British Columbia

Family of WWI Ukrainian internment camp survivor searches for lost great-uncle

A heritage muralist in Vernon, B.C., is using her art to tap into her family's painful history in a search for answers about what happened to a missing family member who was sent to an internment camp in Canada between 1914 and 1920.

Michelle Loughery says her great-uncle Stephen was last detained at a labour camp in Banff, Alberta in 1920

Michelle Loughery, centre, with her grandparents. She says her grandfather, left, searched his entire life for his missing older brother. (Michelle Loughery/Submitted)

A heritage muralist in Vernon, B.C., is using her art to tap into her family's painful history in a search for answers about what happened to a missing family member who was sent to an internment camp in Canada between 1914 and 1920.

During the early 1900s, thousands of immigrants from Ukraine were invited to Canada to help build highways in the B.C. Interior.

In return, they were promised farmland. But when the First World War broke out, more than 8,000 people with German or Austro-Hungarian passports were rounded up and placed in labour camps across the country, similar to what happened with Japanese-Canadians in the Second World War.

One of the largest standing camps was located in Vernon, but there were also camps in Edgewood, Monashee, Fernie and Nanaimo — one of 10 such camps in B.C. and 26 across the country, according to Andrew Farris, CEO of On This Spot, an app that provides historical walking tours.

Farris said one of the largest internment camps in B.C. was located in Vernon, B.C. (Submitted by Andrew Farris)

"After the government passed the War Measures Act in 1914 ... anyone with an Austro-Hungarian or German passport that fell under official suspicion could have their rights basically revoked," said Farris.

In the years leading up to the war, Farris said more than 170,000 Ukrainians emigrated to Canada at the government's invitation and settled in the Prairies, B.C.'s Interior and on Vancouver Island, mostly working in mines.

"Ukrainians had no reason to be loyal to Canada's official enemies, but since there were so many Ukrainians here, the Canadian government decided, well, we can use these people to do forced labour and build highways through the mountains in appalling conditions," he said.

He said while working in the mines, those who aroused suspicion from other Canadians and were seen as competition for scarce jobs during the First World War were sent to internment camps.

Internees in Vernon were forced to help build highways in B.C.'s Interior. (Submitted by Andrew Farris)

Missing great-uncle

Michelle Loughery's grandfather and great-uncle Stephen were among thousands forced to live and work at internment camps across the country. Through her murals, Loughery is hoping to spark a conversation to find out what happened to her great-uncle.

"My grandfather spent his life looking for him."

Loughery, a heritage muralist in Vernon, hopes her art can help spark a conversation that will uncover information about the fate of her great-uncle. (Submitted by Michelle Loughery)

According to the Canadian War Museum, more than 8,500 Ukrainians were detained at internment camps across Canada from 1914 to 1920.

Loughery said that after her father and grandfather died, the family went through old photos, journals and letters and discovered that Stephen, prisoner 47, was sent to an internment camp in Banff, Alta., in 1920.

Loughery's grandfather, left, and his older brother, Stephen. (Submitted by Michelle Loughery)

"My mum has letters and stories describing her father walking to a construction camp every so often and coming home sick. He eventually came home with tuberculosis in 1921 and [was] never ... able to work again. He must have been in the camps with Stephen at that time ... and that was the last time he saw him," she added.

The family also found a letter that Stephen was last seen years later in a construction gang.

"My mom pulls out this letter from ... Vernon. It explain[ed] [that] my grandfather was looking for his brother and that the last time he was seen was in 1932 in a construction gang," Loughery said.

Loughery said she found a letter that her grandfather wrote to a taxidermist in 1932 that said Stephen was last seen with a 'construction gang' in 1932. (Michelle Loughery/Submitted)

She said the family is still searching for answers, but possible leads to where her great-uncle Stephen ended up and what happened to him have all come to a dead end.

"We think he was re-arrested," Loughery said.

"Somebody said he changed his name to Smith and he was in Lumby. I went through every person. We've done DNA and all that but it's a dead end. We cannot find proof in any way where he is."

By continuing to raise the issue and generate a dialogue, Loughery says she is hoping to bring some closure to the family history and understand the pain her grandparents and mom went through.

"I think that my grandfather couldn't tell us [about his time in an internment camp] because he would have been afraid. He would have been shamed. My grandfather was a good man but he was a hard man because of the stories he couldn't tell."


Christina Jung is a digital reporter for CBC. Got a story idea? Email or tweet @CBC_Cjung