Parks Canada unveiled a new pavilion Friday in Banff that hopes to shed light on internment camps built across Canada during the First World War.

More than 8,500 men were held in 24 forced labour camps that stretched from British Columbia to the Maritimes, including German prisoners of war and European immigrants.


The internment camp at Castle in Banff, which was set up in July 1915. (Glenbow Archives)

Women and children were not subject to internment, yet some had little choice and accompanied their male relatives into the camps. 

Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney says the camps have been covered up for decades and it's time to put things right.

He says the prisoners were torn from their families and took part in what could be called slave labour.

"This is a complex story, considering it's a small piece of Canadian history, but it's a very important and ... a really unknown piece," said Steve Malins with Parks Canada.

"And so many layers to this story, many different perspectives and many different emotions attached with this story."

The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association has lobbied for years to get official recognition of what happened in the camps.

Association member Lubomyr Luciuk said while he is pleased with all of the work done by Parks Canada, he felt the focus might be too much on tourism.

"To put that historical memory back into the national narrative so that all Canadians can learn from this has been muted by those who want to be politically correct — who don't want to use the term, for example, concentration camp because it has modern day connotations that weren't necessarily the same in 1914," he said in a June interview. "Yes, but the term was used at the time."

107 detainees died

Luciuk was also concerned the exhibit would take more from historian interpretations then from those people who lived in the camps.


Internees clear the way for the road to Lake Louise in 1915. (Glenbow Archives)

It's estimated roughly 5,000 Ukrainians were interned during the war, many in Banff. 

The camp was set up at the base of Castle Mountain in July 1915 before moving to the Cave and Basin that November — one of many camps that were set up mostly in Canada’s hinterland.

Banff internees were forced to build roads and infrastructure in the national park.

They lived and worked in basic conditions, and there were many reports of rough treatment by guards. Some internees resisted and escapes were common.

But others were killed while attempting to flee the barbed-wire confines of the camps. Some died by suicide, doing hard labour or from poor treatment. Many lived in isolation and despair because they were often separated from their families.

There were 107 detainees who died in Canada’s camps before they were officially closed in 1920. The internment camp in Banff closed in July 1917. 

The opening ceremony for the pavilion was supposed to be in June but was delayed because of the floods.

Dozens of people, including the descendants of the prisoners, attended the ceremony Friday afternoon right next to where the Banff camp was located.

Nothing remains of the camp, which is grown over with bushes and trees.

With files from The Canadian Press