Immigrants interned in forced labour camps during First World War
By Natalie Stechyson, Calgary Herald, June 18, 2013
Between 200 and 600 mostly Eastern European immigrants were help prisoner at two internment camps in Banff — first at Castle Mountain and later at Cave and Basin, above — between 1915 and 1917.

Photograph by: Herald files, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Standing in picturesque Banff National Park, nestled between dizzying mountains and surrounded by a mix of wildlife and luxurious tourist attractions, “forced labour,” “enemy aliens” and “suicide” might not be the first words that come to mind.

And yet that was the reality for hundreds of eastern-European immigrants interned there at a work camp during the First World War, part of a Canada-wide operation that saw nearly 9,000 mostly Ukrainian immigrants deemed enemy aliens and interned at 24 camps across the country as prisoners of war from 1914 to 1920.

It’s also how much of the roads and clearings at several western national parks, including Banff, were built.

“There are men running away from here every day, because the conditions here are very poor, so that we cannot go much longer, we are not getting enough to eat — we are as hungry as dogs,” a prisoner at the Castle Mountain camp in Banff identified as N. Olynik wrote to his wife in 1915.

“They are sending us to work, as they don’t believe us, and we are very weak . . . such conditions as we have here in Canada. I will never forget.”

On Thursday, Parks Canada will open a 1,000-square-foot exhibit about Canada’s internment operations next to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site at Banff National Park. The exhibit, called Enemy Aliens, Prisoners of War: Canada’s First World War Internment Operation, will encourage visitors to “reach their own conclusions about a difficult and challenging time in Canadian history,” according to Parks Canada.

The exhibit is already mired in controversy — about the past itself, how the events of the past will be portrayed by the federal government, and whether enough credence has been given to the magnitude of the wrong, said Dr. Patrick Brennan, a history professor with the University of Calgary.

The camp at Banff is now viewed by many as “particularly obscene,” Brennan said.

“To think that this national park, with all its beauty and natural resources and recreation, that a lot of the roads and facilities were built by what amounted to prisoner of war labour, but they shouldn’t even have been prisoners of war — I think that’s what strikes a lot of people,” Brennan said.

“People should be really aware that along the same route they follow to the Cave and Basin, a bunch of hungry, frustrated, forgotten young men marched in the cold of the winter with pickaxes over their shoulders.”

In all, more than 100 men died in work camps across the country during the First World War, Brennan said.

In 2008, the federal government established the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund to educate Canadians and to commemorate the internment operations from 1914-1920.

As war broke out, there was quite a bit of concern by the government of the day that nationals from what became “enemy countries” — Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria — might be disloyal to Canada, said Steve Malins, a Parks Canada project lead with the Banff component of the National Historical Recognition Program Project.

From 1915 to 1917, Banff was a prison for anywhere from 200 to 600 men at any one time, Malins said. The men were held at two camps — the first at Castle Mountain from July 1915 to the following November, and the second at Cave and Basin until the camp closed in July 1917.

During that time, two internees and a guard committed suicide, Malins said. There were 61 escape attempts in the first year alone. It’s not known how many of those attempts were successful, Malins said.

During the internment operations, men were also sent to Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Yoho to help build those parks.

Parks Canada received $3.3 million from the federal government’s national historical recognition program, the bulk of which went to the Banff project, Malins said. They consulted with academics, the public and affected community members in building the exhibit, he said.

But some say they worry about how the details of this history will be portrayed.

“The proof will be in the pudding when the centre opens its doors, and if it actually accurately tells the story of how people were removed from their homes and sent to these forced labour camps,” said Taras Zalusky, the executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

“If it skims over the history . . . then it’s a disservice to those people who, in a number of cases, were used as forced labour to build various infrastructure projects across the country.”

Borys Sydoruk, a director with the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation, said he’s looking forward to seeing what Parks Canada will do with the exhibit.

“It’s always interesting when the jailers write the stories of the prisoners. And, of course, the jailers are no longer alive and neither are the prisoners,” Sydoruk said.

Laudie Collins’ father, John, was born in what is now known as Ukraine. He came to Canada in 1913, settled in southern Saskatchewan and became a homesteader, said Collins, 90, from her Calgary home.

When an RCMP officer confronted Collins’ father at the post office one day at the beginning of the war, calling him an illegal alien, he was very nearly arrested and sent to a camp — but the postmaster stepped in and pleaded with the officer to think of the man’s family, she said. Collins’ father was released, but many other men in the area weren’t as lucky, she said.

“They just nabbed them. They just took them right out of the fields,” said Collins, recalling how her mother had described what she’d seen.

“I’m just thankful that somehow, by the grace of god, my father was spared.”

Calling the internment years Canada’s “dark history,” Collins said she’s glad for the new exhibit but angry it’s taken so long for there to be one.

“It’s an embarrassment to the Canadian government. It should have been brought to light years ago.”