The Nighmarish Effects of the Ukrainian-Canadian Internment Operations

Imagine that government officials came to someone’s door and told them they must leave. Imagine they took them to a prison camp, often in an area of isolation. Imagine that this person would be used for cheap labour, and would be subject to physical, verbal, financial, and emotional abuse, and would have their health affected by becoming ill or even insane.

However, this person committed no crimes. They had no trial. This happened. Events similar to the hypothetical situation just discussed actually took place in Canada. These people were of German, Austrian, and Bulgarian background, but a large majority was Ukrainian, at an estimated five thousand Ukrainian prisoners. These events are referred to as the First World War Internment Operations, in which 8,759 people were forced into internment camps.

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Clearly, it is inappropriate to force someone to a labour camp, especially without a proper trial to conclude whether or not the individual had committed any crimes. It should furthermore be stated that the internment operations were harmful to the prisoners. Due to emotional, financial and verbal abuse and physical abuse, and abuse of their rights by killing those who attempted escape, as well as deterioration of many prisoners’ health, both mental and physical, the operators of the Internment Camps caused their prisoners to live a nightmare. The Ukrainian Internment harmed the prisoners because they were verbally, financially, physically, and emotionally abused, and that they could have been shot when attempting escape. While such abuse would almost certainly be prevented in modern times, it appears that little was done to prevent the abuse of the Ukrainian people. Ukrainian internees report many instances of verbal abuse, especially by the guards.

For example, when one worker expressed that he was ill, the guard “struck him with his rifle and called him a son of a bi—h.” (Maryniuk). This rough demeanor of the guards is described as not being an uncommon occurrence (Luciuk 20). Also, labeling the Ukrainian Canadians as “enemy aliens” presents another case of verbal abuse. It is commonly accepted that the majority of internees committed no war crimes and presented little or no disruption to Canadian society. As one man wrote to the Deputy Minister of the Department of Education in Winnipeg in November, 1914: “I have heard of no movement on the part of the people here which would in any way indicate that they were disloyal to the Britishh Empire” (Luciuk 22) thus reinforcing the majority belief that most internees were innocent.

Yet, they were labeled in society as a term they did not deserve, a term which would no doubt cause them to feel ashamed and hurt, and a term which would be stuck to their people for years. Clearly, branding an innocent people as the term “enemy aliens” is verbal abuse. In addition to being verbally abused, the Ukrainian internees were also financially abused. They did not receive proper payments; their salary was twenty-five cents daily within six-day weeks, a dollar less a day than a soldier (Maryniuk). Furthermore, upon being taken to the internment camps, the valuables of the people were taken to the government. General Otter, directed the Canadian Internment Operations, wrote that: “As many of those interned were residents of Canada and possessed real estate, securities, etc.

such have been turned over to the ‘Custodian of Enemy Aliens Properties’ for the future decision of the Government.” Doubtlessly, taking away one’s possessions is a form of financial abuse, as well as the clear underpayment of the interned Ukrainians. Furthermore, the internees were not only financially abused, but they were also abused physically. They were forced to work under brutal and dangerous conditions, and consequently suffered injuries. One commanding officer, O.L.

Spencer of the Castle Mountain Internment Camp, wrote the following in his journal: “Thursday January 20th Prisoner of war no. 281 Mike Skoropodak who was working at the rock crusher was hit on the head with a piece of rock that flew through the air from an explosion that had been set off to break the rock. It appears from information gathered from the guards that they had lined up about 200 yards away when the explosion was set up and small pieces of rock were flying through the air.” (O.L. Spencer) He also wrote on a later date, February twenty-third, that “One prisoner of war burnt his hand badly”, when the internees were sent out to work in a park.

(Luciuk). Clearly, the working conditions of the camps were unsafe and therefore abusive. In addition to being physically abusive under working conditions, those running the internment camps also abused their prisoners by not providing them with enough food. Many prisoners were hungry, and one prisoner wrote that some other prisoners attempted escape because they were “as hungry as dogs” and had become weakened (Maryniuk). Therefore, since the prisoners were deprived of one of life’s necessities to the point that their health had been affected; and because their working conditions were unsafe, they had been physically abused.

Moreover, the internees were also subject to emotional abuse. Most camps were isolated, such as the internment camp near Kaspuskasing, Ontario. They were not permitted access to newspapers and their correspondence was selectively chosen (Luciuk). Furthermore, they were emotionally abused because they were separated from their friends, and often their families. Forcing these people away from their home, from the people they knew and loved is surely a form of emotional abuse. In addition to all the instances of abuse that have previously been discussed, some instances of abuse ended in death.

Six cases of prisoners escaping and then being shot have been recorded, such as the case of Ivan Hryhoryshchuk, who was interned at Spirit Lake (Luciuk 21). This reinforces the fact that the circumstances in the camp were so unbearable, because some attempted escape into the miles of isolation which surrounded them. But six of them did not reach escape, and lost their lives. This is a serious case of those in charge of the prisoners abusing their powers, but it is not nearly as serious when one considers the extent to which they abused those who escaped. They killed them. 3,138 of the 8,579 people who were interned had the potential to be classified as prisoners of war (Melnycky).

Therefore, though it is unclear of the official status was of those who were shot, it presents likelihood that the men who were killed were absolutely innocent. Furthermore, it is factual that even those who were truly prisoners of war not be shot. These men were given no trial, no probation, or no second chances. What did they die for? They likely died for becoming so desperate that they felt they had no other choice but to attempt to escape. Killing these men because they had reached a mental limit is certainly a form of abuse, and most definitely contributed to the nightmare that these poor people were forced to endure.

In addition to the clear evidence that the Ukrainian internees were abused, it has also become evident that the Internment negatively affected their health: some became insane, others became so desperate that they attempted escape into the wilderness, others became sick and even died, and finally, many developed scars that would remain for the rest of their lives. “So many instances of tuberculosis appeared among the prisoners”, wrote Otter. “Altogether some 41 of such patients were treated, of whom 26 unfortunately died”(Report on Internment Operations). Tuberculosis is a contagious disease, but it is rare to catch it unless one is in close contact with one another, in instances such as living together or attending school together. Evidently, the internment impacted the spread of this disease, because they forced the internees to live in very close quarters.

If the Ukrainians Canadians lived individually, outside the camps, it would have been highly unlikely that most of those people would have fallen ill with tuberculosis. The internment, therefore, played a role in the unnecessary death of twenty-six people, and the illnesses of fifteen others. The health impacts of the internment were fatal. General Otter wrote that “insanity was by no means uncommon among prisoners (William Otter)”. A total of 106 cases of insanity were reported throughout all the Internment Camps, a relatively large number considering eight thousand people were interned.

Therefore, since such a higher amount than average of the population became insane, the internment camps must have had a part to play. Since the internees were clearly abused, this is not surprising. Obviously, the internment camps were harmful to the Ukrainian people because they were treated to such a horrible extent, affecting their mental health to the point that insanity would become “by no means uncommon”. Furthermore, effects on the internees’ mental health would remain for years to come. As one Ukrainian Canadian said, “Memories of the camp gradually began to fade away… [But] one could never really forget it”. One wrote of the effects of his brother in law’s internment, “They had broken his spirit up there… He could never get over the injustice of his treatment, the falseness of hope in this new world”.

Marsha Skrypuch, the granddaughter of an internee, spoke of her grandfather in an interview, saying “My grandfather, he never ran for public office or anything like that. He was a very intelligent man. He was asked to do things like that. But he didn’t want to because he didn’t want to be seen in the public because he was afraid that he could be arrested and interned again. (How One Woman Discovered that her Grandfather was Interned Simply because he was Ukrainian)” Obviously, the interment caused a permanent scar to many, and a nightmare with effects that could never be forgotten. The Internment caused harm to the prisoners’ health, by causing them to become insane, to become ill, and by giving them a memory which would haunt them for years; furthermore, it caused harm to the people because they were emotionally, financially, verbally, and physically abused, and by killing those who attempted escape.

These people had committed no crime, and yet the Canadian government subjected them to a horrible treatment. Mary Manko Haskett, who was believed to be the last remaining survivor of the internment before her death in 2007, once spoke of the internees saying: “They were just ordinary farm folks, I guess. They thought they’d try their luck at a bigger country… But the dream fell apart.” Bibliography “How One Woman Discovered That Her Grandfather was Interned Simply Because He was Ukrainian,” produced by The Mark News, 3:25, The Mark News’ Forgotten Internment Camps, 2010, film. http://www. (accessed April 24, 2013). Luciuk, Lubomyr. A Time for Atonement. Ottawa: Runge Limited, 1988. Print.

O.L. Spencer, “Diary of internment camp: Castle, Alberta,” in Bohdan S. Kordan and Peter Melnycky (eds.), In the shadow of the Rockies (Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1991), p.51-57 Mary Haskett (Manko), “Internment survivor writes Mulroney” in Lubomyr Luciuk (ed.

), Righting an Injustice (Toronto, ON: The Justinian Press, 1994), p. 151. Maryniuk, Jonathan. “Centre for Constitutional Studies.” University of Alberta Centre for Constitutional Studies.

Alberta Law Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

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“Tuberculosis.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 26 Jan. 2013. Web.

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William Otter, “Report on internment operations,” in Lubomyr Luciuk (ed.), In fear of the barbed wire fence: Canada’s first national internment operations and the Ukrainian Canadians, 1914–1920 (Kingston, ON: Kashtan Press, 2001), p. 82–88.