Amherst will be one of 100 locations across Canada where plaques commemorating the internment of Ukrainian and other enemy aliens during World War One happened a century ago.
AMHERST – A plaque will be laid at the Cumberland County Museum on Friday to help right one of this country’s wrongs from a century ago.
The first of 100 plaques to be put in place across the country will be unveiled at the museum on Friday to mark the 100th anniversary of the War Measures Act and of Canada’s first national internment operation from 1914 to 1920.
“It’s a disappointing piece of our history that not a lot of people know about,” said Amherst lawyer Bill Fairbanks, who is chairman of the museum committee organizing the event. “These people were basically put in jail without cause. There was no reason to put them in these internment camps other than the fact the war was going on and the government felt they were enemy aliens.”
The Amherst prisoner of war and detention centre operated from April 1915 until September 1919. It was located at the corner of Park Street and Hickman Street in a malleable iron works foundry where Casey Concrete is located today.
The camp held 853, some of whom were German prisoners of war taken off enemy ships, while others were Canadians of Ukrainian, German, Armenian, Croatian and Eastern European descent.
“This is to recognize the injustice that was done to the Ukrainians and others who were incarcerated at the camp during World War One here in Amherst,” Fairbanks said. “Amherst was one of the largest of the 24 camps across Canada
Among the camp’s most famous prisoners was Leon Trotsky, who was detained there for three weeks in April 1917 after being taken off a ship from New York bound for Europe.
He went on to play a prominent role in the Russian Revolution and was later Russia’s minister of war.
Fairbanks said events begin at 10:30 a.m. with the plaque being unveiled at 11 a.m. at the museum. Among those in attendance will be MP Scott Armstrong, MLA Terry Farrell, Amherst Mayor Robert Small and Cumberland County Deputy Warden Don Smith.
The event is being led by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The plaques will placed in centres across Canada, starting in Amherst and ending in Nanaimo, B.C. It’s the first time in Canadian history that 100 plaques recalling an historic injustice will be unveiled on the same date and time across the country.
Project lead Lubomyr Luciuk said the project is about preserving the memory of what was done so it’s not forgotten by future generations.
“This is not just about recalling Canada’s first national internment operation, a relatively unknown part of Canadian history, but it’s also about creating a wave of unveilings from coast to coast at 11 a.m. local time,” Luciuk said. “We’re starting in Amherst, where there was an internment camp, and ending in Nanaimo, B.C. where there was also an internment camp.”
Beginning in 1994, the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association began placing historical markers to recall the internment operations, hoping to eventually have a plaque at each of the 24 camp sites. One of those is located at the Casey Concrete site on Park Street.
“These plaques will hallow the memory of all of the victims of the internment operations and help educate our fellow Canadians about a little-known episode in Canada’s national history,” Luciuk said. “That same act was used three times in the 20th century and it abrogated the civil liberties of tens of thousands of people for no good reason. That’s the issue that we have to remain vigilant in defence of civil liberties and human rights, particularly in times of domestic and international crisis. That’s what this project is all about. It’s not only about what happened 100 years ago, it’s as much about what could happen 100 years from now.”
He said internees – including men, women and children – were branded enemy aliens and forced to do heavy labour for the profit of their jailers. They were disenfranchised and subject to other state-sanctioned sanctions because of who they were and where they came from.
Most internees were single, young men, immigrants lured to Canada with promises of free land and freedom.
It was a practice that was repeated with Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.