By James E Motluk
His name was Elias Motkaluk. He was my grandfather. We used to call him Jajo, a child’s version of Tato which is Ukrainian for father. When we were kids, Jajo would regale us with stories about his first years in Canada. How he arrived from western Ukraine in 1913 having no money and speaking no English. How he first found work as a lumberjack north of Ottawa, then on a section gang for the railroad and later in the iron ore mines near Wawa. By 1927 he’d met my Baba who had just arrived in Canada and they settled in Sault Ste Marie where they raised three boys, my father was the eldest.
Jajo saved his money, bought a house, put his kids through school and eventually retired at the age of 65. All in all, he lived a typical, middle class Canadian life. Nothing out of the ordinary. Or so we thought.
Jajo passed away at the age of 88 in 1983, a full 70 years after he first set foot in the country. Not long after his funeral, my father travelled back up to Sault Ste Marie to help Baba clean out the old house. And that’s when we discovered Jajo’s secret.
In her basement amongst all the odds and ends that she and Jajo had saved over the years my father came upon a small, metal box, a little rusted around the lock. Inside he found an assortment of documents. Mortgage papers. Bank statements. Account books. But at the bottom, wrapped in an old yellowed cloth, were two pieces of paper that would make all of us question everything we thought we knew about Jajo.
The first was his naturalization paper from 1924 - making him a citizen. The second was a certificate of parole, signed every month by the authorities, beginning in 1917 and ending in 1919.
The certificate listed some pretty onerous conditions. He had to carry it on his person at all times and be prepared to produce it on demand. He was required to report every month to the authorities to have it signed. And he was not allowed to travel without written permission from the police. The certificate made it clear that non compliance with any of these conditions would place his life at hazard.
My Baba shook her head when we showed her the document. She had no idea what it was about. In all their years together, he never mentioned it. Everyone in the family was stumped. The local police were not much help either. Their records no longer stretched back to 1919. But they were able to identify one of the signatories - Ralph C. Vincent, the final name that appears on the certificate. He was the Chief of police for Sault Ste Marie in 1919, an important and revered member of the force. Even today, Vincent’s portrait adorns the entrance to the station. “If he signed it,” the community Liaison Officer informed us. “It must have been a serious crime.” A serious crime! What did he do? We all scratched our heads and wondered.
Perhaps he was a bank robber or a labour agitator or got in a brawl and accidentally killed another man. The problem with all these scenarios was that none of us could imagine the quiet, soft spoken person we thought we knew committing any of these crimes.
It wasn’t until information about Canada’s first national internment operations became public that we were able to piece together what had happened.
In 1913 thousands of unskilled labourers, like Jajo, immigrated to Canada from Western Ukraine looking to work. Because Ukraine was not independent at the time they travelled on Austrian passports. But in 1914, when Canada went to war against Austria and Germany, these immigrants were labelled Enemy Aliens and the government passed the now infamous War Measures Act in order to suspended their freedoms.
Fearful that some among them may be saboteurs or terrorists, although there was no evidence to support this, the Canadian government began arresting thousands of these Enemy Aliens and interning them in prison camps. There were ultimately 22 camps built across the country. How Jajo came to be in one of these camps is still a bit of a mystery. Most likely he was picked up in Sault Ste Marie. If that was the case he would have been sent to the camp in Kapuskasing. What we do know for certain is that he was paroled from a camp.
By 1917 the war was becoming a serious drag on the labour market back home with so many young men fighting overseas. It was particularly problematic for industries servicing the military effort. But the government soon realized there was a pool of untapped labour sitting idle behind barbed wire; these so called “enemy aliens”. So the government began paroling many of these men to work as forced labour.
What that meant was that they were compelled, by the onerous conditions found on my Jajo’s parole certificate, to work for some of Canada’s most profitable companies. They would work for little or no money. Often what they did earn ended up back in the company coffers as payment for room and board. These companies could do pretty much as they pleased with the parolees since the men couldn’t complain. Their choice was either accept it or go back to prison. Some of these companies included CP Rail, Abitibi Pulp and Paper and Algoma Steel. One of the growing concerns for Algoma Steel was the Magpie Mine just north of Wawa, Ontario. According to his certificate of parole, Magpie Mine is where Jajo was working from 1917 until 1919 when Ralph C Vincent gave him permission to return to Sault Ste Marie.
Despite what happened, despite the indignity that he suffered simply because of where he was born, Jajo remained a proud Canadian right to the end. He had friends and relatives who returned to the old country during the dark days of the depression, but he never even entertained the thought. Still, he must have lived in fear.
During the Second World War, in the quiet of night with his family sleeping, surely in the corner of his mind there was a sliver of worry that some bureaucrat might show up at his door demanding to see his papers.
And later, when Ukraine was behind the iron curtain and Canada was consumed with the Red Scare, how could there not have been a feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach? Yet he never told anyone what happened. Not his wife, not his kids. He carried that burden by himself. But he wasn’t alone. Thousands of other internees, just like him, kept their experiences secret, as well.
In the end what I keep returning to is where the parole certificate was found - wrapped up in a cloth next to his naturalization paper. I’m sure at a certain point he just wanted to forget what happened. But I think he always intended for us to find this certificate, so that we would have no choice but to remember.