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Remembering a ‘static and silent’ part of Canadian history

Phyllis Simms and her husband, Jeremy, from Mahone Bay look at the Enemy Aliens: Internment in Canada, 1914-1920 exhibit at the Cumberland County Museum following its opening on July 27.
Phyllis Simms and her husband, Jeremy, from Mahone Bay look at the Enemy Aliens: Internment in Canada, 1914-1920 exhibit at the Cumberland County Museum following its opening on July 27. - Darrell Cole

Enemy Aliens exhibit runs at Cumberland County Museum through Oct. 6

AMHERST, N.S. —

The experiences of thousands of Canadians during the First World War is a forgotten, if not unknown piece, of our nation’s history.

Between 1914 and 1920, 8,579 Canadians were declared enemy aliens, many of which ended up being interred 24 internment camps from coast to coast, including one in Amherst.

Work is now being done to recognize what happened a century ago.

“At this time of truth and reconciliation with other parts of our country’s history, this also a story that needs to be told, remembered and learned from,” Ana Katalinic, the Croatian community representative to the endowment council of the $10-million Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, said July 27 during the opening of the Enemy Aliens: Internment in Canada, 1914-1920 exhibit at the Cumberland County Museum. “I’m like many here today in that I’m still learning about the history of internment here in Canada. We need to know, and we need to learn from it.”

Katalinic said she’s grateful for the many avenues of research being done on the subject that has remained “static and silent” for a very long time.

“More and more, we are unveiling truths about our country’s past. As proud as we are as Canadians, there are facts and things that happened that have been buried in archives and in some slowly fading personal recollections, stories and anecdotes.”

She said many of those impacted came to Canada at this country’s invitation to begin new lives and take advantage of new opportunities or escape persecution. However, because of war and fear they had to register with the authorities and give up their personal liberties and freedoms.

“These people came here and set up a life, they had families and they worked,” she said. “Having committed no crimes, they were never arrested, they were considered enemy aliens, undesirable, a risk and unwelcome.”

Some were deported, others interred and many more forced to surrender their wealth and do hard labour in inhospitable conditions at the gain of the people interning them. Those not in the camps were obliged to carry identity documents at all times and regularly report to the police.

“We should know this not to get angry or throw stones of bitterness, but to learn from it,” she said.

The exhibit will remain at the museum through Oct. 6. It’s an exhibit featuring 33 photos from the Canadian War Museum, Library Archives Canada and many universities, archival and private collections throughout the country.

The exhibit explores the interment operations and the experiences of the internees: who they were and the conditions they endured and the legacy they left behind. It traces the history of the First World War internment from the pre-war immigration boom, when the Canadian government openly recruited immigrants, to the War Measures Act.

“While brave Nova Scotians were fighting overseas, Amherst was one of 24 internment camps across the country for immigrants from counties like Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria,” Cumberland North MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin said. “These people were referred to by the government as enemy aliens as they came mostly from countries that were legally at war with the British Empire and who resided here in Canada during the war.”

The War Measures Act, which allowed for the establishment of the camps, was passed out of fear for national security and wartime prejudices against those whose country of origin was at war with Canada and its allies.

“We have a lot of history to learn in our own backyard,” she said. “This exhibit can teach us so much about our history and the dark moments of war and it can teach us about the courage and selflessness of our forefathers, brave women and men, who volunteered for our country. They knew many would not come back, and many did not, but courage and resilience did not end with that generation. I see it in the people I represent every day.”

Museum vice-president Gordon Goodwin said the exhibit showcases a sad part of Canadian history that must be remembered so it doesn’t recur.

“To understand you have to go back 120 years when Canada was a young country, an infant in the world, with lots of open spaces and a miniscule population,” he said. “So they opened their arms and said come to Canada with lots of free land and lots of opportunity. They reached out to Scandinavia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and invited people to come and come they did by the hundreds of thousands. And then, World War One occurred and the results were that some people were interned.”

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