What does it mean to be Canadian? Reflecting on Canadian Identity and the WW1 Internment Camps

By Devon Sereda Goldie with Chris Gaines, Darby Thorogood, Vanessa Wood, Sophie Groves, and Laura Motz

It’s Canada Day and our country is turning 153 years old. Once again, I find myself struggling what it means to be Canadian and the expectation of celebrating this colonial holiday. Especially when it means celebrating the country that put my ancestors in internment camps simply because of who they were.

This year, as part of my MA research, I had the opportunity to teach a theatre course about historic racism against Ukrainians in Canada; the internment of Ukrainians in Canada during the First World War; and the Holodomor to a group of students from varying backgrounds. The outcome was a play called Pam’yat: Memory that we created about these topics.

Here are some of my student and co-collaborators’ reflections on Canadian identity and the WW1 Internment Camps – shared with their permission.

“The internment of Ukrainian Canadians really resonated with me because my family background is part Jewish and while I was not alive during WWII, the persecution and murder of a significant portion of the Jews in Europe is quite connected with the internment of Ukrainians in Canada … It seems completely pointless and unfair to specifically invite people to farm your land, that had already been experiencing enough hardship back home, only to automatically assume that they are aiding the European “enemy” while they were fleeing that in the first place. It is horrifying to think about and truthfully, a difficult pill to swallow.” – Chris Gaines

“I found a lot of striking things in Sarah Beaulieu’s MA thesis talking about the Morrissey Internment Camp. One of the biggest things that was reinforced for me during this process was the treatment of the internees. They were extremely malnourished, only getting fed with fat and potatoes which meant they were receiving no fruits or vegetables. If there was any kind of back talk or political speech they would be thrown into isolation in a dark room, other times the heat would be cut off in the barracks (Beaulieu, 95-96). Another huge part of internment was the repercussions it had on future generations, whether it was total transparency about what happened or a lack of communication and then only finding out much later and having more conflicting emotions. There was an account of a son talking about his brother, who idolized their father, and then adopted his father’s bitter feelings and anger concerning internment (Beaulieu, 97). It’s important to take away that these feelings, whatever they may be are important to share, but in the right way and in a healthy manner. Granted, it’s not always that simple but clearly there is a lot of trauma that can be passed down through generations that causes issues not solutions.” – Chris Gaines

“We dedicated a significant portion of one rehearsal to looking at a collection of internee names and what happened to them. It was incredibly heart wrenching to look at, especially because going down the list you could just see the sheer number of internees that survived until just before they would have been liberated. I can remember the realization of that washing over me, and I felt an incredible sensation of wanting to do something, anything, to have had them survive the extra time so that they could see their families again, to see the world outside the internment camps again.”

– Chris Gines

“I have always known that I was Ukrainian but I had never really considered what that meant. At the first rehearsal I was thrown aback by how much I didn’t know about my own ancestors let alone the trauma and racism that occurred without my knowing. There was so much to learn about and understand. This project really made me appreciate my own privilege and how I was lucky to be born where and when I was. At the start of the process I was very overwhelmed with what I was being told. The fact that there was so much oppression and racism in my own country and I was not aware any of it had happened. It was shocking and emotional however; I feel very fortunate that I am now aware of the past” – Vanessa Wood

“My whole life I was told that Canada was this amazing country and that the government was a positive force that could do no wrong. Hearing about how they invited the Ukrainian people to our country and then stole their freedom was heartbreaking. Then when I discovered my own family name on the list of internees, I suddenly had major stake in this event that a few days prior, I didn’t even know existed.”

– Vanessa Wood

“I was raised to believe in people and the government, I was taught to follow the rules and that all policemen were kind and “just doing their service.” This project shifted my perspective and opened my eyes to many elements I never expected. Reading the laws that were put in place by the War Measures Act during the First World War was appalling. I could not believe that the government that I was supposed to put my trust into would do something that horrid to my own, and its own, people. Working through these feelings of anger and hatred towards my own country was difficult. I felt betrayed and lied to and like there was nothing I could do to repair it. However, when Devon spoke about her own experience going through these same emotions, she spoke about how it was not our job to fix what had been done. Nothing can change the past, but it is our job to change the future. To educate and learn from our mistakes so that they do not happen again.” – Vanessa Wood

“Though there was much anger and disappointment, that is not what I am choosing to take away from this project. It is easy to just choose to be mad at the world, the people who make the difference are the ones who choose to reconcile and move forward. This project has changed how I view myself, my country, and the world. I am choosing to take away more than that. I do not want to look at Pam’yat as something that changed me, I want to view it as a tool to make change. This project was not about me, or my family, it was much bigger than that. I believe Pam’yat can relate to people and their stories no matter what culture or background they come from. Even with movements happening currently such as the Black Live Matter movement I believe this project has given me more tools to listen and amplify voices that have been oppressed in the past and currently.” – Vanessa Wood

“I never expected Pam’yat to make such an impact on my opinions of Canada, its history and my own identity …We started learning about Internment Camps in Canada during WW1 … In one rehearsal we looked at every location in Canada that had an internment camp. To see places where I used to live or places I have an attachment to on the list made me question everything about Canada and its history.”

– Darby Thorogood

“Learning about Ukrainian history in Canada has taught me a lot about myself and how sheltered I am and was growing up … Indigenous people have faced oppression and racism in Canada, more than any other culture that I know of. I grew up in a small town in Alberta where Indigenous culture and values were not something that was widely respected or even accepted. At the time, I never questioned anybody for being racist. I genuinely did not know any better. Looking back, I am horrified at the way Indigenous people were (and are) stereotyped and treated. I wish I had the same values back then as I do now. Perhaps I would have been able to use my privilege to stand up to oppressive behaviour. Had I the knowledge and bravery, I’d like to think I would have. It isn’t just in Alberta that racism and oppression is alive and well. It’s also not just Indigenous people and Ukrainian people. Sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and of course, skin colour are just a few of the minorities that face extreme oppression worldwide to this day. Pam’yat forced me to recognize my privilege. There are people in the world who have to fight for the life they have because of who they are. I will never have to experience that.” – Darby Thorogood

“Although ​Pam’yat​ revolved around the notion of Ukrainian identity, it also prompted me to affirm and re-evaluate my concept of what it means to be Canadian. For the past several years, I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the popular notion of Canadian nationalism. I have been gathering pieces of information about Canada’s darker history of genocide, internment, and discrimination; the disturbing truths that I learned through Pam’yat​ were yet more confirmation for me. However, P​am’yat provided me with one of my first opportunities to discuss my scepticism of boastful Canadian identity with like-minded others who were willing to examine our country’s discriminatory past. Additionally, Pam’yat​ offered me a chance to reflect on my pre-established opinions of Canadian identity; for me, an incredibly impactful moment occurred as we were reading a children’s book, Silver Threads ​(Marsha Skrypuch)​. The story followed a Ukrainian couple who had immigrated to Canada to build a new life, which was swiftly torn apart by the cruel internment camps. Despite the trauma and injustice that had been forced upon him by the Canadian officials, the husband still fiercely and proudly defined himself as “Canadian.” I was baffled that, even after being horribly wronged by the Canadian government, this man could retain such a nationalistic attitude. The resilience of his pride in being Canadian made me seriously reflect on my own conflicted Canadian identity.” – Sophie Groves

“A lot of my learning made me incredibly angry. The discriminative treatment and policies, as well as the horrible internment camps, which were all carried out by the Canadian government against Ukrainian immigrants are awful, but it is the fact that most of this history remains relatively unknown that makes me livid. Although our ensemble, my social circle, and my family were all made aware of Canada’s dark residential school history, only a minority of these same, well educated people had ever heard about Canada’s history of Ukrainian internment, despite some of the camp locations being on our very own Vancouver Island (Cunningham). This fact alone is unacceptable.” – Sophie Groves

I was even more infuriated to learn that the Canadian government worked actively to cover up its discriminatory history. When our group watched the documentary “That Never Happened” ​as a part of our research, I was shocked to learn that in the 1950s, Archives Canada intentionally destroyed the records dealing with the internment camps. The officials knew that the government had acted wrongfully, and instead of working to reconcile the past, they chose to destroy the evidence (Armistice Films).”

– Sophie Groves

“Over the course of my journey through Pam’yat, I learned a lot about the Ukrainian people’s beautiful culture, and most importantly, about the injustices that Ukrainians have faced. I believe that, in order to right these wrongs, it is of utmost importance to promote a better societal awareness of Ukrainian Canadian history. One of the most effective and impactful ways to teach audiences about historic events is through personally relatable stories. While facts and statistics may seem like the most suitable approach to educate a population, emotionally compelling stories are often the most powerful educational tools (Myers). This logic was illustrated for me by a novel from the Dear Canada book collection. As a child, I was an avid reader of this historical fictional series. Among the books that I read was Prisoners in the Promised Land, which tells the story of a young Ukrainian immigrant whose family is forced into an internment camp upon their arrival in Canada (Marsha Skrypuch). Without Prisoners in the Promised Land​, I would never have known about the existence of Canada’s Ukrainian internment until this year. Projects such as this book help to put forgotten history back into our cultural narrative … I believe that steps such as these are instrumental in the process of increasing our society’s historical awareness, and responsibility.” – Sophie Groves

“The horrendous acts that occurred in the internment camps led to intergenerational trauma that can still be felt and seen today. This section of our research left me emotionally raw for several weeks as it uprooted a lot of my beliefs about “Canada” and how I viewed the world around me.”

– Laura Motz

“The one class in particular that affected me the most was us watching the videos about where they took place. The key video for me being the Toronto one. I grew up just outside of Toronto and every year I went to the CNE which is a fair that celebrates the end of summer. Thousands of people go every year and I know that most people don’t know what happened just steps away from where the fair takes place. When I found out about the internment camp at Stanley Barracks I instantly broke. I couldn’t believe the place that I have associated with happiness and love could have even been a place that was filled with darkness and hatred. In my journal I said, “I am in shock. I can’t believe I was never taught this, and no one knows about this. I can never look at that place the same again” (Motz). I spoke to friends and family about this and I was right, no one knew. … This really made me think about how “Canada” and “Canadians” deal with our history. Internment camps like many other things are swept underneath a rug until someone speaks up about it and gets the “Canadian” government to apologize. They sometimes do and give out some sort of money in order to “wipe their hands clean”. This can even be seen with the destruction of records that speak about internment camps. When I found out that the “Canadian” government destroyed all evidence that they had about internment camps I was angry – I still am. This proves that they knew what they did was wrong but instead of going out of their way to try and fix their wrongs – when most internees were still alive – they destroyed the evidence in hopes that no one would speak up about it, which they didn’t for a long time.” – Laura Motz

“I am thankful that I got to take this class. I have learned more about the world around me in the past 5 months than I did the past 20 years of my life. It was an uncomfortable and emotional experience but now my emotions have changed from sadness to anger. I will not stop fighting the government and racism. That is easier said than done due to me still having racist tendencies. I will forever try to learn and grow and be a better person. The “Canadian” government is not off the hook. We are a racist country…I will no longer celebrate “Canada” Day and celebrate any other traditions that support the government’s ideas and actions. I hope one day the world with be filled with love and joy for everyone. Thank you for allowing me to take part in this. I am grateful.” – Laura Motz