Barbarianism of the Huns
The Reading Room of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa was getting ready to close for the evening on February 3, 1916 when a patron noticed a smoldering cigar tossed carelessly into a wastebasket. A clerk was called over but by the time he arrived to put out the flames, it was too late. The fire quickly spread and the House of Commons, which was in session that night, was evacuated. Some ladies hurried to get their fur coats out of the coat check, not realizing the urgency and succumbed to the fire. At midnight, the bell in the tall Victoria Tower rang out 11 times, and then crashed to the ground. Eight people died that night.
The Toronto Globe reported on the cause of the fire the next day, but acknowledged that “unofficial Ottawa, including many Members of Parliament, declare ‘the Hun hath done this thing.'”
Five days later, Jakob Kondro, who had immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine nearly a decade prior, wrote a pleading letter to a General E.A. Cruikshank:
I, Jacob Kondro, received a letter from my wife that my son, John Kondro, is in a prison in the internment camp, Banff. I do not think that Canada would take their own people and put them in prison in an internment camp. I am naturalized as a citizen of the Dominion of Canada. Please let him go.” February 8, 1916. Signed Jakob Kondro, Dalmuir, Alberta.
Nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments in Canada were already running high when the Great War erupted. In October, 1914, the Canadian War Measures Act was passed, and over 80,000 immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, deemed “alien enemies”, were forced to register themselves at Army offices across the country. Over 5700 Ukranians, Slovaks, Czechs, Serbs, Croats and Romanians (mainly men) were imprisoned in 24 internment camps, often forced to work, their property confiscated; two camps took in women and children too. The POWs were subjected to corporal punishment and torture- pistol whippings and beatings with bayonets, solitary confinement in hoosegows. Many were shot, usually trying to escape, and several committed suicide. Their crime: being from central or eastern Europe. Most were Canadian citizens.
The Kondro letter was forwarded to the Banff Internment Camp Commanding Officer, Captain Spence, who, in his response to Cruikshank on February 18 acknowledged 17 year old John’s presence in the camp, and the fact that John was well behaved, although he had refused to work for several days, most likely convinced to do so by older prisoners. Further, Spence wrote that since his father was naturalized, and John was a minor, he should be considered a British subject too.
The letters were copied, forwarded and filed, and remained on the desks of various officers for the next few months, lost in a bureaucratic paper shuffle, or perhaps accidentally on purpose, being that Kondro was a “Hun.” Finally in May, someone responded to Jacob that he was right, and his son should be released. It was too late. In April, Kondro and a few friends had decided to escape, and in the middle of a snow storm they took off into the woods, shots fired after them. John disappeared, never to be heard from again.
American followers of Thomas Masaryk and Milan Stefanik came to Canada to help free the Slovaks and Czechs, pleading with the Canadian government that these POWs were against the Austro-Hungarians as well, and that their brethren were gathering and fighting against them in Europe. They met with some success and several were freed.
Ironically, nearly all of these immigrants had come to Canada as homesteaders, to build a better life and to flee the tyranny of the Hapsburgs. They were not spies, enemies or conspirators; they were proud of their new country, wanted only freedom and to work and raise their families. Members of Parliament had stated that they didn’t want Canadians to stoop to the “barbarianism of the Huns”, but that is exactly what they did.
Articles and Books on this subject:
Survivor of the Spirit Lake Internment Camp, Mary Manko by the Montreal Gazette, July 17, 2007.
A Time for Atonement, by Lubomyr Luciuk, 1988
Enemies, Aliens, prisoners of war: internment in Canada during the Great World War, by Bohdan Kordan, 2003
In the shadow of the Rockies, diary of the Castle MountainInternment Camp, by Bohdan Kordan, 1993