What’s the difference between a Ukrainian and a Syrian?
Well, nothing, actually.
That’s exactly the message that Lubomyr Luciuk drove home, to a room full of guests at the Ukrainian Harvest Dinner on Sunday night.
The Ukrainian themed meal, complete with perogies, Kielbasa and cabbage rolls, was held in support of the Syrian Refugees for Fernie Committee, who are in their final leg of fundraising before bringing a family to the city.
Luciuk, a professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston, ON, has written his PhD thesis on the legacy of first world war internment on Ukrainian-Canadians.
“What you’re doing as a community is a significant thing,” he said to the crowd, as they stared intently at the man, while sipping their after-dinner tea and coffee.
“We are a country that’s based on immigration,” he said, explaining that nobody in the room has probably ever been to Syria, “yet they see this as being important.”
For many, the evening was an exploration into the darker, less-proud history of racism and intolerance in Fernie and across Canada.
Luciuk spoke of the internment camps set up in Fernie and Morrissey during the First Wold War, to hold both German immigrants, and secondary European aliens such as Polish, Austrians, Hungarians and of course, Ukrainians.
Internment is imbedded in the history of the town, he explained; over 3,000 Germans, and over 5,000 second-class prisoners of war were interned in 24 different camps across the country.
A number of German prisoners were held in Vernon.
In Fernie and Morrissey, many of the European immigrants working in the mines were laid off by loyalist employers, sent to internment camps and then brought back to work in the mines as indentured slaves, essentially, which Luciuk says is was a brilliant cost saving measure.
Ron Ulrich, Executive Director of the Fernie Museum said he and his colleague didn’t even know they had family who were affected by the War Measures Act, and the country’s internment policies during the First World War.
“For me, to discover that my great-grandfather was restricted in traveling,” he said. “None of us knew a huge element of our community story.”
He says that with this knowledge, the reality of the effects of prejudice hit close to home.
“Eighty-thousand people were considered enemy aliens,” said Luciuk, many had to report to the authorities in Fernie every two weeks to outline their whereabouts and activities.
In the camps, internees starved. Some were moved to camps across the country and sent far away from their families.
“We know that people were deported after the war,” said Luciuk, who studied the records sent back to Britain after the war because Canada destroyed their own internment documents after the fact.
“People suffered indignities,” he said.
Luciuk has since built his career around a campaign of reconciliation and awareness of the atrocities that people faced right here in Canada.
“Ukrainians and other Europeans were supposed to wear badges on the street,” he said, which was decades before Jews in Germany were forced to pin the yellow star of David on their jackets.
“Why should any of this matter 100 years later?” Luciuk asked the crowd.
He says that this aspect of history was buried and forgotten for years, and ultimately, it repeated itself in WW2 with Japanese and German internment camps.
“Canada’s Ukrainians weren’t disloyal,” he said. They were invited to live in Canada, to farm, to help build up the country and its many industries.
“This is about social justice, this is about civil liberties,” he said. “It’s about remembering so that incrementally, our society gets better….so that we do not repeat the mistakes that were made nearly a century ago.”