Published On: Thu, Nov 8th, 2018

Did you know Ukrainian Canadians were interned during the First World War? The little known story is now the subject of a film

When actor-filmmaker Ryan Boyko was in Grade 10 in Saskatoon, he saw a documentary about the internment of Ukrainian Canadians during the First World War that left him stunned.

Growing up in a Ukrainian-Canadian household, he’d never heard that about the war and he went to his history teacher to learn more.

Filmmaker Ryan Boyko during shooting for his new documentary That Never Happened.
Filmmaker Ryan Boyko during shooting for his new documentary That Never Happened.  (ARMISTICE FILMS / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

“He said, ‘You mean the Japanese internment during World War II?’ and I said, ‘No, I mean the Ukrainian internment during World War I,’” Boyko, 38, recalled in a recent phone interview.

“And he looked at me and said, ‘That never happened.’”

The experience sparked a decades-long research journey into the little-known chapter of Canada’s history for Boyko, resulting in his feature directorial debut That Never Happened, which screened in Ottawa on Thursday and several other Canadian cities through Nov. 12. It hits various digital platforms on Nov. 13, and will be available on demand through Shaw and Bell.

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The documentary features interviews with experts and internee descendants as it details Canada’s first national internment operations between 1914 to 1920, when roughly 8,500 people from Ukraine and other European countries — some of them women and children — were labelled “enemy aliens” and unjustly put into camps under the War Measures Act.

Described in the film as essentially “prison camps,” some of them were in national parks and had inadequate food, clothing and shelter for the internees, who were forced to do hard labour in rough conditions. At least 106 people died in the camps, said Boyko.

Most of those interned were Ukrainians, but they also included Croatians, Serbians, Bulgarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Armenians.

During the same time period, more than 88,000 people from the same countries were forced to register in Canada and had to report monthly to the police. In some cases, officials demanded payment to get their documents stamped, according to those who speak in the doc. If they didn’t pay up, they were interned.

As Boyko’s film explains, in 1954 the government destroyed all of the records and ledgers pertaining to the internment operations. It wasn’t until the late ’70s and early ’80s that people started talking about it, mostly a result of aging internees finally revealing their harrowing experiences to their loved ones.

“Most people don’t know that they had family members who were interned, because most didn’t talk about it,” said the Hamilton-based Boyko, founder and CEO of Armistice Films Inc.

“And because there isn’t a complete record of all 8,579 people who were interned — there are only about 3,000 names that people know at the moment — there are a lot of people missing.”

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In 2005, a private member’s bill, C-331, was passed into law to recognize the internees.

There’s also a Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund and an educational component in Canada’s high school curriculum.

Some individuals, like Boyko, are also raising awareness through various forms of research and initiatives like monuments at internment sites.

Boyko, who also dove into the subject matter with his 2016 award-winning web series The Camps, recently screened That Never Happened at the United Nations in Geneva as part of its celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. The post-screening chat was free-flowing and full of questions from UN representatives, which Boyko was later told is unusual for the typically regimented organization.

Boyko’s next project is a feature film about the same subject matter, which he hopes to start filming in March as a co-production between Ukraine and Canada. The story will feature two brothers in the camps.

“I think it’s the start of the conversation that hopefully people are going to continue well after they’ve seen the film,” Boyko said.

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Did you know Ukrainian Canadians were interned during the First World War? The little known story is now the subject of a film