‘Shameful point in history’: New Calgary monument tells story of WWI internment camps

An educational and commemorative exhibit marking Canada’s First World War internment operation is now set up in Ukrainian Pioneers Park in northeast Calgary.

Over 8,000 people living in Canada were sent to internment camps during the First World War. Immigrants were locked away not for anything they did, but because of where they came from.

The 24 internment camps and receiving stations across Canada held 8,579 people.

That included 5,954 men of Austro-Hungarian origin, the majority of whom were Ukrainian. Germans, Turks and Bulgarians were also sent to the camps.

“It is a shameful point in history and yet Ukrainian Canadians persevered. You faced down discrimination and you stood yourselves back up again,” said Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek at the unveiling event on Saturday hosted by the Ukrainian Civil Liberties Foundation.

Sofiia Zozuliak recently moved to Calgary with her mom and sister to flee the war in Ukraine. She didn’t know about the internment camps in Canada before arriving here.

“It’s very unfortunate to see that they were treated that way for doing nothing wrong,” Zozuliak said.

“It’s very unfortunate but even today, we still see the same thing happening and Ukrainians being captured and killed but not in Canada. We are very grateful Canada is able to host all the immigrants, but still, the Ukrainian nation is being tortured by Russia just because we are Ukrainian.”

Seven of the 24 internment camps were in Alberta. Property was confiscated and the unpaid labour done by the “enemy aliens” helped build much of Canada’s infrastructure during that time.

Others, unfit for labour, died of tuberculosis and pneumonia, or while attempting to escape.

While the last of the camps in Ontario closed in 1920, the discrimination toward Ukrainian immigrants continued.

“I don’t think they realize how terrible it was at some point and the degree of bigotry they experienced,” said Daniel Moussienko, president of the Calgary branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

“I hope that by having this plaque here, they are able to look for more information on it and realize what hardships were experienced.”

The Ukrainian Canadian campaign for acknowledgement was spearheaded by members of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

In 2008, the Canadian government established a $10-million fund that helps create projects that commemorate the experience of thousands of Ukrainians and other Europeans interned between 1914 and 1920 and the many others who suffered a suspension of their civil liberties and freedoms.

A second plaque is expected to be set up between 10 Street and 14 Street near the Bow River in Calgary next year.

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