Celebrating the glories of the past is easy. Like next year, when we will happily mark the centennial of the Dome Building and Brandon’s hosting of the Dominion Fair in 1913. But what about remembering the dark side of our past, including some pages we might like to forget?
Some of those dark pages concern the treatment of immigrants during the First World War.
During that war, thousands of Ukrainian-Canadians and other immigrants from eastern Europe were unjustly imprisoned as “enemy aliens” in camps across Canada. One of those internment camps was here in Brandon.
First, though: Even in wartime, how did Ukrainian-Canadians and other immigrants become “enemy aliens”?
To explain, we need to go back to the 1890s. Brandon’s own Clifford Sifton, as a member of Prime Minster Wilfred Laurier’s cabinet, was encouraging people from eastern Europe to immigrate to the Canadian Prairies.
Sifton was looking for, as he said, “a stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil … with a stout wife and a half-dozen children.”
Europe then was a jumble of peoples often living as minorities within other countries. One such place was Galicia, in Austria-Hungary. Many people who spoke Ukrainian or Polish lived there. And they wanted to get out.
Historian Margaret MacMillan aptly describes it: “Corrupt, poor, the most backward part of a decaying empire, Galicia was a byword for misery. Those who could, emigrated, many of them to North America.”
So, although they spoke Ukrainian or Polish, when they came here they were officially “Austrians.”
And, in the First World War, Canada was at war with not only Germany, but also Austria-Hungary. The federal government declared that immigrants from a country at war who had not become citizens by 1902 were “enemy aliens.” Men were rounded up and interned in camps.
The Brandon Internment Camp used the Winter Fair exhibition and arena buildings on Victoria Avenue between 10th and 11th streets.
There are many gaps in knowing just what happened during that time. This has been frustrating for historians as well as for folks researching their own family members who were imprisoned.
Original records were often scanty. Also, documents were destroyed, first by fire when the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa burned in 1916 and later by the government in the 1950s.
We do know, however, that from November 1914 until July 1916, as many as 900 men at any one time were imprisoned in Brandon. For the most part, the internees were kept in the city, but they sometimes worked on area farms.
The men were incredibly bored as the buildings were not appropriate for use as a prison. There were numerous escape attempts.
“Fifteen Desperate Aliens Attempt Escape: One May Die,” read the June 7, 1915 headline in the Brandon Daily Sun. (Guards had shot 19-year-old Andrew Grapko trying to escape. Grapko died of his injuries and was buried in the Brandon Cemetery.)
Stories about the camp have been told through the generations in the Brandon Ukrainian community. These stories tell of abuse, of forced labour and of several men being killed or committing suicide and then being buried in unmarked locations.
We should remember the Brandon Internment Camp. As a community, it is part of who we are. There is a plaque at city hall, but it is not very prominent. The plaque was placed there in 1997, yet how many people have walked right by, not even noticing?
(The next time you are at city hall, stop and take a look. There is also a plaque nearby honouring Sir Clifford Sifton.)
But the camp plaque should not even be at city hall. Instead, it should be at the actual camp location at 10th and Victoria. When the plaque was first proposed in the 1990s, the owners of the site did not want an internment camp plaque on their commercial property. Now, however, the property is owned by the City of Brandon. So the plaque could and should, go there.
Would you like to experience more of Brandon’s history? There will be a great opportunity July 14-15. The Brandon Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee will again host “Doors Open Brandon.” There will be the chance to see inside a number of historic buildings. Also new this year a guided bus tour will give riders a view of the history of the city.
And I will be exploring some of the dark side of Brandon’s past with a “Murder and Mayhem” walking tour.
For more information, check out the website heritagebrandon.ca or call 729-2169.
» David McConkey is an active citizen. Contact him and read previous columns at davidmcconkey.com.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 2, 2012