Parish Internees

St. Michael’s Parish during WWI

Marsha Skrypuch

Within weeks of Canada entering World War I against Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 6, 1914, our federal government brought into force the War Measures Act, tightening the grip on immigrants from enemy countries. Federal officials were given sweeping powers to decide whom to arrest, deport or incarcerate, and whose property they would expropriate and sell.

Federal attention focused on Montreal because it had the largest number of “enemy aliens” of any military district in Canada. It was also one of the largest concentrations of urban Ukrainians in the country. In the winters, there would be up to 7000 Ukrainians in Montreal, mostly living in tenement slums. Most held unskilled jobs in factories, steel mills, foundries, and so on.

The concern about “enemy aliens” was not entirely unwarranted. Many Ukrainians of the time had conflicted loyalties. Yes, they had fled harsh Austrian rule for a better life in Canada, but they had relatives back home who were plunged into a war not of their making, and Russian troops at their doorstep. Some Ukrainians tried to leave Canada to defend their homeland and families.

As the war progressed, newspapers printed sensational articles about enemy war atrocities, some entirely fictional, like the story of a Canadian soldier being crucified,1 or of Belgian orphans having their hands cut off2. The purpose of these articles was to instill young Canadian men with the passion to enlist, but it also created hysteria against “enemy aliens.” Ukrainians and others considered foreigners were accosted in the streets. Many were fired from their jobs for “patriotic reasons”3 Street corners and soup kitchen lines became filled with unemployed “enemy aliens”. Editorials and letters to the editor demanded that something be done about the foreigner problem. Many “enemy aliens” were arrested not because of anything they had done, but because of public perception and hysteria.

The first internment facility in Quebec was a holding station opened on August 13, 1914 at the federal Immigration Building, at 172 St. Antoine Street in Montreal. As of November 5, 1914, Montreal prisoners were transferred to internment camps. By January 5, 1915, 364 “Austrians” were moved from Montreal to Petawawa, Ontario.

Individual waves of populist hysteria were directly related to crackdowns on “enemy aliens”. As an example, when the Lusitania sank in May 1915, public outcry resulted in and additional 1,500 enemy aliens being rounded up and sent to internment camps.4

St. Michael’s Parish was in the eye of this hurricane. Although a number of church members were citizens, and some children of the parish had been born in Canada, most parishioners had not yet had the opportunity become naturalized. They were subjected to the prejudice, patriotic firings and hysteria of the time. Within months, there were 400 destitute Ukrainian families in Montreal.

Ukrainians in Montreal were not without their champions. Hann von Hannenheim had been the Austro-Hungarian Consul-General for Montreal prior to World War I, but he was forced to relocate to Buffalo once Canada became his country’s enemy. Despite his job change, he was concerned about Austro-Hungarian subjects in Montreal. He asked his colleagues, the American Consul-Generals in Ottawa and Montreal, to assist him in setting up a relief plan for Austro-Hungarian subjects in Canada. The American consul-general in Montreal was William Harrison Pradley. In February 1915 Pradley estimated that there were 11,000 Austro-Hungarians in his district, as well as 200 Germans and 45 Turks.

Mr. Pradley conducted house to house inspections of destitute families in the slums of Montreal and helped distribute relief in the form of food, clothing and in some cases rent. The money for this relief was supplied by the Canadian government.

The relief visits and soup kitchens were seen as an interim measure. The American and Austrian consuls envisioned a plan where the Department of Agriculture would coordinate with the Department of Immigration so that unemployed “Austrians” could work on farms. Mr. Pradley envisioned Spirit Lake Internment Camp as being a refuge for the destitute Ukrainian families in Montreal: a place away from daily taunts and hostility and a place with food, sunshine and fresh air.5

Pradley thought the families would have houses with gardens and the men would be engaged in healthy outdoor work. He thought they would be in “a large village without fence or wall except what the people may erect around their plots”. He imagined them liking it well enough that they would want to homestead there after the war.6

Unfortunately, no one told the guards at Spirit Lake that this was the plan.

Montreal Ukrainians believed what Pradley told them and 50 to 100 families had put themselves on the waiting list.7

Spirit Lake, located in the heart of the Abitibi region, was the largest internment camp in Quebec. It was originally going to be built at Belcourt but the Amos Chamber of Commerce lobbied to have it built close to them. During the two years the camp was in operation, it generated more than $250,000 in revenue for town merchants. The internment camp had a devastating effect on the Pikogan Aboriginal community because it was built in the midst of their traditional hunting grounds, causing them widespread starvation and dislocation.8

The first 109 “Austrian” prisoners were shipped to Spirit Lake from Montreal in January 1915. Another 518 arrived from Montreal in February and March. By the end of 1915, there were 1,210 Austrians at Spirit Lake, primarily from Montreal.

On April 19th, 1915, the first 20 families from St. Michael’s Parish left Montreal by train for Spirit Lake. This group included 92 family men (including one priest), women and children, as well as an Icon of the Madonna. Later, another 40 families arrived. At no other camp in Canada were Ukrainian women and children interned.

The youngest known person to survive internment was two year old Canadian-born Stefka Mielniczuk (Stephanie Pawliw) who was taken from Montreal along with her parents, Ignace and Mary. She lived until 2003.9

Mary Manko was eight years old and living in Point St. Charles with her parents Katharina and Andruk, when she and her parents and siblings were interned at Spirit Lake. Mary, her parents, her four year old brother John and twelve year old sister Anny all survived the ordeal but her two year old sister Carolka died at the camp. Mary, who lived until July 2007, was the last known survivor of Spirit Lake Internment Camp.10

Lieutenant-Colonel William Rodden was in charge of Spirit Lake camp and he commanded 9 officers, 32 non-commissioned officers, 136 guards and 8 civilians.

There were two camps at Spirit Lake. The main camp was located on the northeast shore of the lake, and it had a the capacity for 1040 men who were housed in barracks. This camp was surrounded by a high wire fence with guard posts at each corner. The married camp was 1.5 km away and it had barracks as well, each one housing four families. Unlike the main camp, this one was not behind barbed wire.

The men from both camps were required to work seven and a half hours a day but women and children did work only for their personal needs: laundry, cooking and so on. The government treated internees across the country as prisoners of war, which, under the Hague Convention, meant that they could be fired upon if they tried to escape. Some of the junior officers at Spirit Lake Internment Camp were brutal. They were “under the mistaken impression that the internees were criminals”11. One of the commandants at Spirit Lake bought land adjacent to the camp and used prisoners to clear his private land.12 Prisoners had no recourse. If they were judged insubordinate they were subject to reduced rations, solitary confinement, and hard labour. It was a sad existence for these people who had come to Canada filled with hope. Fifty men were desperate enough to try to escape but Spirit Lake Internment Camp was surrounded by 500km of forest. Most gave up and returned to the camp.

Iwan Gregoraszczuk, an internee in his 20s, managed to get 100 km away from the camp in early June 1915. He got nearly to the Ontario border when a farmer shot and killed him. Mr. Gregoraszczuk’s body was tied to a rail hand-car and brought back to Spirit Lake Internment Camp. The farmer was tried and given a jail sentence. Mr. Gregoraszczuk was buried at the cemetery at Spirit Lake along with sixteen other internees and two children.13

If the Hague Convention had been systematically applied, the men would have only been required to do work that was for their own comfort, but this was not the case. The men were marched into the bush by armed guards and were forced to do the harsh and dangerous work of clearing land, with instances of amputated fingers and frozen hands and feet being documented. The men were not paid a wage for their backbreaking labour. Instead, they were credited for 25 cents each day, money which could only be spent at the camp canteen.

In their non-work time, prisoners crafted art from items at hand. Some made wood carvings or ships in bottles. These were bartered to area residents for extra food, cigarettes and clothing. One internee, Maksym Boyko, carved a crochet hook so he could make himself warmer socks and gloves.14 With temperatures plunging to minus 60F in the winters, this was a necessity.

Montreal’s Rev. Dr. Ambrozii Redkevych was concerned about the welfare of Ukrainians at the various internment camps across Canada. In June 1915, he toured Brandon, Kapuskasing and Spirit Lake. He brought comfort to the prisoners by conducting services, celebrating mass and hearing confessions but he was careful not to antagonize camp administrators.

Father Redkevych did everything he could to try to get the internees released. He was on the Committee of Ukrainians of Eastern Canada, and in this role, he petitioned Ottawa about the ill-treatment of internees. After the Committee transformed itself into the Ukrainian National League, Father Redkevych worked with the Ukrainian Canadian Citizenship Committee to petition government officials about internment, citizenship rights and the naturalization act.

Despite their poor treatment, the prisoners were hard workers. Over the two years that Spirit Lake was in existence, the internees cleared hundreds of acres of land and cut thousands of cords of wood. In the summer of 1915, the internees put out a raging fire, saving not only their own camp, but nearby French communities as well.15

A bright spot in the camp’s existence was Christmas of January 1916. The Ukrainian Voice newspaper coordinated a donation effort so that every Ukrainian prisoner in Brandon, Petawawa, Kapuskasing and Spirit Lake received a Christmas gift of either tobacco or fruit. For men who had been imprisoned unjustly, this gesture of community caring brought much comfort.

By the summer of 1916, Spirit Lake Internment Camp was emptied. Prisoners did not go home but were instead paroled to industries in Quebec as well as in other provinces. The parolees were paid a lesser rate than other workers and they had the stigma of carrying prisoner-of-war papers. They had no say in where they were sent and most were separation from family and community for years.

With Spirit Lake closed, the only internment station left in Quebec was the facility in Montreal, which stayed in operation until November 1918. Camps in BC and Ontario continued to operate until February 1920.

 

 

1Falsehood in War Time, Arthur Ponsonby, page 91;

2Ibid, 157

3Nation: Canada since Confederation. JL Granatstein, page 356.

4The Canadian General

5Peter Melnycky, “Badly Treated in Every Way”, The Ukrainian Experience in Quebec, page 60.

6ibid

7ibid

8Author’s personal research, face to face interviews with elders of the Pikogan community.

9Globe & Mail, March 21, 2003

10Ages and names gleaned from Militia Book #60; obituary, Montreal Gazette, July 21, 2007

11Melnycky, p 70

12Melnycky, p 55

13Melnycky, p 62

14Personal interview with his son, Otto Boyko.

15The Canadian General, by Desmond Morton. Pg 339.

Author: Marsha

I write historical fiction, mostly from the perspective of young people who are thrust in the midst of war.