Prisoners in the Promised Land

“It is very probable that if this proposal [War Time Elections Act, 1917] becomes law, the ‘alleged’ foreigners and hitherto ‘naturalized’ Canadians will bear their reproach meekly, but they will have sown in their hearts the seeds of a bitterness that can never be extirpated. The man whose honour has been mistrusted, and who has been singled out for national humiliation, will remember it and sooner or later it will have to be atoned for.”

— Daily British Whig, Kingston, 8 September 1917


Yesterday, I attended the Toronto launch of Marsha Skrypuch’s young adult historical fiction novel, Prisoners in a Promised Land. I had the privilege of critiquing this book in an online group that Marsha helped organize, and it was an excellent read, even before the books’ editors took over. Marsha has also been incredibly generous with new authors like myself, and I felt I owed it to her to come out and show my support, even despite the terrible weather. And I was far from the only one. We were treated to a powerful, emotional event.

Prisoners in a Promised Land book is the latest of Scholastic’s “Dear Canada” series wherein young protagonists keep a diary as they experience the historical Canadian events that they live through. Marsha’s book follows young Anya Soloniuk, a 12-year-old Ukranian girl who comes to Canada, just before the First World War, only to be rounded up and sent with her family to an internment camp for “enemy aliens” in Spirit Lake, in northern Quebec.

The internment of Ukrainian-Canadians along with other East Europeans during the First World War ranks up there with the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War as one of the greater injustices this country has wrought upon its citizens. In some ways, the internment of the Ukrainians was even worse as not even Britain engaged in this tactic, acknowledging that the Ukrainians weren’t enemy aliens, but subject people of the Austria-Hungarian empire, many of whom were fighting against Britain’s enemies, to gain independence.

But the racist attitude towards Canada’s eastern European immigrants was too strong, and permeated the leadership of the government and, starting in 1914, the Canadian government ordered the rounding up of thousands of Ukrainian-Canadians, men, women and children, sticking them in internment camps, confiscating their property, and stripping them of their right to vote. The prisoners were compelled to work for the profit of their captors. Conditions in these camps were harsh, and people died. The camps remained in place until 1920, over 18 months after the end of the First World War, as these Ukrainians, who hadn’t even left their camps, were now somehow a “Bolshevik” threat. The editorial above is one of the few found by the Ukrainian-Canadian Civil Liberties Association condemning the government’s actions at the time. The rest of the population remained highly supportive of the internment policy, and highly suspicious of eastern European immigrants. Note below the excerpt of this speech made on Parliament Hill:

“I say unhesitatingly that every enemy alien who was interned during the war is today just as much an enemy as he was during the war, and I demand of this Government that each and every alien in this dominion should be deported at the earliest opportunity….Cattle ships are good enough for them.”

— Herbert S. Clements, MP (Kent West, Ontario), 24 March 1919

When Marsha spoke at the event, her voice choked with emotion as she described how her grandfather had been interred, and the psychological scars that remained with him in the decades following. He told her that he had been “imprisoned by Canada”, and he still did not know why. And she described how it was such a shock to her to learn that her grandfather and so many like him had been so seriously mistreated.

Dr. Lubomir Luciuk spoke at the launch and described how, when he and other members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community contacted the Canadian government in 1987 to seek acknowledgement of the internments, the government official told him that these events simply had not happened on Canadian soil. But the records were uncovered, and survivors came forward and gradually the various political parties of this nation have taken up the cause. But it was a great struggle to get some of the survivors to tell their stories because, even decades after the internments, many were afraid that speaking out and criticizing the Canadian government would get them interred once again.

As I listened to the personal stories, and especially the attitudes expressed by government officials at the time, I was struck by the similarity between these statements and the stronger statements made in criticism of Canada’s recent immigrants. We’ve heard complaints about our new Canadians’ different cultural practises, their supposed contribution to crime and their drain on government resources. Islamic Canadians have been accused of widespread disloyalty to Canadian society. And as we can see, these debates are not new. Will we ever acknowledge that they’re largely without merit?

It is natural for people of different cultures to stumble against one another as they adjust to each other in the new home that we share, but whatever sympathy I might have had for the concerns about the perceived cultural practises of the current groups is tossed out the window when I consider how similar the language used today by those on the loonier side of the bin is to those who spoke out to justify some of the worst events in Canadian history. Immigrants today are hearing nothing that hasn’t already been expressed against Japanese-Canadians, Chinese-Canadians, Ukrainian-Canadians, and Irish-Canadians.

These words tap into a deeper problem within the psyche of any privileged group, inside and outside Canada. It taps into an irrational fear of change, and a refusal to look beyond our own preconceptions to truly understand those who are a little different from us. Right now, the bulk of the discussion about how new immigrants are adapting to Canadian society is mostly innocuous, but we must be careful to watch our words and check our assumptions, to ensure that we never give up the basic understanding that these people are as human as we are, and deserving of the same level of respect that we are entitled to. It’s a long way between blanket statements about immigrant groups, crime rates and use of government services to internment camps, but the end of that road is such a nasty place, we must steer clear of it always.

A friend of mine once cited Trudeau who said that we can’t apologize for every wrong committed by this country, but I respectfully disagree. We must. For decades, the internment of Ukrainian-Canadians was swept under the rug by the Canadian government, and the silence was maintained by Canadian citizens too scared to speak out. There was a real danger that this shameful event in Canadian history could have been forgotten, were it not for the efforts of the children and grandchildren of those affected, and the willingness of the Canadian government (especially through the great work of Conservative MP Inky Mark, who introduced the private members’ bill c-311, The Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act, which received royal assent on November 28, 2005) to finally acknowledge what had happened.

Because Canadians listened to the darker sides of their nature, real damage was done to these people. As the saying goes, those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it. Canadians need to remember, and turn a deaf ear to the dark whispers that are gathering in response to today’s group of new immigrants. Something like this must never be allowed to happen again.

Further Reading

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