Amherst was the first of a national wave of plaque unveilings across Canada in recognition of thousands of enemy aliens detained in camps during and after the First World War between 1914 and 1920.
AMHERST – A century ago many new Canadians from the Ukraine and eastern Europe dreamed of starting a new life in a new country.
Instead, the were imprisoned as enemy aliens during the First World War – some of them in one of the largest prisoner of war and detention centres in Amherst.
That sad chapter in Nova Scotia and Canadian history was remembered here and across Canada on Friday as a wave of more than 100 plaques were unveiled during ceremonies, including at the Cumberland County Museum.
“This has major significance for the Ukrainian community as many Ukrainians were imprisoned in internment camps and one of the biggest was in Amherst,” Dr. Bohdan Luhovyy from Mount Saint Vincent University said, adding 5,000 were put into camps between 1914 and 1920. “They were peasants and farmers. They were sent to these camps and obliged to do very hard labour.”
More than that, he said, they lost all their possessions including their land when all they wanted to do was live their lives peacefully in their new country and contribute to Canadian society. Because they came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was at war with Canada, they were detained.
“All of them had a dream to immigrate to Canada and have a new future. Instead they were arrested and the reason for their arrest was they were former citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were called enemy aliens and they lost all their rights, their property was confiscated and valuables were seized.”
One of the reasons the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association sponsored the campaign is to remind people of the 100th anniversary of the War Measures Act that was enacted soon after the start of World War One. Along with reminding people of the past, Luhovyy said, comes the desire to make sure it never happens again.
Cumberland Colchester Musquodoboit Valley MP Scott Armstrong said Canada has to be committed to not allowing the past to repeat itself and he said 100 years later the people of the Ukraine are still suffering.
“Members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community are working together with Foreign Affairs today, but we have to remember that wasn’t always the way it was. There was when that relationship wasn’t as good and there were a lot of injustices done,” Armstrong said. “If we forget these injustices and only talk about the good things that happen in our past we’ll often forget about what happened.”
Terry Farrell, MLA for Cumberland North, said people in Amherst, Cumberland County and Nova Scotia like to associate themselves with hospitality.
“What a contrast it is to compare the mistreatment and confinement of innocents right here in our neighbourhood so few decades ago,” Farrell said.
He said the plaque will serve as a reminder of a sad chapter in the history of the community, the province and the country. He said it should also serve as a reminder to all Nova Scotians that it’s their duty to ensure all Canadians feel at home and to remember the importance of peace and acceptance.
“We must remember how far we have come and all the work that is left to do,” Farrell said.
The Amherst camp operated from April 1915 until September 1919 and was located at the corner of Park and Hickman Street in a malleable iron works foundry where Casey Concrete is now located.
The camp held 853 inmates, one of whom was Soviet Red Army founder Leon Trotsky, who spent three weeks in the camp in April 1917 after being taken of a ship in Halifax bound from New York to Europe.