OTTAWA (CCN) — A Kingston-based academic hopes a new petition will prompt the Canadian government to restore a cemetery where Ukrainian immigrants who died in a Quebec internment camp are buried.
“The Government of Canada, between 1914 and 1920, under powers of the War Measures Act, interned 8,759 men, women and children in 24 camps,” said Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College, who initiated the e-petition E-1643 to the Heritage Minister on April 17.
Many of these interned individuals were Ukrainians who had immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he said. They were sent to remote camps, among them the one called Spirit Lake in the Abitibi region of Quebec, near Amos. This was one of two such camps that also housed women and children.
Luciuk said he hopes the petition, sponsored by Conservative MP James Bezan, will prompt the government “to do the right thing,” and restore the cemetery now owned privately by a farmer who has allowed the grave sites for 16 internees and several children to be overtaken by boreal forest. The federal government had turned the cemetery over to the Quebec government in 1936, and Quebec sold it to the farmer in 1988.
The Ukrainians sent to Spirit Lake came primarily from Montreal and many were Ukrainian Greek Catholics who attended the St. Michael the Archangel Greek Catholic Church.
Most Canadians do not know Ukrainians were interned during the First World War, and afterward during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Luciuk said.
When he was working on his master’s degree at Queens, Luciuk began to research the internment in 1978, when he came across people who had been interned. He had no idea this had happened.
In the mid-1980s, the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association formed to gain recognition of the internment, based on the recognition given to the Japanese who were interned in the Second World War, he said.
In 2008, they achieved a settlement that established the Canadian First World War Recognition Fund, and $10 million of “symbolic redress,” Luciuk said. This fund has a formal mandate to restore internee cemeteries, and has successfully done so in other locations.
When speaking to a woman who had survived the Spirit Lake internment, she told Luciuk, “Your campaign should be about memory, not money.”
“I want people to remember,” she said, telling Luciuk if people had remembered what had happened to the Ukrainians during the First World War, the Japanese might not have been interned in the Second World War.
At least 16 bodies are buried at the Spirit Lake cemetery, maybe 19, Luciuk said. “Some died trying to escape; others died of work-related injuries.” Others died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918, so moving the remains to a new site would be prohibitively expensive.
“We thought it would be a simple matter for landowner to open up cemetery to be re-consecrated,” Luciuk said, noting that almost all the crosses have now been knocked over or disappeared.
He attributed “no malicious intent” to the farmer, but described the cemetery as “in the back end of nowhere,” now being overtaken by the boreal forest.
“He’s a farmer, he’s not interested in maintaining a cemetery,” Luciuk said.
They approached the farmer several times, offering to pay for the land, offered him an honorarium for hiring a caretaker, Luciuk said. “All we want to do is acquire the property, restore the cemetery, have a ceremony.”
“We are not interested in opening it up to the public, except maybe one day a year,” he said.
Near the site the Spirit Lake Camp Corporation runs a small museum near the internment site.
Luciuk has written the Bishop of Amos, and Pope Francis asking for their support in restoring and re-consecrating the Spirit Lake cemetery.
“This is such a simple matter to solve,” Luciuk said, noting there’s an endowment fund that can pay for the cemetery’s upkeep. The petition calls for the Canadian government to “use whatever measures necessary to provide for the archaeological examination, restoration, re-consecration and limited ongoing site visits for commemorative and religious services to the Spirit Lake internee cemetery, working in collaboration with the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Ukrainian Canadian Congress, so hallowing the victims of Canada’s first national internment operations
The E-Petition (https://petitions.ourcommons.ca/en/Petition/Sign/e-1643) is open until August. Since it was launched it has garnered more than 600 signatures.