Aug. 8, 2018

New museum exhibit shows history of Canada’s internment camps

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The Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives’ latest exhibit “Enemy Aliens” traveled from the Canadian War Museum and explores a part of the nation’s First World War history that’s not often discussed.

Photo: Canadian War Museum

When Marsha Skrypuch was growing up, she would sometimes hear her grandfather talk about being long ago imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. She assumed he just didn’t want to admit wrongdoing. It wasn’t until many years later, when she read about the internment camps in the newspaper, that she realized the deep reality of his experience and of the shadow it had cast upon their entire family history.

Part of that experience is being shared through a new temporary exhibition at the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives entitled “Enemy Aliens: Internment in Canada, 1914-1920.” During the First World War, national security fears and wartime prejudice drove Canada to intern 8,579 people (mostly Ukrainians and Germans immigrants) for anything from unemployment to attempting to leave Canada.

The internment camp in Jasper, Alberta wasn't operational for long, compared to some; it opened in February 1916 and closed in August of that same year, shortly after Marsha’s grandfather George Forchuk escaped the camp and fled to rebuild his life. His pre-internment farm, which he’d settled after moving from Austria at the encouragement of the Canadian government, was never returned to him.

“What we don't remember, we're bound to repeat,” says Marsha, who will join a Museum-led walking tour of the Jasper Internment Camp on Sunday, August 12. “Jasper is a beautiful place with a varied history and all aspects of that history should be remembered.”

The walking tour on August 12 of the Jasper Internment Camp will depart from Old Fort Point Parking Lot at 2 pm.

After the walk Marsha, today a writer of war fiction, will do a reading from one of her books at a wine and cheese reception that runs from 3 pm – 6 pm back at the museum. Below, she discusses her family’s experiences during the time of Canada’s internment camps.

On learning about the reality of her grandfather’s internment

My grandfather died in 1967. Then in the late 1980s I read an Op-Ed in the Globe & Mail by Dr. Lubomyr Luciuk about thousands of Ukrainians being interned during WWI as enemy aliens and it was like alarm bells going off in my head. I called my father and asked him if this might be what had happened to Gido. Dad said yes, of course it was, although the term "internment" was not one he or I had heard Gido use. It had just been referred to as being imprisoned unjustly.

When I realized the history, I felt a deep sense of guilt for not believing that my grandfather had been telling the truth about his unjust punishment. I was his granddaughter, after all. I should have believed him. It also made me sad to think that he carried that burden his entire life and that others had judged him like I had.

On the impact the internment had on her family

[The loss of my grandfather’s original homestead] had a ripple effect on our family throughout the generations. For Gido's own mother and sister who were still in Ukraine, it meant that he couldn't sponsor them to come to Canada. Both of them lived through extreme poverty and political upheaval and both died in WWII. Had he not been interned, they would have come to Canada and survived.

The feeling of shame that Gido lived with because of being interned stayed with him his whole life. He was a very smart man but never ran for political office or stuck his head out in any way because he was afraid he'd be found out for being interned.

Gido's internment has affected me as well. Because of his unjust treatment, I have dedicated my life to writing those bits of history that have been shoved under the carpet.

On her work

I write about ordinary people and how they react when they have been thrust into extraordinary circumstances. War is a pretty extraordinary circumstance.

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