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A dark chapter in Bow Valley's history

For two years during the First World War, Alberta was home to one of the harshest internment camps in Canada, where hundreds were held for simply being born in a country Canada was at war with.

BOW VALLEY, ALBERTA – The descendants of Ukrainians who immigrated to Canada have accomplished many things.

Descendants have included Dr. Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space, Roy Romanow, the premier of Saskatchewan in the 1990s, and Ray Hnatyshyn, the Governor General of Canada from 1990 to 1995.

Even some of our greatest hockey players, with last names such as Gretzky, Bucyk, Bossy and Hawerchuk, delighted us on the ice thanks to their Ukrainian ancestors who came here.

Unfortunately, Ukrainian-Canadians were not always welcome in Canada. During the First World War, they were viewed with suspicion, and many were sent to internment camps to work hard labour.

“People were happy to see them locked up,” said Ron Ulrich, the executive director of the Canmore Museum. “It was a way to contain enemy aliens during a very dark period of our nation’s history.”

The Castle Mountain Internment Camp, located in the Bow Valley, was one of the worst in the country.

While Ukrainians made up the bulk of the internees at the camp, there were also Austrians, Germans, and Hungarians.

“It was always designed as a forced labour camp,” Ulrich said. “People were taken and moved to these camps, far from home. The labour conditions were back-breaking, the food was not great, the treatment by the guards was horrendous.”

Within two weeks of opening on July 13, 1915, the camp had more than 200 men imprisoned there.

“The drying up of the weather will quickly give the camp a more cheerful appearance than has been the case lately,” the Calgary Herald reported on July 22, 1915. “The prisoners are expected to do a large amount of valuable clearing work in the district.”

The internees mostly worked to improve the accessibility of Banff National Park. Projects included building a road to Lake Louise, several bridges, fireguards and the back nine on the golf course at the Banff Springs Hotel. Some internees were sent into nearby coal mines.

“When you look at the infrastructure that we enjoy today, the roads, all those things, they were because of the forced labour camps of World War One,” Ulrich said. “This was about putting people into these work camps as a way to get them out of the labour force and out of the community and out of sight and mind.”

Most of the internees lived in simple tents behind barbed wire. The tents were far from adequate when the winter came, so the internees would be transferred to barracks in winter. They would return to the tents in summer.

When reporters visited, they were treated to a different view of the camp.

“During the visit I paid to it, I was struck with the splendid outfits which the prisoners wore,” one unnamed reporter with the Halifax Evening Mail wrote while praising the barracks. “With the housing arrangements, no less than with the kindly but firm authority exercised by the military in command.”

If the poor food, inadequate housing and hard labour weren’t enough, black bears often came into the camp and raided tents, eating what little the prisoners had.

Due to the harsh conditions, which were never corrected or dealt with despite the Directorate of Internment Operations in Ottawa knowing about them, there were several escapes from the camp.

On Aug. 19, 1916, three internees attempted to escape the camp. The guard called for them to halt their escape, but they did not obey. The guard then started to fire at the fleeing men. A man named Konowalszuk was shot in the thigh. This stopped the escape attempt of the other two men. Konowalszuk was carried to the camp hospital and then sent to Calgary for treatment.

Neutral observers who came to the camp noted the conditions and condemned them. Germany and Austro-Hungary also charged Canada with violations of the governing of the internment of enemy aliens.

Sir William Otter, who oversaw the internment camp system, would state that the internees were well looked after. He would do an inspection of the internment camps in Canada in 1915.

“Sir William stated conditions in all of the camps were uniformly satisfactory,” the Calgary Herald reported at the time. “Sir William Otter stated that the treatment accorded even to those who tried to escape was far better than that accorded to Canadian prisoners in Germany.”

One man housed at the Castle Mountain Camp was George Luka Budak. He was listed as a prisoner of war in official documents, but in truth, he was held in an internment camp because he held an Austrian passport.

Budak had complained to officers for several weeks about the ill-treatment he was receiving from other prisoners so the guards put him in a cell in the guard room. One night after he went to his cell, another prisoner heard a noise and called the sergeant of the guard. The guards went to Budak’s cell and found him under his bed. When they pulled him out, they discovered that he had attempted to take his own life with a razor. He would die an hour later.

William Perchaluk had come to Canada between 1911 and 1914 and found himself sent to the Castle Mountain Internment Camp in 1915, where he remained until June 26, 1916. He was put to work in the coal mines despite having breathing problems. Given a brief parole in Calgary, he enlisted with the military to escape the coal mines. Two days later, he was ready to leave for France when a former guard from Castle Mountain recognized him and arrested him as an escaped prisoner. He was sent back to the internment camp while wearing his full military uniform.

On Dec. 5, 1916, he took his life by suicide at the camp.

“Escapes were a natural part of the camps,” Ulrich said.

Even those who were not at the camp were at risk. On July 3, 1916, a game warden for the park, William Fyfe, was shot in the wrist while out on patrol after a guard mistook him for an escaping prisoner, despite Fyfe announcing himself as a game warden.

The camp would finally close in August of 1917.

In 1995, a statue was commissioned by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association to honour the men who lived at Castle Mountain. It was erected near the original Castle Mountain campsite.

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