MONTREAL – To mark the 100th anniversary of the Spirit Lake internment site (1915-2015), members of the Montreal Ukrainian community visited the award-winning Spirit Lake Internment Interpretative Center, 600 kilometers north of Montreal on June 27-28.
A first, two-day chartered bus excursion from Montreal was organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), Montreal branch/Quebec Provincial Council, for members from a cross-section of Montreal Ukrainian organizations, as well as from the churches of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Yurij, St. Sophia and Protection of the Mother of God, as well as St. Michael’s Parish in Iberville, from which 60 families were taken to Spirit Lake.
Travelling by bus provided the participants an opportunity to experience the distance internees were transported by train, in groups, to the unknown wilderness of Spirit Lake to do forced labor beginning in January 1915.
The visit created a better awareness of early Ukrainian immigration history and of the unjust internment at Spirit Lake, which resulted in the development of the city of Amos and the Ukrainian community in the Abitibi region of Quebec.
On the way to Spirit Lake, the documentaries “Ukrainians in Quebec 1891-1945” and “Freedom Had A Price” were shown on the bus, providing the historical background to Canada’s First National Internment Operations of 1914-1920, with Spirit Lake being the second largest of the 24 internment sites. The majority of the 1,200 prisoners at Spirit Lake were Ukrainians, many from the Montreal area.
Once the bus arrived in Amos, Quebec, James Slobodian, chair of Spirit Lake Center, joined the Montreal group and escorted them to the Spirit Lake museum, pointing out the layout of the camp and explaining the work of the museum, which is in its fifth successful year of operation. Waiting at the museum was military chaplain Dany Perreault of the 9th Field Engineer Squadron, who conducted a prayer service in remembrance of the internees, concluding with the singing of “Vichnaya Pamiat.”
In the evening, following tours of the museum and the city of Amos, a welcoming supper was prepared downstairs in the museum by the center’s volunteers. The Ukrainian dishes served included specially baked bread from Rouyn Noranda using an original Ukrainian recipe, made by retired professor Léandre Bergeron, who grew up in Manitoba.
Brief remarks were given by Zorianna Hrycenko-Luhova on behalf of UCC Montreal, Mr. Slobodian and Prof. Roman Serbyn, who was among those who had urged the federal government to provide redress for the internment. This was followed by singer Charlene Todoschuk performing “Zeleneye Zhytto Zelene.” The supper gave the Montreal group an opportunity to meet the team of hard-working volunteers at Spirit Lake, including Mary Kureluk (treasurer of the board), Marcel Kurelo, Lucie Alarie and others.
Among those also present were Montrealers Yurij Luhovy and Volodymyr Hayduk, who first filmed and researched the history of internment at Spirit Lake in the mid 1970s.
All the visitors said they were extremely pleased with the excursion, praising and commenting on the work of the Spirit Lake Internment Interpretative Center. Among the many remarks were these: Hryhorij Kowryha stated, “excellent museum… worthy of our ongoing support”; Marusia Wenger commented, “..it is important to go to Spirit Lake and support their excellent work…”; Irena Gerych stated, “we must support this excellent museum, it is easy to go there… when I went to school, nothing was taught about Ukrainian immigration to Quebec”; Lesia Prystupa-Shwec stated, “Highly recommended…it is a part of our Ukrainian Canadian history, and we know so little…”
Mr. Hayduk remarked, “A great excursion, more should be organized… it is a hidden history that must be better known …now, 40 years later after Yurij, Zorianna and I worked on the documentary, we should be grateful for the enormous work done by James Slobodian and his team in furthering awareness. We should all support their work which benefits us all.”
The UCC Montreal bus excursion, organized by Ms. Hrycenko-Luhova, Marika Surzycia and Bohdanna Hawryluk, was partially funded by the Ukrainian National Federation (Montreal branch) and Caisse Populaire Desjardins Ukrainienne Montréal, and supported by the “Ukrainian Time” radio program. A special report on the excursion prepared by Lina Hawryliw was aired the following week.