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“On a landscape of despair, forgiveness”
It’s not much of a ditch. The few journeyers who come here barely notice it, distracted from what’s underfoot by the limestone and shale promontories towering above, so resembling “a giant castle” that the explorer-geologist James Hector named them “Castle Mountain.”
In 1885 this majestic landscape became part of Banff National Park, Canada’s first, now one of the world’s most visited, the patrimony of all Canadians. Rightly, we feel blessed.
But those transported here in 1915 did not revel in the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies. Former residents of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lured to this Dominion with promises of free land and freedom, they instead fell victim to prejudice and wartime xenophobia, were cast as “enemy aliens,” then herded into 24 internment camps.
Hundreds once languished on the other side of this relic fosse, behind Canadian barbed wire, only because of who they were, where they came from.
Under armed guard, these civilian prisoners-of-war fashioned much of the park’s infrastructure, working on the CPR mainline, the Bow River Valley roadway, and even on the famous Banff Springs Golf Course.
In warm weather they sheltered in tents near Castle Mountain. As temperatures grew colder they decamped into barracks at Cave & Basin. Forced labourers remained a common sight around Banff until summer 1917, when those who hadn’t escaped were paroled to work elsewhere, released, or conveyed to other lock-ups. Some would remain imprisoned until June 1920, almost two years after the Great War ended.
Few Canadians know about Canada’s first national internment operations. Interviewed decades later a Castle Mountain internee, Nick Lypka, hinted why: “All that time wasted being interned. Having my freedom taken away. I could have worked and earned something. Instead, what did I get? Nothing. I hope the Government decides to make some kind of tribute to those who are still living in Canada. Not to me. I can’t say how much. I am not in a position to say anything against the Government. They could arrest me again.”
In the mid-1980s the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (www.uccla.ca) began campaigning for acknowledgement and redress. The association`s first commemorative plaque was unveiled on Aug. 4, 1994 at Fort Henry, in Kingston – fittingly, for that was Canada’s first permanent internment camp.
In 1995 a marker and statue were placed near Castle Mountain, complemented in June 1996 with interpretive panels at Cave & Basin. Yet it was not until May 9, 2008 that recognition and restitution were secured when the Honourable Jason Kenney, representing the Government of Canada, signed an agreement at Stanley Barracks in Toronto, establishing the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund (www.internmentcanada.ca).
Additional resources were set aside for the development of a national exhibit, scheduled to open at Cave & Basin on June 20, 2013, almost a century after The War Measures Act came into force.
That’s why I returned recently to this otherwise-nondescript montane forest clearing. Knowing where to look, I could detect what was here – some white-washed stones demarcating the camp’s perimeter, half-buried coils of rusting barbed wire attached to a decayed fencepost – lingering clues reaffirming that this was a place of confinement, a landscape of despair, for anyone willing to see.
I was not alone. His Beatitude, Sviatoslav, Patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, was on his first pastoral visit to Canada. Who could have imagined that a Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Galicia would stand on the very same ground his interned countrymen had, nearly 100 years ago, and there hold a requiem panachyda, hallowing their memory?
The Patriarch’s surname is Shevchuk. Back then he would have been obliged to regularly report to the police, might have been jailed. Indeed, the remaining records of the Office of Internment Operations list men with similar surnames confined at Spirit Lake, Que., Mara Lake, B.C., Kapuskasing, Ont., and, in one case, internee No. 239, even at Castle Mountain. No wonder His Beatitude told Parks officials that what happened in Banff is as much a part of Ukraine’s history as it is of Canada’s.
When the Cave & Basin pavilion opens next year the Patriarch intends to be present. He will likely reflect on the experience of the first Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop, Nykyta Budka.
Maliciously branded a traitor by nativists, Budka refuted their allegations in court, then magnanimously forgave his baiters. On Nov. 23, 1918 he wrote: “In this great, happy hour, I have forgotten wrongs done to me. I forgive all those who during this war have done their utmost to make my staying in Canada impossible; I forgive all those who were attacking me in different papers and before the authorities, without the slightest foundation. I am sorry to state that all these denunciations have not hurt so much myself, as our good name particularly. But let us not be divided; on the contrary let us in harmony and unity live under the Flag of Canada and the faith of our fathers.”
The good bishop knew what should be remembered, what needed forgetting, and what could be forgiven. We could all learn a lesson from that.
Lubomyr Luciuk is a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College of Canada.