Southern Manitoba monument pays tribute to Canadian internment camp survivors

The traumatic legacy of Canada’s Ukrainian internment camps is being commemorated in a new permanent exhibit in southern Manitoba.

An educational photographic exhibit in Emerson created by the the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation (UCCLF) and the Municipality of Emerson-Franklin Tourism Committee marks Canada’s First World War internment operations from 1914 to 1920.

UCCLF chair Borys Sydoruk said the unveiling  of the interpretive panel commemorates a march by Ukrainians looking for work from Winnipeg to Emerson in May 1915. 

More than 1,000 men left the provincial capital in the hopes of finding work in the United States. By the time they arrived in Emerson, a community located about 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg, their numbers had dwindled to around 200 and they were arrested as “enemy aliens.”

Sydoruk says those who were detained were later sent to the Brandon internment camp.

A man stands at a podium speaking.
UCCLF chair Borys Sydoruk speaks at the unveiling. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

It is important to educate Canadians about internment operations, he says, because many people have never been exposed to this dark moment in the nation’s history.

“They were not arrested for doing something, they were arrested for who they were, where they were born,” Sydoruk said. “Men left Canada to look for work because they were unemployed and hungry and they got arrested as enemy aliens for that.”

The experience left people feeling embarrassed, ashamed and hesitant to share their stories.

Sydoruk says he has spoken with many people whose grandfathers, great-uncles and other family members were interned, and in most cases these stories were never spoken of. In some cases, the tales “were taken to the grave” or documents detailing their horrific experiences were found after their deaths.

Two priests walk in front of a monument blessing it.
A Ukrainian Orthodox priest blesses the Emerson monument. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The Emerson memorial, which has been in the works for two years, will be officially installed at the park on Main and Church sometime this week, weather permitting. The ceremonial unveiling of the installation took place at the Emerson community centre.

“If we don’t know our history, we tend to repeat it,” Sydoruk said. “When I was in social studies in high school we did not learn anything about this … so having these types of events, having these types of interpretive panels which people can read in less than two minutes, at least they get some sort of idea that things happen in Canada.”

Canada’s history of internment camps

According to the Canadian War Museum, more than 8,500 Ukrainians were detained at Canadian internment camps from 1914 to 1920.

The internment camp in Brandon was located at the Winter Fair buildings on the corner of Tenth Street and Victoria Avenue. Between November 1914 and July 1916, more than 900 men at a time were imprisoned there. The camp shut down on July 30 1916 after the remaining inmates were transferred to Alberta.

In 2005, the federal government passed the Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act, recognizing the injustice to those interned during the First World War.

Legacy of racism

First-generation Kathrine Basarab and fourth-generation Larissa Klymkiw Ukrainian-Canadians participated in the short memorial service before the unveiling of the monument.

When people talk about struggles of oppression and prejudice such as the events seen in Emerson in 1915, Klymkiw says, her ancestors have similar experiences.

“We’re not the only ones who have survived. There are other groups of survivors as well,” she said. “We stand in solidarity with all the groups that have survived horrible things.”

A green park with a small bridge at the front and tree carvings in the back.
The Emerson park where a monument to Ukrainian internment camp survivors will be placed. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Growing up Klymkiw’s family would talk about the prejudice her father and grandfather’s experience of living in Canada. For example, a second cousin who could not go to the University of Manitoba because they had a quota on Ukrainians.

“That shocks a lot of people,” Klymkiw said, adding these experiences have spurred the need to celebrate and stay connected to her Ukrainian heritage.

 “I think one of the most beautiful things is that some of us have managed to hang on — even though I’m first generation, Ukraine is my first language,” Klymkiw said. “It’s been such gift and such a central part of my identity.”

The monument unveiling was an important day to be a part of, Basarab says, because the internment camps are a part of history that is often hidden in the shadows.

She appreciates the installation of the monument because it honours those who were affected by offering an educational experience through information detailing what happened on the walk to Emerson in 1915.

Her hope is the monument gives people time to pause and reflect on the history of internment camps in Canada. 

“It’s important anybody who forgets history is doomed to repeat it,” Basarab said.