BY LUBOMYR LUCIUK,
DECEMBER 13, 2011
The first prisoners, 109 men, arrived in January 1915, shipped along the transcontinental railway from Montreal into the remote Abitibi region of northwestern Quebec. Hundreds more would join them eventually, including women and children, not because of any wrong they had done but only because of who they were.
Mostly immigrants from western Ukraine lured to Canada with promises of freedom and free land, they were branded “enemy aliens” at the outbreak of the First World War because they had arrived bearing Austro-Hungarian passports.
Off-loaded some eight kilometres west of Amos, at a place today known as La Ferme, the prisoners could just see the shoreline of Spirit Lake, today’s Lac Beauchamp – from behind Canadian barbed wire. Originally their camp was to have been at Belcourt, 75 kilometres further east, but the astute merchants of the Amos Chamber of Commerce lobbied Ottawa for a closer site, then harvested a quarter-million dollars in government business over the two years the camp operated.
Recently the Spirit Lake Internment Camp Interpretive Centre opened, housed within the former Roman Catholic Church of St-Via-teur de Trécesson, adjacent to where internee barracks stood. The result of several years of effort by the Spirit Lake Camp Corp., the interior of this extensively refurbished church houses exhibits explaining how thousands of Europeans from the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Turkish empires were swept up as a result of wartime hysteria and xenophobia.
They suffered imprisonment, the confiscation of what little wealth they had and other indignities sanctioned by the very same War Measures Act that would be deployed during the Second World War against Japanese, Italian and Ger-man Canadians.
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