THOMPSON: The dark history of Vernon's First World War internment camp | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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THOMPSON: The dark history of Vernon's First World War internment camp



Squirrelled away in some attic or basement there might be official government documents, photos and diaries of those who lived or witnessed what happened 109 years ago in Vernon, BC. Of course, it’s just as likely that none of those documents, photos and diaries exist, and if so, there is no other record of what went on in Vernon from 1914 to 1920.

The Vernon Internment Camp - one of 24 that would rise across Canada - came to life on Sept. 14, 1914. The camps held 8,579 Canadian residents and citizens unlucky enough to be immigrants from Austria-Hungary, mostly displaced Ukrainians. However, the camps also held Poles, Italians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Germans, Croats, Romanians, Austrians, Hungarians, Russians, Jews, Czechs, Slovaks, Armenians and Ottoman Turks.

Of the 171,000 Ukrainians living in Canada in 1914, 80,000 of them were forced to carry identity papers with them at all times…and could be challenged by any government official to produce them on demand. Each of these “enemy aliens” had to report monthly to local police…subject to relocation to one of the 24 camps…if they or their actions seemed “suspicious” by those authorities.

These folks were unlucky because Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28…and a month later Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia…the start of World War Is. On August 22, Canada passed the War Measures Act, which gave the Cabinet - the Prime Minister and 27 other men - the power to censor and suppress communications, arrest, detain and deport people without charges or trials, control transportation, trade and manufacturing, and seize private property.

Those interned - and for the sake of clarity and accuracy let’s call it imprisoned - were called “enemy aliens”…which was inaccurate, as well. Indeed, many in government even called the camps “receiving stations”…which sounds less oppressive, I guess. Actually there were five true “receiving stations” that processed those heading to the 24 concentration camps.

How can we tell that Canada was living a lie during this time…forming camps to protect citizens from foreign spies? The only records not found in Canada’s National Archives and Libraries are those documenting “enemy aliens” and the camps where they were enslaved for up to five-and-a-half years.

Those records - diaries, official documents, photos, maps and other correspondence - once existed but were ordered destroyed by Ottawa government officials in 1954. The only official records ever destroyed in Canada’s 156-year history…to this very day…are the deeds and actions in 24 camps for five years.

Other proof of the obvious wrongdoing…that remains even today. Canada has both apologized and remunerated the members of First Nations and Japanese-Canadians who were interned and mistreated in the 20th century. But, still, no apology and not one Loonie has gone to the descendants of Canada’s enslaved prisoners during WW I.

Notice I use the more proper term for these “enemy aliens”…enslaved prisoners. Few were paid for their work…and yet they farmed, and worked in factories and built highways, bridges and railroad tracks…benefitting Canada and individual citizens and property owners.

Many of these folks had been lured to Canada to help settle the West…promised 160 acres way back in the Dominion Lands Act of 1872. Most of those who had land lost it…confiscated by the government. The hopes of getting land after the start of WWI by the Ukrainians who qualified under the Act…were dashed.

It is difficult - nearly impossible - to find much proof of the harshness of the 24 camps…funerals have taken care of all eye witnesses. Canadians offended by such claims today, might brush off accusations with what many government officials always said - especially after records were destroyed - “That never happened”.

The Vernon Camp was ten acres of land that is now MacDonald Park and W.L. Seaton  Secondary School. Just over 500 men, women and children were imprisoned in Vernon. Fewer than 80 people lived indoors in a single building…many of them guards.

Most Ukrainians lived in tents on what are now soccer fields at McDonald Park…Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. Living in a tent…in January? Yes, the word harsh comes to mind…especially after taking their money and property and relocating them to a concentration camp, where they were denied books and newspapers, where their personal incoming mail was read and outgoing mail was censored.

Those doubting that prisoners suffered mistreatment at the hands of guards should perhaps remember that in 1916, anti-Germanic feelings were so strong that the town of Berlin, Ontario - home to lots of German-speaking immigrants - changed its name to Kitchener.

Eleven men died during those five-plus years…but no record exists of women and children deaths. Seven of the graves of those 11 are in Vernon’s Pleasant Valley Cemetery…a final resting place with a name far better than what they knew when they lived in Vernon. Some 107 prisoners across Canada died from TB and Influenza, and a few were shot trying to escape. Another 106 were deemed insane…suffering from what was called “the barbed wire decease.”

Vernon was a small town in 1914…about 3,000 folks…so there were plenty of unpaid labourers to serve the town those five years. They built Highway 97A at Mara Lake, opening up the Okanagan to the Trans Canada Highway, and the Okanagan to the Kootenays and creating Highway 6 between Cherryville and Edgewood.

Just to be clear, the purpose of this column isn’t to guilt-trip Canadians — dead or alive — or their descendants. It’s to admit a truth. These kinds of despicable acts happen everywhere: the U.S., Russia, Germany and Canada, you name it. The truth can withstand any scrutiny, so bringing light to darkness - however uncomfortable and uneasy - is good, the right thing.

Almost always the root cause of grossly unfair and unjust acts…is fear. The Canadian government - and more precisely reactionary politicians within that government - convinced Canadians…people born here…that they were safer by putting folks who couldn’t speak the language as well or who celebrated different cultural norms in concentration camps.

The Vernon Camp and 23 others across Canada were the result of a horribly tragic decision that remains a blot on the nation’s history…an indelible reminder that otherwise good people are capable of evil. The further decision to cover up its misdeeds nearly two generations later  by destroying all records adds to the shame.

If you were a descendant of those 8,579 enslaved people…or the 80,000 others under the threat of being sent away at a whim…how would you feel? What is the fair thing to do now?

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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