Effects of WW I internment for Ukrainians
Overview of the set
This set of History Docs invites students to assess the effects of World War I internment had on Ukrainian internees, their families and the wider Ukrainian-Canadian community after examining a variety of primary and secondary sources including government documents, interviews, newspaper articles and letters-to-the-editor, and a diary of historical fiction.
Question: What were the consequences of World War I internment camps for Ukrainian internees and their families?
When determining the effects internment had on Ukrainian-Canadians, you may wish to consider the:
- various physical and psychological effects internment had on internees while they were interned and after they were released
- way that internment affected the perceptions and attitudes of Ukrainian-Canadians toward the Canadian government
- way that internment affected the perceptions and attitudes of other Canadians towards Ukrainian-Canadians
- way in which internment affected not only those who were interned but generations that followed (i.e., the children and grandchildren of internees) and how this, in turn, affects the character of Ukrainian communities today.
The following notes are intended to:
- help teachers guide student interpretation of the sources included in the set of History Docs
- provide teachers with historical background information on the topic.
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Historical context for teachers
Internment of Ukrainians
- Beginning in 1914, 8579 “enemy aliens” (including 81 women and 156 children) were incarcerated in 24 internment camps across Canada. The internees included 5954 Austro-Hungarians (believed to be mostly Ukrainians), 2009 Germans, 205 Turks and 99 Bulgarians. No Ukrainians with Russian citizenship were interned.
- Only 3138 of the 8579 internees were considered legitimate “prisoners of war”(individuals captured under arms or reservists subject to service in the Austrian or German imperial forces); the others were civilians.
- Upon internment, Ukrainian internees’ possessions and monetary funds were seized by the Canadian government. When they were released, their possessions and finances were not returned and they often faced continual security checks. Nearly $30 000 in cash was left in the Receiver-General’s Office at the end of internment operations in 1920.
Treatment and conditions
- Conditions in the camps were normally below acceptable standards of living at the time and treatment by the officers was often harsh. The difficult working and living conditions and enforced confinement took their physical and mental toll. Altogether, 107 internees died, 69 of them “Austrians.”
- There were several escape attempts in which Ukrainian Canadians were killed—others committed suicide. There was a serious disturbance in the Fort Henry camp in April 1915, and a full-scale riot in 1916 in the Kapuskasing camp that involved roughly 900 prisoners against 300 guards.
- As forced labourers, internees were primarily put to work cutting wood, clearing land (including for experimental farms in northern Ontario and Québec), building roads and railway construction projects, and building and maintaining Canada’s national parks, including Banff National Park in Alberta.
- The prisoners in the camps were segregated into two classes according to their nationality, occupation and previous military service. Generally speaking, internees of German ethnicity were treated as first-class internees while Ukrainians from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were designated second-class internees.
- First-class internees received preferred accommodation and rations, and were usually placed in a camp near an urban centre. Second-class internees were forced to work for the Canadian government building roads, erecting and repairing buildings, and clearing and draining land in isolated locations far away from urban centres. They received the same pay a Canadian soldier would receive for work outside of their routine military duties.
End of internment
- Throughout the war, Canada faced a critical manpower shortage in vital industries. Many internment camps were closed down between 1916 and 1918 when internees were shipped to larger camps or paroled to private companies to work as full-time employees. Paroled internees were allowed to work for private businesses; municipal, provincial and federal levels of government; and railway companies.
- Paroled Ukrainians were often forced to move to different spots across Canada without their families, and many were employed in industries in which they had no previous experience.
- Because the internees’ pay was fixed at a rate equivalent to that of a soldier, they made far less money than they would have if they were free members of society who were allowed to choose where they wanted to work.
- Following the end of the war in November 1918, many enemy aliens were often painted as political radicals and communists, connected with the “Bolsheviks” of the Russian Revolution, and were thus deemed worthy of internment.
- Public prejudice against enemy aliens remained strong at the end of the war, as groups such as the Great War Veterans Association argued that the government should suppress alien enemy newspapers and continue to force enemy aliens into labour camps.
- The camps were not closed until a full year and a half after the end of the war.