After more than 100 years, three people who died during the Ukrainian Internment Operation in Canada from 1914-1920 have finally received the recognition they deserve. Earlier this month, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, located at 718 Division Street in Kingston, unveiled three grave markers commemorating the lives of Dezso Benscura, Walter Grooham, and Andreas Moritsky.
From 1914 to 1920, during the First World War, the men were confined as “enemy aliens” in Canada under the terms of the War Measures Act. During this time, 107 individuals died from various causes while housed at the country’s internment camps, one of which was located at Fort Henry in Kingston. “Some [men] were shot trying to escape. There were actually six people killed trying to escape the internment camps… Others died because of work-related accidents… or pneumonia [and] other illnesses,” said Dr. Lubomyr Luciuk, an expert in Ukrainian history and professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC).
According to Luciuk, work to honour those lost during the operation began decades ago. “1985-86 is when it officially took off,” he said.
Drawing inspiration from the Japanese-Canadian community who worked to raise awareness of the internment of Japanese people in Canada during the Second World War, Luciuk and many other Ukrainian-Canadians spent years trying to get the federal government to acknowledge its treatment of Ukrainians during the First World War.
“It took us until 2008 to get the government to recognize what had happened, and that’s when they established the [Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, with] a 15-year mandate to fund commemorative and educational projects that would remind Canadians about what had happened,” explained Luciuk.
One of the projects supported by the fund was an effort led by Lawrna Myers of British Columbia to recognize those who died during the internment operation and were buried in unmarked graves. Myers did years of research and all the paperwork to secure the grant funding to allow for the commission and placement of the grave markers.
With government documents noting 107 unmarked graves across Canada, Myers worked to identify the burial sites of the deceased individuals, while also applying to the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund for a grant through the organization’s endowment council.
“[After obtaining] the grant, Lawrna was doing additional research to find out where people… who were labelled ‘enemy aliens’ were buried,” Luciuk added.” A lot of [the deceased] were recent immigrants or people who had only been in Canada for a few years. They might not have any family here.”
In addition to those buried in the sites in Kapuskasing, Spirit Lake and over 30 other locations across the country, three men were buried in Kingston’s St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. According to the RMC professor, the men were placed at St. Mary’s regardless of their religious affiliation. “Cataraqui Cemetery had a reputation of being where the Anglo Celtic elites were buried, [like] Sir John A. Macdonald,” remarked Luciuk. “But that’s not where you bury… enemy aliens, at least not in those days.”
While the causes of death varied among the deceased internees, Luciuk noted the men buried in Kingston were all housed at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane, which operated in Kingston from 1862 to 2000.
Luciuk explained, “All three of those men were brought to the cemetery because they died in the asylum. Now… maybe they didn’t die because they were ‘insane’; maybe they died [of] pneumonia, meningitis, whatever… we don’t know.” It also remains unclear how severe the individuals’ mental health issues were – Luciuk noted it was not uncommon for authorities to institutionalize internees to “relieve the municipalities of their care.”
The following is information on all three men, according to Myers’ research:
Dezso (Danzsu) Benscura/Banscoura died in the Rockwood Hospital for the Insane in Kingston from “exhaustion of mental depression.” He died on May 29, 1915, at the age of 36. Mr. Benscura was buried in Lot #45 with a hardwood cross marking his grave.
Walter Grooham/Grocham succumbed to gangrene of the lungs due to tuberculosis on July 12, 1915, at the age of 26. He was housed in the Rockwood Hospital for the Insane. Mr. Grooham was original buried in Lot #2 but was later moved to the Woodland Cemetery in Kitchener.
Andrew Moritsky passed away on February 24, 1916, at the age of 30 in the Rockwood Insane Asylum. He developed bronchial pneumonia eight days prior to his death. Mr. Mortisky was buried in Lot #46 with a hardwood cross marking his grave.
While the individuals were initially buried without any formal recognition, over a century later the burial sites have now been updated to include the names of the deceased. Luciuk said the years-long effort was intended to “at least place some kind of grave marker on each of the cemeteries where an internee is buried, so the memory of that person is at least somewhat hallowed… These three men — two of whom died in the summer of 1915, one of whom died in February 1916 — were all brought here against their will [and] confined to [an] asylum… and buried in unmarked graves.”
Another area of uncertainty is the exact burial location of the three individuals at the cemetery, with the new markers all placed together in what Dr. Luciuk described as a “symbolic gesture.”
As for the significance of honouring the lives lost more than 100 years ago, Luciuk said the actions are consistent with a desire amongst many Canadians to recognize and honour instances of historical injustice. “We’ve done it in different ways. In [the Ukrainian] community, there was no call for an apology. There was no call for compensating descendants… What we do want, though, is for people to remember what happened,” he said.
Luciuk added, “We’ve done things like put up historical markers, put up statues, publish books, plays, films, all that kind of stuff… so that people will remember that the War Measures Act was used in World War One. It wasn’t first used against the Japanese, or Italians, or Germans, at the end of World War Two; it was [first] used against Ukrainians and other Europeans.”
Luciuk acknowledged that there are “bad people out there,” but that it’s simply wrong to “sweep people up in the thousands for doing nothing wrong, but just being someone who came from someplace else and who has a different name than you do.”
The RMC professor noted the new markers may also give an opportunity for those who see them to seek out more information and resources about the internment operation.
“Even if you don’t know anything about the [operation], maybe you look it up and you learn a little bit… I can’t undo what happened 100-plus years ago, but I can remember it, and I can remind people of it,” Luciuk articulated.
This article has been updated from the original version to include more information from Lawrna Myers and highlight her work on the Ukrainian grave markers project across Canada.