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Ukrainians and Canada's First Internment Operations 1914-1920
(travelling exhibit)

The travelling exhibit – The Barbed Wire Solution: Ukrainians and Canada's First Internment Operations 1914-1920 – explores the social, economic and political circumstances that led to Canada's first use of the War Measures Act. It also looks at the conditions of daily life in the camps for the prisoners and their guards and leaves the viewer with a striking reminder of a dark and relatively unknown moment in Canadian history.

Launched in 1995, the exhibit was produced, sponsored and is owned by the UCRDC whose Exhibition Director is Svitliana Medwidsky. Bojak Creative Strategies – an Ottawa-based firm of museum professionals –– was responsible for the research, writing, curatorship and design of the exhibit. Support for the project was provided by the Government of Ontario, Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation.

Efforts are being made to provide a permanent home for the exhibit.

01. Origins

In the late 1800’s, Canada’s frontier moved farther west. The country needed more people to clear and cultivate the land. The government saw the peasants of Eastern Europe as well suited for this task. These people were accustomed to working hard and they were desperate to leave their hopeless conditions. Ukrainians responded to Canada’s promise of free land with many eager immigrants.

At the time, the Russian empire owned four fifths of Ukraine’s territory. The Austro-Hungarian Empire claimed the remaining one fifth. At the turn of the century several thousand Ukrainians immigrated to Canada from provinces under Russian rule. However, most of the more than 100,000 Ukrainian immigrants to Canada came from the regions of Galicia (Halychyna) and Bukovyna in the Austrian Empire.

Formally, Austria abolished serfdom in 1848. However, its legacy of poverty, exploitation by landed and moneyed classes and lack of opportunity for improvement lingered in its wake. For the most part, the peasant classes were illiterate. They occupied small plots of land off which they tried to make a living and looked to the clergy and religion for guidance. Many of them immigrated to Canada for an opportunity to improve life for themselves and their children.

Some members of a new educated class also immigrated to Canada. For these, mostly young people, the major influences were social and political theories and ideals of the day. They included a rising national consciousness, Ukrainian national populism and liberalism.

Canadian immigration officials labelled the immigrants in one of three ways. They called them Austrian or Russian, depending on their passport. Sometimes, they used a regional definition such as Galician or Bukovynian. Sometimes, they simply called them Ruthernian. This is an old term first used int the 11th century to refer to people who lived in the area that is now Ukraine.

02. Farming

They arrived in Canada with little money. Sometimes, they were in debt having borrowed money for their journey.

The long arduous travel exhausted them. They did not speak English and were foreign to the English way of life. To draw physical and cultural comfort and strength from one another, they settled in communities of their own kind. Thus, large bloc settlements of Ukrainians developed in the prairies. Usually, these were in the regions designated for them by the government and on the wooded lands which they preferred. Like other homesteaders, the Ukrainian immigrants brought their religion, style of living, farming and housing, cultural norms and values with them.

From the first dugout home to the later farmhouse, the pioneer families worked hard for every minor improvement of life. Three years after claiming the homeseads they could own them. To do so, they had to clear and cultivate a prescribed amount of land and become British subjects.

At the turn of the century in Canada, farming was an expensive business. Often the men found temporary and seasonal work in railroad construction, mining, harvesting or lumbering to earn money for supplies, animals and seed and to repay debts. Meanwhile the women and children cleared the land and planted crops.

03. Labour

From 1905 to 1914 the type of Ukrainian immigrant changed. There were more Ukrainians coming to Canada to work in industry as opposed to farming. They were also more likely to settle in towns and cities than those who had come earlier.

As Canada’s primary and manufacturing industries developed, the need for cheap labour increased. Business and government solicited the working poor of Central and Eastern Europe for this work.

Between 1910 and 1914, the prospect of wages for work attracted some 70,000 Ukrainians to Canada. Most of them were single migrant workers. They worked almost exclusively in low paying jobs on railway and road construction, in mines, mills, foundries and meat packing plants. Many were supporting families in Galicia and Bukovyna.

Some unattached women immigrated for the opportunity to work in Canada. However, most of the young Ukrainian women who lived in the cities, came from the rural settlements  in Canada, to work as domestic or hotel maids.

The unskilled immigrant worker had but one basic commodity to exchange – “physical strength, his brute force, to carry, pull, push, turn, as a horse would do, or a piston or a wheel”*. He exchanged it from sector to sector as demand for ‘human machines’ shifted to a rhytm he could not but obey.

*Donald Avery, ‘Dangerous Foreigners’: European Immigrant Workers and Labour Radicalism in Canada, 1896-1932

04. Cities

By the start of World War I, most major cities across Canada had a Ukrainian population. It was concentrated in cheap tenement houses and substandard boarding establishments.

Ukrainian urban settlers organized their own communities with churches, reading and drama clubs, choirs and orchestras. In the “old country” education had been a very rare commodity for them. Therefore, they emphasized it for their children in Canada.

The young migratory workers were always on the move following job opportunities. As a result, their incomes fluctuated. They tended to bring the frontier influence into the cities. This may have influenced how mainstream society defined and saw all Ukrainians.

Some perceived Ukrainians as a financial drain on society. Archival records show that some Ukrainians received relief, some Ukrainian children received government support and some Ukrainians were imprisoned for criminal activity. However, it does not appear that they had been on social aid or jailed in larger numbers than the general population.

05. Unemployment

The depression of 1913 hit the immigrant labourers the hardest. When the Canadian economy slackened, business needed fewer workers. Jobs became scarce and Canadian citizens were prepared to take the types of work that previously they did not want. They pressured employers to dismiss “foreigners” and “hire Canadian”.

Large scale unemployment among Ukrainian workers threw them into extreme poverty. Those Ukrainian communities, who were better off, aided them with donations of money and farm produce. Some cities set up relief schemes. However, the growing number of hungry and desperate men did not seek charity. They demanded fair wages for good work and roamed the country to find them.

The unemployed protested their condition and lobbied various levels of government for action. In May 1914, for example, the Ukrainian Socialist Democratic Party organized a rally of thousands of men in Winnipeg. They marched to the Manitoba Legislature and demanded “work or bread”. Some marched on toward the United States hoping to find work there.

06. Societal Views

Canadian citizens did not agree on the choice of Eastern Europe as the source for immigrants to Canada. The distinctive and colourful lifestyle of these immigrants were at odds with the sobriety of Canadian society. British Canadians saw them as resisting the British way of life.

For ages, Ukrainians had searched for a national identity. In a modern sense of the term, they were only beginning to develop one at the turn of the century. The immigrants brought this awakening and confusion with them. In their Canadian communities they showed a variety of religious, ideological and regional identities.

If the Ukrainian immigrants could not articulate who they were, they knew who they were not. They were not Western Europeans of Anglo-Celtic background whom the Canadians would have preferred to have as pioneers. They did not fit into the mould that the Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries prepared for them. Neither could they flourish in the Roman Catholic environment structured by the French Canadian clergy.

Since British Canadians were convinced of the superiority of their ways, they could not understand the immigrants’ reluctance to give up their own culture. They did not try to understand the difference. Instead they blamed the problems of the day on the difference and the people who bore it.

Internment Exhibit 
The Barbed Wire Solution


The following 24 topics dealing with Canada’s First Internment comprise the text of the Barbed Wire Solution exhibit. For an historical essay on the Internment, go to the Education section: Internment of  Ukrainians in Canada 1914 – 1920.