Freedom Had a Price

Ukrainian Internment During the First World War Representations of History Freedom Had a Price is a 1994 award winning documentary about the Canadian internment of ?enemy aliens? (as considered by the Canadian government) during the First World War. Produced and directed by Yurj Luhovy, it is a moving visual account of the atrocities perpetrated on prisoners who had committed no crimes. While a small percentage were German captives, the majority were Canadians of Ukrainian descent.

Hated and feared because of their ?alien heritage? and because they posed economic threat to a country in recession, these people were imprisoned and forced to perform back-breaking work for a few cents per day.

Freedom Had a Price contains all the elements of a modern thriller: innocent people rounded up and thrown in crowded work camps; half starved forgotten captives freezing in isolated wilderness areas: torture, desperate escape attempts, sickness and death. The climax of the movie comes when the prisoners finally revolt and achieve small victory in better food and living conditions. But unlike modern stories, there is no feeling of satisfaction when the film runs out there is no resolution to the story, not then, and not now.

In the film, frozen images stare through time, gaunt, bewildered and reproachful: men huddling around fires trying to keep from freezing in northern Ontario, groups hacking down trees along railway lines in western Canada so train tourists could get a better view, a bullet riddled body shot after an escape from the Spirit Lake camp in Quebec. Interspersed with the pictures, two survivors of the camps recall their bitter memories, still afraid of reprisals from a government that imprisoned them once before for no reason. Modern historians also add explanation and interpretation to a chapter of Canadian history many would prefer to forget.

As powerful as the documentary is, its failing is in its narrow focus. Produced in 1994 by La Maison de Montage Luhovy Inc., and the National Film Board, Freedom Had a Price accomplishes its aim of exposing the stark horror of the camps and the unjust treatment of the prisoners. But because no context or balancing viewpoints are given, the film teeters on sensationalism. For example, the man in charge of the internment camps, Sir William Otter, is mentioned only once in passing. But in the book A Canadian General: Sir William Otter, author Desmond Morton devotes a whole chapter to Otter?s struggle to set up and regulate the camps on government orders. From the account, it appears Otter was not inhumane, and tried to do the best he could for the prisoners. Unfortunately, most of the day-to-day operations were often left to inept camp commanders and government bureaucrats. As Morton explains, Though he had a plan, Otter was very much at the mercy of decisions made by the registrars and they were susceptible to public opinion. He was not, as he repeatedly had to explain, Head of the Enemy Alien catchers, he was simply responsible for those they sent him.

And Otter himself wrote: The various complaints made to you by prisoners as to the rough conduct of the guards, I fear is not altogether without a reason, a fact much to be regretted, and I am sorry to say by no means an uncommon occurrence at other stations.

Although Freedom Has a Price was made to shock and outrage-it is still fairly accurate. The fact and figures it presents are confirmed by a number of other available sources, such as a chapter on the internment camps in Ontario in a book put out by the Multicultural History Society of Ontario. According to the book and the film, about five thousand people of Ukrainian heritage, mostly unemployed men were incarcerated in internment camps under the War Measures Act of 1914. These workers had previously worked in semi-skilled areas such as mining, lumbering, and manufacturing industries, and had been the first to face unemployment during the recession. Government logic held that the camps would provide them with food, shelter and work while keeping a feared political and economic menace away from society. Altogether, there were twenty- six camps across Canada. Ontario held six, including Petawawa and the damp and dreary Fort Henry in Kingston. Living and working conditions were undoubtedly brutal, and the psychological deprivation was as hard as the physical discomfort. During the years the camps were in operation, from 1914-1920, one hundred and six people were declared ?insane? and one hundred and seven died, some shot while trying to escape; others from tuberculosis and pneumonia. One of the interviewees in Freedom Had a Price was a woman who was interred with her father and family when she was just a child. Her two- year old sister died in the camp because there were no proper medical facilities. The cause of death was never determined and she was buried in a makeshift coffin in a nearby cemetery. All that remains is a faded snapshot of a smiling little girl and an old woman'? anguished memories and questions. One insistent fighter for restitution for the internment injustices, Lubomyr Luciuk edited a 1994 book that addresses the legacy of the camps, Right an Injustice, which is described on the cover as ?The Debate over Redress for Canada?s First National Internment Operations.? The book is a comprehensive collection of articles from various sources, including the late twentieth century newspaper articles, editorials and letters to a number of major Canadian newspapers, as well as debates and proceedings from the House of Commons and the Senate of Canada. Many articles discuss the circumstances surrounding and preceding camp development, thereby providing a larger overview than does the film. In Righting an Injustice, it is revealed that the Canadian government has finally acknowledged some culpability in the brutality of the internment camps. For a long time it took the attitude of wait and hope they go away. But in a 1991 House of Commons debate, it was decided that??internment was unjust, repressive, and against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government is also looking into ways to provide compensation to the Ukrainian people. One suggestion was to get Parks Canada to erect historical monuments to acknowledge the injustices against the Ukrainian Canadians and educate the public about this chapter of our past. But, as shown in the documentary, theory and practice are not the same. A city councilor in Kapuskasing, Northern Ontario who has been trying to get a monument there restored has found that there are not any funds available. It is also debatable how sincere the government is in really education the public.

A website (www.infoukes.com/history/internment) entitled Ukrainian Internment in Canada was created by some of the people involved in the ongoing struggle for recognition. The authors begin by explaining the reason for the project.

These series of pages were motivated by the reluctance of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBFC) to show Yurij Luhovy?s excellent documentary, Freedom Had a Price?The CBC found excuse after excuse of why they could not air this excellent film. When they finally did show it, it was aired Sunday, April 23, 1995 at 4PM EST with very little prior notice. The listing ?Sense of History? was inconspicuous with no further information as to what it was. In other words, the CBC successfully camouflaged the show to minimize its exposure to the Canadian viewing public.

There is little doubt that the advent of the Internet, and the World Wide Web have transformed the way the world disseminates information. The organizational style of the website makes this site to be comprehensive and easy to navigate. The web site at www.ufoukes.com is a valuable companion to the film. Its pages include information on whom the internees were; where the internment camps were located in Canada; and the origins and history of the camps. A considerable amount of information is taken from primary sources. In addition, this web site provides a number of links containing an extensive amount of information pertaining to the internment of the Ukrainians. While it may have been a slow process, many Canadians of Ukrainian descent are finally starting to gain some atonement for the wrongs shown their ancestors in the internment camps of the First World War. The documentary Freedom Had a Price is a strong visual reminder of a regrettable part of Canada?s past. While it may not be as broad in scope or as unbiased as other accounts, it is an excellent source if used in conjunction with other resources. However, it is probably one effective way of getting the message to the general public. There are many who are determined the message will eventually reach everyone because for them it is a matter of honour. While addressing a standing committee on multiculturalism in 1987, Lubomyr Luciuk used the following quote from an unknown author in the Daily British Whig, September 8, 1917, The man whose honour has been mistrusted and who has been singled out for national humiliation will remember it and sooner or later, it will have to be atoned for.

In conclusion, history is an important part of our everyday lives. Documentaries, films, books, and internet sites when used in conjunction with one another can offer its readers and viewers, a history that is rich, in depth, and diversified. The use of archival footage, vintage photographs, compelling testimonies of survivors, and commentaries of such prominent Canadian historians as Desmond Morton and Donald Avery, in Freedom Had a Price, the web site, and the books Fighting an Injustice and A Canadian General: Sir William Otter have provided invaluable scholarship to the study of Ukrainians and their internment. Together they have painted a moving human story of Canadian history that has all but disappeared from public consciousness. Unfortunately, this incident can not be erased from the history books or from the memory of the people who were involved, or their families. As historians we share in our responsibilities to ensure that history whether it is represented in historical films, documentaries, web sites or books, is faithful to historical evidence. Questions about how history works, and how scholars can objectively evaluate their sources are just some of the criteria that must be realized and satisfied. Sources must reach a public that has a simplistic notion of history. It is absolutely imperative that we gain tentative understandings of the construction of historical cultures. As historians, we all share in the responsibility to learn from the lessons of the past.


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