The washed-out whites and greys of the spectral images haunting the foreground stand in vivid contrast to the shadowy mountain background in Cochrane artist Adrienne Jenkins’s painting.
Jenkins has ventured out to some of the sites of concentration camps that were operated across Canada from 1914 to 1920, and used her imagination and artistic talent to illustrate one of the darkest periods in Canadian history.
The nearest of the camps to her home in Cochrane was in Banff, and there was another at Castle Mountain, further down the highway toward Lake Louise.
Jenkins said a visit to Fernie, B.C. about seven years ago resulted in an unexpectedly profound experience that set her off on a journey of discovery.
As she stood reading the plaque commemorating the nearby camp site, her imagination took over, envisioning the atrocities that were inflicted upon mostly Ukrainian refugees during the First World War.
“We were hiking in Fernie with a friend and there was this big rock and it had a plaque, and we stopped and it said ‘Internment Camp’ and I was just surprised,” she said.
That surprise led to her dig deeper into the story, researching the history of internment camps around the country.
It also inspired her paintings.
“I tried to imagine and empathize how fearful it must have been for the men to escape from their internment camps and survive,” Jenkins said.
Her painting Mountain Spectre shows ghost-like figures representing the prisoners and guards returning from a day’s labours from a camp site, with a mountain revealing a maple leaf-shaped shadow.
She has now researched and completed 12 paintings of different Canadian internment camp sites, and has even spoken with some ancestors of prisoners.
Jenkins is looking to continue her research and artwork to raise awareness of the issue, as she applies to the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund for support to complete her project.
The fund supports projects that commemorate and recognize the experiences of ethno-cultural communities that were affected by the camps. Part of the fund’s work is called Understanding Through the Arts - Recognizing an Historic Injustice: Canada's First National Internment Operation, 1914-1920.
Jenkins’s project is named “Resilience: The Broken Promises during WW1, Canada's First Internment Camps.”
She researched 12 camps out of 24 found throughout Canada, ultimately producing a dozen paintings. Her research materials included old newspaper archives, books, and videos that she’s been collecting since 2018.
One of her main findings is that Ukrainians fleeing wartime atrocities in 1914 were not as welcome in Canada as they are today.
She hopes to expand her research to other camps in Canada, and perhaps create a book one day.
“My future artistic goal is to continue exploring this subject matter to create new paintings and add to this body of work,” she said.
“In my case, my Ukrainian heritage, though important to our family, was never talked about in these terms of Canadian history. So I have learned a great deal about the internments.”
A review of newspaper clippings from the period reveals some of the language used to describe the camps and the prisoners, reflecting prevailing attitudes of the time. Some of the terminology would be shocking by today’s standards.
Referred to alternately as “work camps” or “internment camps,” they were also called “concentration camps,” which, given the fact the prisoners were arrested, surrounded by barbed wire enclosures, poorly fed and worked for long hours, seems more apt.
The Internment Recognition Fund project has created a film series called The Camps, which includes short documentaries with a cinematic feature film style. Each film tells a unique story about a different camp.
Part of the Understanding through the Arts section of the project is a unit for students in grades 4 to 9 that explores the experiences of Ukrainian and other European immigrants to Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the impacts of internment on individuals, families and communities.
The fund’s website also provides an exhaustive history of events leading up to the camps.
At the outset of war in August 1914, the Canadian government quickly enacted the federal War Measures Act (WMA). The Act’s sweeping powers permitted the government to suspend or limit civil liberties in the interest of Canada’s protection, including the right to incarcerate “enemy aliens” – a term referred to the citizens of states legally at war with Canada who resided in Canada at that time.
Under the authority of the WMA, Canada interned 8,579 enemy aliens in 24 receiving stations and internment camps from 1914 to 1920. Some were classified as prisoners of war, while the others were civilians.
The majority of those interned were of Ukrainian descent, targeted because Ukraine was then split between Russia (an ally) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was an enemy of the British Empire.
In addition to those placed in camps, another 80,000 enemy aliens – again mostly Ukrainians – were forced to carry identity papers and to report regularly to local police offices.
According to an article on Warmuseum.ca, the government "frequently employed internees on massive labour projects," including the development of Banff National Park and numerous mining and logging operations. Most were paid 25 cents a day, far less than that offered to other labourers of the time period, but much of their income was confiscated anyway. Interned Canadians were also disenfranchised during the course of the war, meaning they couldn’t vote.
The same article on Warmuseum.ca states the internment of Canadians "left painful scars and, for Ukrainian Canadians in particular, the lingering suggestion of widespread disloyalty." War-time fervour and xenophobic fear were the main factors driving the policy of internment, not actual attacks on Canada’s domestic war effort by enemy sympathizers.
In November 2005, after a long grassroots campaign by the Ukrainian community, Bill C-331 recognized the internment of Ukrainian Canadians during the First World War and called for negotiated settlement between government and members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community. Since then, according to Warmuseum.ca, negotiations have taken place between members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community and the government over issues of redress.
For more information on the fund or to view the web series, go to internmentcanada.ca.