didn’t know even what they were.”
Malysh only pieced together her grandparents’ story this spring when she obtained the documents.
“Believe it or not, I’ve been working on this issue with the Ukrainian community since 1997 and we’ve just found my grandparents’ registration cards this spring,” she said.
Malysh said she was first approached in 1997 by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association because she was a Vernon resident involved in the Ukrainian-Canadian community and Vernon had been the site of one of the 24 internment camps across Canada.
At first she was surprised even to learn that there had been an internment camp in the community. She was engaged to do research.
“I went to my father, who was born and raised in Vernon, and he never knew anything about it,” she said. “His parents never talked about it. I think this is a typical story. I hear with my work that there is shame or fear and they never talk about it ever again.”
Her organization spent more than 25 years researching the history and working with government to have it recognized.
Only in 2005 was a private member’s bill sponsored by Conservative MP Inky Mark passed into law obliging the government to negotiate measures to be taken to recognize and commemorate the internment.
That bill ultimately led the federal government to establish a $10 million fund to document the internment and to finance educational and commemorative projects.
Malysh says she hopes teachers will talk about the whole topic including the effects of the War Measures Act.
The World War I internment, which affected many communities and not just Ukrainians, ultimately led to the internment of Japanese and Italian Canadians during the Second World War, she points out.
“When you have so many new immigrants coming into our country, this could happen again potentially,” she said. “Canadians need to be aware that we were all immigrants, other than the First Nations, and we could all be affected.”