Every person has a story. Every group has a story. But some of these stories have been buried in history – not because they were of no import, but because of their shamefulness.
This story doesn’t begin with Mary Kosick Goodwin, who passed away at the age of 90 at her home in Courtenay, B.C., Feb. 12, or her sister, Stella Kosick Sloan of Surrey, who seeks to put history to rights. But it did shape their lives – along with the lives of countless other Ukrainian Canadians.
Mary and Stella were two of a family of 10 surviving children born to Fred and Catherine Kosick who farmed in the Mayfair area. Fred and Catherine were both born in Horodenka in the Polish province of Galacia, although they did not meet until they had emigrated to Canada. They farmed at Mayfair for 40 years, then retired to North Battleford in 1954. With eight of their10 children residing in British Columbia by that time, Fred and Katherine moved to Surrey in 1975, passing away in 1977 and 1991 respectively.
Ukraine is much in the news today, and Canada has undertaken to support its independence from Russia, but when Fred and Catherine came to Canada, there was no country of Ukraine. In the late 1880s, immigrants from south-eastern Europe, whose identity as Ukrainians we are now wholly familiar with, were at times known by a diversity of names – Galacians, Ruthenians, Boukovinians, even Russians.
They came to Canada to be rid of oppression and hardship, lured by the recruitment campaign of Canadian minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton, who sought to fill the west with agriculturally-oriented immigrants, staving off possible annexation by the United States.
Sifton saw the hardy group in “sheepskin coats” as the answer to Canada’s pressing need for farmers.
This was the first Ukrainian diaspora. It is believed that between the late 1870s and 1914, between 650,000 and 700,000 Ukrainians left the Austro-Hungarian Empire for North and South America, with 400,000 becoming miners and labourers in the United States, 70,000 heading to Brazil and Argentina and approximately 170,000 settling in Canada, mainly as farmers. (Many came to Saskatchewan and, today, more than 13 per cent of Saskatchewan residents are of Ukrainian origin. Across the country, there are 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian background.)
The first waves of Ukrainian immigrants may have been leaving European hardships and prejudice behind, but, for many, Canada was no easier, and no more welcoming.
Much of the best land had already gone to preferred English, French and American immigrants. Mothers were often left with the children over the winter while fathers looked for work elsewhere to make ends meet. Children who were able to attend school found their language and culture were seen as undesirable elements to be quashed – a story that can be applied to many non-Anglo groups, including Canada’s own First Nations.
The book titled Ukrainian-Canadian Daughter: The Faith and life of Mary Kosick Goodwin, looks at the circumstances of European- and Canadian-born Ukrainians during these times from a personal viewpoint.
Co-authored by Terrance N. James, in the last year of her life, Mary recounts the known history of her grandparents and parents. She also shares her happy childhood memories, not so happy school days memories and her adult struggle from a “secret” Ukrainian-Canadian to the founder of a Ukrainian Studies Society, preserving and promoting Ukrainian heritage for future generations.
Included in Mary’s book are references to a dark period in Canada’s history – the internment of Ukrainian Canadians in concentration camps during the First World War.
In 2005, Bill C-331, an act to recognize he injustice that was done to persons of Ukrainian descent and other Europeans who were interned at the time of the First World War was passed into law. The bill provides for public commemoration and for redress devoted to public education and the promotion of tolerance. (Last year, 100 locales across Canada, including four in Saskatoon and one each in Regina, Canora and Yorkton, unveiled plaques paying homage to the thousands of Serbians, Croatians, Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholics, Armenians, Hungarians, Germans and others impacted by the wartime measures. The plaques were placed in the cities where there were internment camps and processing centres, with places ranging in size from Toronto, Ont., to Munson, Alta. One short-lived temporary camp was hosted at Eaton in Saskatchewan.)
In addressing Bill C-331, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “Between 1914 and 1920, Canada witnessed its first internment operations under the War Measures Act. Thousands of loyal Canadians were systematically arrested and interned in 24 camps throughout the country simply because of their national origin. Nearly 9,000 Canadians were interned, the vast majority of Ukrainian origin.”
At the outset of the First World War, western Ukraine was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of Canada’s Ukrainian immigrants had come to Canada on Austrian passports, an empire with which Canada was now at war.
“In the midst of wartime hysteria,” said Harper, “everyone with a connection to Austria-Hungary was deemed a threat to our country. Often of course this was simply incorrect. Ironically, in this case many thousands of Ukrainian Canadians had actually fled the occupying power in their homeland. A knowledgeable assessment of the situation could have led to only one conclusion: these refugees of Canada’s wartime enemy were not enemies of Canada. They were new, loyal British subjects and allies of our wartime cause.”
As he spoke to the bill, Harper recognized the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association and, in particular, Professor Lubomyr Luciuk.
“Without their efforts, we would likely not be having this kind of debate in Parliament today. Unfortunately, without their advocacy this chapter of Canadian history would already have been largely forgotten,” said Harper.
Stella Sloan says it is still a little-known chapter of history.
Stella and Mary’s father, Fred Kosick, escaped internment only by eluding authorities and changing his name from Kosuk to Koyshi to Kosyk and finally Kosick. This was as authorities were quick to brand immigrants with foreign-sounding names as “enemy aliens.”
Stella relates a story about her father being saved from arrest during a train trip from Edmonton to the Peace River area where he was to labour as a road builder. He was hidden from authorities by fellow workers who had him lie on the railway platform covered with their luggage.
Stella says, even less well-known than the internment itself, is the confiscation of property that took place at that time as well. Unlike the settlement by the government of $21,000 for each of the survivors of Japanese internment camps during the Second World War, it has yet to be addressed.
Like many Ukrainian Canadians of those times, Fred Kosick did not like to talk about their treatment. Mary relates in her book that it was only in his later years that he revealed two properties he had owned in Saskatoon had been confiscated during those years.
Stella says it has been estimated that between $33 and $35 million worth of assets were confiscated from “enemy aliens” during the First World War. Canada adopted the War Measures Act on Aug. 4, 1914 that gave the federal government sweeping emergency powers to govern by decree under circumstances of “war, invasion or insurrection, real or apprehended.” These powers included censorship, the right to detain and arrest Canadians, and the right to take control over any property.
Stella has been searching for records related to the properties taken from her father, believed to have been purchased by him sometime between 1912 and 1920. Most of her enquiries have resulted in being told there are no records, or that they have been destroyed.
According to a book authored by Professor Lubomyr Luciuk, all files pursuant to “application for release of property” and “the administration and liquidation of enemy property in Canada” were destroyed in 1954 under authority of the Treasury Board on recommendation of the Public Records Committee.
Despite disappointing results, Stella continues her research and works to promote awareness of the internment of Ukrainian-Canadians a century ago.
In her goal, Stella looks to the words of Prof. Luciuk, lead of the 100 Plaques Project and author of A Time for Atonement, who said, “A hundred years ago a wave of repression passed across this land as ‘enemy aliens’ were herded into 24 internment camps, from coast to coast. One hundred years have passed since The War Measures Act and now we will witness a wave of remembrance moving across Canada and so recall all of the victims of Canada’s first national internment operations of 1914-20. This project shall remind all of our fellow citizens of the importance of remaining vigilant in defence of our civil liberties and human rights, particularly in times of international and domestic crisis.”
March 2005, Parliament, Stephen Harper,
Leader of the Opposition on Bill C-331
Excerpts from a March 2005 address to Parliament by then Opposition Leader Stephen Harper regarding Bill C-331, the Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act:
“Bill C-331 is an act to recognize The injustice that was done to persons of Ukrainian descent and other Europeans who were interned at the time of the first world war. The bill would provide for public commemoration and for redress devoted to public education and the promotion of tolerance.
Between 1914 and 1920 Canada witnessed its first internment operations under the War Measures Act. Thousands of loyal Canadians were systematically arrested and interned in 24 camps throughout the country simply because of their national origin. Nearly 9,000 Canadians were interned, the vast majority of Ukrainian origin.
At the outset of the first world war, western Ukraine was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian empire and Canada was of course at war with Austria-Hungary. In the midst of wartime hysteria, everyone with a connection to Austria-Hungary was deemed a threat to our country. Often of course this was simply incorrect. Ironically, in this case many thousands of Ukrainian Canadians had actually fled the occupying power in their homeland. A knowledgeable assessment of the situation could have led to only one conclusion: these refugees of Canada’s wartime enemy were not enemies of Canada. They were new, loyal British subjects and allies of our wartime cause.
In fact, in 1915, I should mention that the British foreign office twice instructed Ottawa to grant Ukrainians “preferential treatment”, arguing that they were to be considered “friendly aliens” rather than “enemy aliens”. Yet the federal government of the time simply would not listen and would not change course.
Moreover, many of those interned were not just naturalized British subjects. They were truly Canadians. They were born in Canada, but bearing the wrong last name or the wrong parentage because in this case even children were interned.
Throughout the internment operation the civilian internees were transported to Canada’s frontier hinterlands where they were forced to perform hard labour under trying circumstances. Some sites that we all know well today, including Banff and Jasper national parks and the experimental farms at Kapuskasing, were first developed by this pool of forced labour. Again ironically, as Ukrainian Canadians were being interned for having been unfortunate enough to enter this country with Austro-Hungarian passports, other Ukrainian Canadians who had entered Canada on different foreign documents were serving Canada loyally in overseas battle.
Let us not forget Ukrainian-Canadian war veteran Philip Konowal, who was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V for his brave wartime service. He was a Ukrainian Canadian honoured, while at the very same time his fellow neighbours and descendants of Ukraine were wondering why they had chosen Canada to be their new home while they were being interned.
We know we cannot rewrite history. That is not the exercise today. We cannot change the fact that an injustice occurred. Frankly, only those who carried out an injustice can truly be held accountable. Only those who themselves suffered injustice can ever properly be compensated.
However as heirs of our society and its institutions we can acknowledge injustice. We can appreciate the lessons of history and we can make amends where appropriate in our own time. It is in my judgment time to make amends.
If Bill C-331 is allowed to pass, it will be the first official acknowledgement that Canada’s treatment of Ukrainian Canadians during the first world war was wrong. It will be the first time that a promise made many times by many Canadian political leaders will be kept.
By passing Bill C-331, we will finally take a step to acknowledge the injustice of the past, an injustice that would never be allowed to be committed today in this great country which reveres our freedoms and the rule of law.
So far the Ukrainian Canadian community has placed memorial plaques at almost all of the internment sites except for five to remind Canadians of what happened at these locations so that this sad chapter of our history may never be repeated.
Many official documents and archival files were destroyed in the early 1950s but slowly material has been researched and is resurfacing once again. We give thanks to many academics of Ukrainian Canadian heritage who have resolved to keep alive our collective memory of these historical events.
However we should go further. We should officially recognize these events as a historical wrong.