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Profiting from the past pain of others

“In the enclosure,” Ukrainian internees at the Castle Mountain camp in Banff National Park (GWH Millican Collection, Glenbow Museum)

When Ukrainians first began arriving in Canada, 131 years ago, they weren’t recognized for who they were, instead being called “Ruthenians” or by regional terms like “Galicians” or “Bukovynians.” Lured here with promises of freedom and free land, they were also not always appreciated. Editorialists at the Daily Herald in Calgary, for example, approvingly cited the “dispassionate, unprejudiced and common sense remarks” of Reverend Father Moris who, in 1899, having toured the Northwest, preached: “As for the Galicians I have not met a single person…who is sympathetic towards them. They are, from the point of view of civilization, 10 times lower than the Indians. They have not the least idea of sanitation. In their personal habits and acts [they] resemble animals, and even in the streets of Edmonton, when they come to market, men, women, and children, would if unchecked, turn the place into a common sewer. In many cases they have been content with building themselves holes in the ground where the family consorts with the animals…they herd together, they do not understand our ways or tongue.” The Herald then chided those government officials who were supposedly giving Alberta’s farming lands over to “a horde of hopelessly immoral and filthy Galicians.”

It got worse. Exacerbated by pre-war racism and wartime xenophobia, tens of thousands of Ukrainians and other Europeans were branded as “enemy aliens” during Canada’s first national internment operations of 1914-1920. Many would be transported to twenty-four internment camps set up in the country’s frontier hinterlands, forced to do heavy labour for the profit of their jailers and subjected to other state-sanctioned censures, including disenfranchisement. And, after the war’s end, calls were made for their jobs to be given to returning soldiers “or any other white man.” As for what to do with this imported “race of inferior beings,” also prosaically described as “the bohunks of Central Europe,” one MP, Herbert S Clements (Kent West) recommended: “..every alien in this Dominion should be deported at the earliest opportunity. Cattle ships are good enough for them.” Clement’s contemporary, Sir Hugh J Macdonald (the son of Sir John A) counseled: “Fear is the only agency that can be successfully employed to keep them within the law and I have no doubt that if the Dominion Government persists in the course that it is now adopting the foreign element here will soon be as gentle and easily controlled as a lot of sheep.” Obligingly, he even specified which “races” were “undesirable” – Ruthenians, Russians, Poles and Russian and German Jews, all allegedly bearers of Bolshevism. Thankfully, proposals demanding these unfortunates wear badges identifying them as such were not adopted, that particular indignity being left for the Nazis to force upon Jews during the Holocaust.

Throughout the interwar period immigration quotas discriminated against many “races,” including Ukrainians. Having only a few years earlier been subject to being rounded up as “enemy aliens,” not because of anything they had done wrong but only because of who they were, Ukrainians and their children were now expected  to assimilate. Across the Prairies teachers were even forbidden from speaking Ukrainian during school hours. Today some might label this as another example of a cultural genocide.

Arguably it was not until the Second World War, after Ukrainian Canadians proved their “loyalty” by being overrepresented as volunteers for overseas duty in the armed forces, that prejudices began to fade, although far from entirely. I well remember – and I was born and raised in Kingston – having a biddy on a bus tell my mother and me to “stop speaking [our] fucking foreign language.” And, of course, with a name like mine, I got my ‘share’ of hazing.

Who today should right these historic wrongs? Can someone in our time really apologize for the bigots of yesterday? And why are even heartfelt expressions of contrition often dismissed as insufficient? Do the descendants of the Ukrainians whose remains still lie in unmarked graves in the boreal forest of Quebec’s Abitibi region deserve financial compensation? Long ago I asked a survivor of the internment operations that very question. After all Mary Manko’s sister, Nellie, died at Spirit Lake. She replied that any redress campaign should be “about memory, not money.” I welcomed Mary’s prescription then. And still do. Profiting from the past pain of others is just plain wrong.

About the Author
Born in Kingston, Ontario, the son of Ukrainian political refugees, Lubomyr was educated at Queen's University, the University of Alberta and, since 1990, has been a professor of political geography at The Royal Military College of Canada. He is also a Fellow of the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto and, in 2019, was distinguished by President Volodymyr Zelinsky with Ukraine's Cross of Ivan Mazepa.
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