‘Fear of the barbed wire fence’: remembering Nanaimo’s WW1 internment camp

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Imprisoned behind a 14 foot wall, not because of anything they had done but because of who they were, Ukrainian immigrants in Nanaimo’s WW1 internment camp had no idea when they would be released.

When war broke out, the federal government began rounding up people it deemed enemy aliens — immigrants from enemy countries. Canada was at war with Austria-Hungary, which ruled large parts of Ukraine. Thousands were put in internment camps and forced into hard labour, such as clearing forests and building roads. 

“British Columbia was especially malicious for going after potential enemy aliens. They were actually faster at rounding people up than the federal government,” said Borys Sydoruk, chair of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation.

Economic depression in 1913 left many men unemployed — they became targets for internment. There is no proof a single Ukrainian returned home to fight for Austria-Hungary, according to Lubomyr Luciuk, professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. He said he believes the government’s motivation for the camps was free labour.

“It’s ridiculous to suggest there was some great patriotic return of [Ukrainians] who wanted to fight for the emperor, Franz Josef. It makes no sense,” said Luciuk.

There is no marker where the camp used to be on Stewart Ave, but there is a small memorial near the Nanaimo Yacht Club. The camp closed in the fall of 1915, when it became overcrowded and the prisoners were transferred elsewhere, according to Aimee Greenaway, curator for the Nanaimo Museum.

A memorial to Nanaimo’s internment camp is located near the Nanaimo Yacht Club. //PHOTO BY KEVIN FORSYTH

There are few records detailing what daily life was like in the camp. If it was anything like other camps in B.C., prisoners were fed poorly and did hard labour, often for no money, according to Sydoruk.

An excavation of the Morrissey camp near Fernie by archaeologist Sarah Beaulieu showed the Ukrainian prisoners used outhouses and had poor access to medicine.

Eighteen prisoners died in B.C.’s camps, including George Kampo, who died May 5, 1915 in Nanaimo. He spent just under five months in the camp before dying and is buried in Bowen Road Cemetery.

The official number of 107 deaths in the camps recorded across Canada did not count women and children and archaeological work indicates it may be significantly higher. Beaulieu found an additional seven graves using ground-penetrating radar when she studied the Morrissey internment camp’s cemetery in 2015.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever know how much higher it is,” said Beaulieu. She studied the site for her master’s degree and PhD in archaeology. 

It is believed most of the deaths were caused by disease, but people also died in escape attempts. Beaulieu said it was documented the guards would hunt escaped prisoners in the bush. 

Nanaimo’s camp only operated for a short time, but people from the area continued to be interned long after its closure. While working in his vegetable garden in 1916, Karl Schwartz, principal of Nanaimo’s high school, was arrested and transported to a camp in Vernon, according to Greenaway. She guessed his wife and three young children joined him because they needed his support.

“It’s certainly had generational impact in the community and the families to have gone through an experience like that,” said Greenaway. After the war the Schwartz family returned home to Germany.

Many of the men in the Nanaimo camp were miners and were imprisoned to gain favour with the British and Canadian-born men who refused to work with foreigners. William Bowser, in his role as acting premier, requested permission from the federal government in 1915 to round up foreign miners in Nanaimo, Ladysmith, South Wellington and Cumberland, according to Wayne Norton in his book Fernie at War: 1914-1918. 

The camps in Nanaimo and Vernon were full, so Bowser persuaded the federal government to allow him to imprison the men at the new Saanich Prison Farm near Victoria, said Norton. Canadian and British miners were striking to have Ukrainians and other foreigners removed from the sites.

Only the unemployed had been rounded up and interned before Bowser’s efforts. Provincial police arrested 64 miners in Nanaimo and Ladysmith and the men were put on a boat to Vancouver, destined for the Vernon internment camp, said Norton.

The Vancouver Sun applauded the government’s action, “While this is a step in the right direction, we feel that it should not be allowed to end here.”

The Canadian government interned 8,579 people and required over 80,000 to register as enemy aliens and report regularly to the authorities, said Luciuk. Several camps, including the camp in Vernon, stayed open into 1920.

The legacy of the imprisonment remained in the Ukrainian community for decades. During the Second World War, the American government was monitoring ethnic groups in Canada for subversive activity. Luciuk said an RCMP informant told U.S. intelligence agents many in the Ukrainian Canadian community were “still in fear of the barbed wire fence.” 

George Kampo’s grave marker is located in the Bowen Road Cemetery in Nanaimo. // PHOTO FROM FIND A GRAVE.COM
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