On June 7, 1915, Ivan Hryhoryshchuk, a prisoner at the Spirit Lake Internment Camp located near the town of Amos in the wilderness of northern Quebec, made a fateful decision. He decided that he had had enough of being confined for no justifiable reason as an “enemy alien” and forced to do hard labour in the surrounding bush, and so he made up his mind to leave that forlorn place. Although the camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed troops, escape was not particularly hard. The location of the camp was so remote, inhospitable and densely forested that the guards, as well as most of the inmates, felt that escape and subsequent survival was foolish and implausible. None of them could imagine that anyone would ever dare to try and escape. That had been one of the primary reasons for locating the camp there in the first place.
Whether Hryhoryshchuk was especially daring and courageous, or just foolish and ignorant of the dangers, he did manage to flee the camp. His freedom regrettably was short-lived. As remote as Spirit Lake was, there were a few local French settlers, who by and large were woefully ignorant about the history of the internees in the camp, and indeed believed them to be dangerous foes. It was Hryhoryshchuk’s bad luck to cross paths with one of these locals. The settler was armed, and spooked by the escapee’s strange appearance and unintelligible shouts, he promptly shot and killed him. The body was strapped to a hand pumped rail car and returned to the camp. Someone had the presence of mind to take a picture of this scene, and it soon was published in newspapers across the country. Aside from the horrified Ukrainian community, it had limited impact to most Canadians who had bought into the government sanctioned paranoia about “dangerous enemy aliens” in their midst.
During the course of the war, five more internees would be shot and killed trying to escape from one of the 24 internment camps that the government had established throughout the country. Many, many more would die of disease. At the Spirit Lake camp, sixteen more people would die from tuberculosis, typhoid, pneumonia and meningitis. Because the camp also contained whole families, six infants would die in captivity. The adults were buried in the camp cemetery which is now in private hands and has long ago been overgrown by encroaching nature. The infants were buried in the nearby town’s cemetery.
Spirit Lake got its name from the native tribes that called this area home long before the Europeans ever saw it. To them it was a sacred place, and it is more than a little ironic that the government chose this place to situate an internment camp, whose purpose was far removed from anything spiritual. Governments tend to do strange things when beset with the prospect and fervor of war and all the death and turmoil that large-scale conflicts bring. Fear, a lack of knowledge and understanding of Eastern European history, and war time xenophobia all combined to push the government into hastily enacting the War Measures Act, and subsequently intern over 8,500 so-called “enemy aliens”, most of them Ukrainians who had originally come to Canada from lands that were then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Spirit Lake was one of the largest of the 24 camps set up, holding over 1,300 internees at its peak, including women and children.
The camp operated for two years, finally closing in January of 1917. For a while after, it was used as an experimental farm, then a part of it that contained the camp cemetery was sold into private hands, and the remainder to a religious order. A sturdy stone church was built on part of the site and it operated for many decades before being closed.
Throughout most of the latter half of the last century, the Ukrainian community, spearheaded by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association, fought long and hard to have the Canadian government formally recognize the grave injustice that had been done to all those Ukrainians that had been so unfairly and cruelly incarcerated in these camps. It was not until 2005 and the passage of Bill C-331, that justice prevailed and the government acknowledged its culpability and agreed to negotiate appropriate redress. Eventually, in May of 2008, a Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund was set up with a government endowment of $10 Million.
Shortly after, with financing from this fund as well as additional support from the Shevchenko Foundation as well as private donors, a group of motivated individuals, led by a childhood friend of mine, James Slobodian from the nearby town of Rouyn-Noranda Quebec, purchased some of the land on which the camp stood, and proceeded to create the Spirit Lake Camp Interpretive Centre. This museum is housed in the renovated church building and is the only such permanent structure housing exhibits and artifacts that have been recovered from excavations at the site of the former camp. Memorial plaques have been installed at the site of the other 24 camps, but none of them have a proper museum like Spirit Lake to tell the full internment camp story. The Centre was officially opened in December of 2011, and since then has received over 20,000 visitors from not only Canada, but around the world.
I was privileged to have visited the Spirit Lake Camp a month ago and received a personal and particularly moving tour from James Slobodian, the dedicated dynamo that is behind the creation and current success of Spirit Lake. My connection to James is a personal one, as his sister Olga was my godmother. James is one of the few Ukrainians still left in the area, but that has not stopped or discouraged him from undertaking the noble cause of making sure that the Spirit Lake story is properly told. The wounds of the internment experience of a century ago have only served to strengthen his own spirit, and has motivated him to try and make Spirit Lake become a truly spiritual experience once more. It is a pilgrimage that I would recommend to all Ukrainians living in Canada.