Canada's slaves of war

Published: Friday, September 28 2007

Last year, Anna Pawliw travelled to Abitibi to visit the site of what was once the Spirit Lake Internment Camp.
Pawliw's mother - a toddler at the time - and grandparents were imprisoned there for nearly two years during the First World War. Their only crime was that, as immigrants from western Ukraine, they held Austro-Hungarian passports.

"I spent the night at Spirit Lake. Because it's so far north, there was already snow. At 5 in the morning, I heard the train coming, and I could imagine what it was like for them. They were so far away from their home in Montreal - they must have wondered how this thing would end and what it was all for," said Pawliw, 62, a Pierrefonds resident.

Between 1914 and 1918, 8,579 immigrants to Canada were held in 24 internment camps across the country. Though it's estimated 3,000 were genuine prisoners of war, the rest were civilians, hard-working immigrants, many of them Ukrainians like the Pawliws, who had been recruited to work in Canada.

"The internees were sent to remote locations and forced to work for the profit of their jailers," said Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., and acting chairperson of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

There were 1,300 prisoners at Spirit Lake. It was one of only two Canadian internment camps where women and children were also held captive.

Prisoners lived in overcrowded barracks and were forced to do slave labour. Their guards were under orders to shoot anyone who tried to escape.

Tomorrow, members of Montreal's Ukrainian community will gather at the downtown YMCA on Stanley St. to unveil a plaque recognizing the kindness shown to their ancestors by the YMCA.

Anne Sadelain, who lives in Edmonton and co-founded the Descendants of Ukrainian Canadian Internee Victims Association, came up with the idea for the plaque.

Her father was a survivor of four internment camps. When Sadelain was sorting through his old papers, she noticed many were written on YMCA stationery.

"I believe the YMCA was one of the only associations that ever tried to help the Ukrainian and other East
European internees," she said.
During the First World War, the YMCA helped prisoners of war overseas and in Canada.
"On the domestic front,
YMCA teams visited internment camps across Canada and provided educational and moral support to internees," Luciuk said.

Sadelain's father rarely spoke about his experience in the camps. "He never wrote to tell his mother he was in prison. He didn't think she'd understand he'd been imprisoned for no reason," she said.

Sadelain contacted Luciuk, whose group has been installing commemorative plaques across Canada to mark the sites of former internment camps.

Representatives of two Ukrainian churches in Montreal will be at the local unveiling, including Ihor Oshchipko, the priest at St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church on d'Iberville St.

"Sixty families from St. Michael's were interned at Spirit Lake," said Yurij Luhovy, a Montreal-based documentary film director who was the last person to film the internment camp before it was dismantled in the 1970s.

"A lot of these families didn't know why they were interned, nor when they would be released. Nobody answered their questions," Luhovy said.

Following the ceremony, children's author Marsha Skrypuch will launch her latest book, Prisoners in the Promised Land: The Ukrainian Internment Diary of Anya Soloniuk, published by Scholastic.

Skrypuch spent five years researching her novel, most of which is set at Spirit Lake. Anya Soloniuk is a fictional character, but she is based on real girls who were imprisoned at Spirit Lake, including Stephanie Mielniczuk Pawliw - Anna Pawliw's mother.

"I like to find little flakes of history that have been shoved under the carpet," Skrypuch said.
Kim Pawliw, Anna Pawliw's 15-year-old niece and Stephanie Mielniczuk Pawliw's granddaughter, hopes to come from Sherbrooke to attend the ceremony. Although Stephanie Mielniczuk Pawliw died in 2003, she continues to inspire her granddaughter.

"She always looked on the bright side and she used to make me perogies," Kim said.
"She and her family lost everything they had when they were sent to Spirit Lake.
"They weren't enemies. They were forgotten by history and by the government. But I don't want their experience to be forgotten. It wasn't their fault."

The unveiling of the commemorative plaque will take place at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the YMCA, 1440 Stanley St. The unveiling will be followed by the launch of Marsha Skrypuch's book Prisoners in the Promised Land: The Ukrainian Internment Diary of Anya Soloniuk. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Montreal.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007