Ukrainian Exhibit from Inverness Quebec donated to Montreal: Remembering Internees sent to Black Lake Asbestos Mines to Work

Quebec journalist Francine Boulet presented with documentaries by filmmaker Yurij Luhovy for the Inverness Municipal Library, located near Black Lake. Photo: MML Inc

Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Montreal.

Throughout the month of June ending 20th , the Ukrainian-Canadian community marked the centenary anniversary of the end of Canada’s first national internment operations 1914-1920.

Quebec’s Ukrainian community was severely affected by the unjust internment policy. The largest internment camp in Quebec, which was the second largest in Canada, was established at Spirit Lake, near Amos, in the Abitibi region 600 kl north of Montreal. Spirit Lake internment site was opened in January 1915 with over 1,200 interned, the majority being Ukrainians many taken from Montreal and surrounding area including 60 families, men, women and children, from St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Parish. Founded 2010, the award-winning Spirit Lake Internment Interpretative Centre/Museum, conducted numerous outreach school programs throughout the eight years and had over 40,000 visitors. The Centre, closed in 2018 unable to secure needed financial support.

The first internment stations in Quebec was a holding facility established in August 13, 1914 in the federal Immigration Building at 172 St. Antoine Street, in Old Montreal from which prisoners were transferred to other internment camps. The first permanent internment camp in Quebec was set up in the armory in Beauport, Quebec on December 19, 1914. In April 24, another was operating at the Valcartier militia camp.

“Beneath the rhetoric of public security, the main cause of internment of Ukrainians was their vulnerable economic position in Canadian society”, writes Peter Melnycky in his article “Badly Treated in Every Way, The Internment of Ukrainians in Quebec”, published 1994 in the book The Ukrainian Experience in Quebec.

Recently, Montreal received an exhibit from Francine Boulet of Inverness, Quebec, reminding the Ukrainian community in Quebec and Canada of the existence of a Ukrainian settlement in Black Lake, Quebec

During the summer of 1916, with the closing of Spirit Lake internment camp, internees that were not transferred to other internment camps in Canada, authorities sent paroled men as forced labor to a number of large corporations including men to the Asbestos Corporation. Paroled internees arrived as “prisoners of war” from the internment camp of Spirit Lake to Black Lake.

A major site for asbestos mining was in the village of Black Lake, Quebec, founded 1906, a village population by 1911 of almost 3,000. Close to 200 immigrants arrived, most of them Ukrainians, to work in Black Lake asbestos mines. Beginning in 1915, during World War 1, a large increase in asbestos production was needed for submarines, gas-masks. Protesting harsh mining conditions and reduced wages, on October 8, 1915 two Ukrainians began the first strike in the history of Quebec’s asbestos industry. Close to 2,500 took part. Eventually the company gave into the demands of employees and wages were brought back to the levels of August 1914 for the asbestos miners. The Ukrainian strike leaders were Nicolas Kachuk and Ivan Chaprun. Little is known of these two miners.

Journalist Francine Boulet mentioned, “The Black Lake community knew about Ukrainians working in the mines. This was mentioned in the local media at that time. In a 1995 bulletin “Le Bercail, a special issue was devoted to Ukrainians. It wrote about accidents in the mines injuring many Ukrainians; about the lives of several Ukrainian families living in Black Lake, and about a scandal titled “L’affaire Bateman” in which a foreman at the mine killed a Ukrainian worker.”

The community of Inverness established its first colony in 1829. Thetford Mines, near Inverness was founded in 1876 after discovering large asbestos deposits in the area. The city became a hub for one of the world’s largest asbestos-producing regions in Quebec. The dangerous microscopic fibers were inhaled by miners, now known to cause lung cancer. In 2001 the city of Thetford Mines merged with Black Lake which had a small Ukrainian community, and other surrounding areas.

The exhibit donated by Francine Boulet of Inverness about Ukrainians in Quebec consists of 12 framed 16”x20” photos. Francine Boulet, became interested in researching Black Lake when a friend informed her about Ukrainians that worked in the mines beginning of the 20th century. Her research resulted in a video-documentary interviewing two Ukrainians who lived in Black Lake. She also contacted Dr. Clement Fortier who researched Black Lake and wrote a book. In his 1986 second edition Dr. Fortier writes about Ukrainians in Black Lake. Before his passing in 2018, Dr. Fortier donated over 2,300 photos, press clippings, reports, maps and other documents to The Geneological Society and History of Thetford Mines.

Ms. Boulet’s interest in Ukrainian immigration began early. She states, “My uncle, Père Émilien Tremblay (1913-1990) after ordination first served as a chaplain in the Canadian army. Then, as a Redemptorist priest he asked permission to change to the Byzantine rite before he went to work with Ukrainians living in the Canadian Prairies. He learnt Ukrainian, and served in parishes and missions in Manitoba and Saskatchewan from the early 1900. He regularly visited our family home in St. Leonard. My uncle started a publishing house called “Icon Press” publishing essays on the Ukrainian-Catholic church. I remember helping my uncle assemble book sections by-hand in my parents home. He visited Lviv in 1967. Upon his return told us how oppressed and traumatized Ukrainians were, and that he held a clandestine church service attended by many.”

Ms. Boulet’s exhibit was first shown in 1991 in the Town of Nicolet, followed by an exhibit at Maison de la culture in Cote-des-Neiges, Montreal.

Francine Boulet visited Ukraine three times just before Ukraine’s renewed independence, working as a freelance journalist for l’Agence France-Presse in Kyiv writing various articles. She founded “Byzantine Productions”, to do events with Ukrainian themes.

The story of Quebec’s Ukrainian community is depicted in the documentary films “Ukrainians in Quebec 1890-1945” which has a section on Spirit Lake internment, and in “Freedom Had A Price”, the first feature documentary on Canada’s first national internment operations, released in 1994, inspiring many internment projects that followed. The French-language documentaries “Les Ukrainiens d’une Quebec 1890-1945” and “Génocide du nation” produced by Yurij Luhovy and Zorianna Hrycenko were presented recently to journalist Francine Boulet who donated the films to the Municipal Library of Inverness insuring the history of Ukrainians in Quebec is known. UCC-Montreal president Mykhailo Shwec commented, “Realizing the importance of documentation, it is noteworthy how members of the Montreal community in the 1970’s first took the initiative to research and tell the history of the unjust internment of Ukrainians, producing historical documentaries. These films continue to be used by educators, and be seen by the general public. The history of Ukrainians in Black Lake deserves our attention as we mark the 100th anniversary.” Film resources available at: yluhovy.com.

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