Socialist Alternative

Enemy Alien: a revealing look at wartime internment – review

The graphic history Enemy Alien: a true story of life behind barbed wire, written by historian Kassandra Luciuk and illustrated by Nicole Marie Burton, sheds light on an often-ignored chapter of Canadian history by focusing on the grueling experiences of Ukrainian-Canadian internees during and immediately after the First World War. Based on the memoir of John Boychuk, whose testimony is one of the few narratives on wartime internment in existence, and provides a tragic and profound glimpse into the wartime nation building of Canada.

Less than a half century after four British-North American colonies underwent confederation to become the Dominion of Canada, the nation walked lockstep with Britain and the other Crown Dominions into an imperialist war with Germany. Over 60,000 Canadians were killed during the First World War, with over 170,000 wounded. Much like Britain, in many Canadian towns and cities you will find grand cenotaphs memorialising the fallen with poppies worn solemnly every year around armistice day. This memory of collective sacrifice played a central role in shaping modern Canadian identity, but it has also obscured many of the more unsavory, tragic, and unjust events of the war such as stark brutality and political repression unleashed by the state on many of its own citizens. The fact that during a war that was supposed to defend democracy, thousands of ethnic minorities and political activists were imprisoned by the state and used as slave labour, is often forgotten in favour of endless celebrations of the heroism displayed by Canadian troops at Vimey Ridge.

Enemy Alien wastes no time in diving into the horrors of internment as it begins with the young Ukrainian-Canadian protagonist being kidnapped by the police off the streets of Toronto in 1914. John Boychuk’s only crime was being born in the largely Ukrainian province of Galicia which was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, making him a potential enemy of the state. Immediately, Boychuk joins some 1300 internees at a prison camp, one largely built by the prisoners themselves, in Kapuskasing in rural northern Ontario. Ukrainians made up the majority of those interned during the First World War but were also joined by hundreds of Germans, Hungarians, Croats, Poles, Turks, and other former imperial subjects of the Central Powers. Reasons for internment could range from engaging in political activism and anti-war opposition to anything vaguely defined as “suspicious behavior.”

The camp itself was, by the standards of the time, considered a minimum security prison with the dense forest surrounding Kapuskasing making a successful escape almost impossible. Throughout their time in Kapuskasing Boychuk and the other internees are used as forced labour in the Canadian north and endure a number of abuses from the guards. These include routine physical assault, starvation, the forced consumption of rotten meat, and acts of cultural insensitivity. Boychuk’s imprisonment was not ended by the conclusion of the war in 1918, as a year earlier he and other internees were sent to Sydney Nova Scotia to work as forced labour in a steel mill run by the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (DOSCO).

 Yet Boychuk and the other internees are not passive victims of an oppressive state. Luciuk shows that these were men with a great deal of agency and dignity possessing a willingness to survive and fight back. Boychuk along with many of his fellow prisoners actively resist the abuse of the guards and engage in protest and strike action when abuse escalates or basic humane demands are not met in the camp. One such incident even resulted in a camp wide riot that had to be brutally suppressed by the guards. While interned in Nova Scotia Boychuk worked alongside the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) District 26 in their struggle against DOSCO.

During the early 1920’s the UMWA established a presence in Nova Scotia (specifically the island of Cape Breton) which became a haven for local left-wing miners and industrial workers. Boychuk and other internees at the Sydney steel mills take part in the strike of 1925, a particularly grueling and confrontational strike which ended in violent confrontations with the police. For Boychuk, this was no doubt a moment of solidarity between two oppressed peoples, combining the ethnic struggle against racist oppression with class politics. As Kassandra Luciuk’s own research at the University of Toronto has shown, many Ukrainian immigrants were involved in trade union and radical left-wing politics in Canada throughout the early twentieth century. Ukrainians, as well as Jewish and Finnish immigrants, made up the backbone of much of Canada’s socialist movement making certain localities with large immigrant populations such as Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Edmonton strong centers for left-wing labour radicalism. During the war the largely immigrant led Social Democratic Party of Canada (which had an entire branch of the party dedicated to organising Ukrainians) and the Industrial Workers of the World took the blunt of this persecution, along with anti-war dissenters both immigrant and native born alike.

From beginning to end of Enemy Alien, the imperialist and settler colonial nature of Canadian Society is hauntingly displayed on its pages. The very first page of the book shows both a Union Jack and a Canadian Red Ensign (the Canadian flag from 1868 to 1921) flowing next to a panel with conservative wartime Prime Minister Robert Borden calling for Canadian support for the British war effort. In the eyes of men like Borden Canada was not just a white man’s country, but it was specifically an extension of British protestant civilisation. French-Canadians enjoyed enough power in Quebec to earn a level of begrudging toleration from the British-Canadian elite but other less established ethnic and religious groups weren’t so fortunate (this is of course to say nothing as to how Indigenous people were treated). Working class Eastern and Southern European immigrants were often not seen as being truly white by many British-Canadians and were therefore not subject to the same rights and liberties that Canadians were supposedly fighting for in Europe.

 In Enemy Aliens powerful conclusion, Boychuk returns to Kapuskasing during the 1940’s and notices how an entire town has emerged replacing the old camp. The only thing that is left of the camps is the Ukrainian-Canadian cemetery for those who did not survive internment, which has been left neglected by the town. It reflected the treatment of internees both during and after the war Boychuk remarks “This is Western Democracy. This is the reality for enemy aliens like me.” He also remarks that he hopes his story will not be forgotten and that the world must be told of what he and the other internees were forced to endure. In this regard, Luciuk and Burton are continuing Boychuk’s work by making sure that the great injustice that was wartime internment is never erased from the Canadian historical consciousness. 

LATEST NEWS