Telling the Difficult Stories

Posted in Education by Wendy Fitch on October 31st, 2014

On October 28th I attended an event where an act of the federal government enabled the incarceration of thousands of people, mostly young men, not because they had broken any laws but because they spoke an unfamiliar language, worshiped in an unfamiliar way, ate unfamiliar food, and came from a place Canada was at war with. You are forgiven if you think I’m referring to current events. I’m not. I was attending the commemoration of the invocation of the War Measures Act by Order in Council in 1914.

The momument commemorating the 100th anniversary of Canada's first internment at the Saskatchewan Railway Museum. The museum's property sits on the former site of an internment camp.

The people I’m referring to were recent immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. They, like all of our immigrant forbearers had left Europe to seek a better life in Canada. Instead they found themselves viewed as ‘enemy aliens’ and a danger to Canada. Over 8,500, mainly young men, were arrested and sent to 24 internment camps throughout Canada. An additional 80,000 men, women and children were forced to carry special identity papers and report regularly to policy. The majority of those affected in both instances were Ukrainian.

One of the internment camps was located just 2 kilometres outside of Saskatoon at Eaton - the current site of the Saskatchewan Railway Museum. This was the only internment camp in Saskatchewan during the First World War.  The facility was only in operation for 24 days between February 25 and March 21, 1919 housing 65 mainly German and Ukrainian internees who were sent on to a Nova Scotia military facility and then eventually deported.

Students participate in the commemoration ceremony recognizing the 100th anniversary of Canada's first internment at the Saskatchewan Railway Museum in October.

As the Commemorative ceremony unfolded I sat on that cold, wet, snowy late October morning reflecting on what I was hearing happened 100 years ago; what has been happening since 9/11; and what could happen as a result of events one week ago in Quebec and Ottawa. The similarities are too clear to be ignored.

I reflected on my own family. My maternal great grandparents emigrated from Germany and Austria respectively. They went out of their way to assimilate. They gave their Canadian born children English names – William, James, Wellington, Agnes. They encouraged the mispronunciation of their surname so it sounded more English. They did not teach their children the German language. Had they not done these things could they have been sent to an internment camp simply because they’re parents were born in Germany and Austria? I don’t know. It was never discussed.

I also reflected on what the role of museums is on with respect to these kinds of issues.  I believe it is the responsibility of museums to fairly and impartially preserve and present the whole story of the community. Even when that history is uncomfortable or painful or awkward to some or all of the current community members it cannot be ignored. Whether it’s the internments of ‘enemy aliens’ during and after the First and Second World Wars or the Residential Schools; or any other difficult topic a museum cannot ignore the subject just because its hard. 

The public expects museums to provide unbiased, even-handed information about what happened in the past. They expect the museum to be a safe place to learn about difficult topics. They expect the museum to provide them with the information about the past so that they can understand what’s happening in the present.

I’m proud of the Saskatchewan Railway Museum for acknowledging the role their site played 100 years ago and incorporating it on their site with the monument and plaque unveiled October 28th.

A plaque commemorating the 100th anniversary of Canada's first internment at the Saskatchewan Railway Museum.

I thank the Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Sask. Provincial Council and the Saskatchewan German Council for all of the work they’ve done to ensure these events are not forgotten.

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