Aerial view of Camp Vernon, where Sikh soldiers Gill and Sangha trained during World War Two.

Sikh Heritage Month

Since 2019, April has been recognized as Sikh Heritage Month in Canada. The Sikh population in this country numbers more than 500,000 people, one of the largest in the world outside of India. Sikh Canadians have greatly contributed to the country’s social, economic, and political history, and to its cultural fabric.

World War One

One aspect of history in which the contributions of Sikh Canadians is often overlooked is their service during the World Wars. Despite being denied the rights of citizenship, ten Sikh men did serve during World War One—and, tragically, most of them did not survive (to learn more, check out the documentary Canadian Soldier Sikhs under the “Resources” section below).

World War Two

Meanwhile, during World War Two, Sikh men were conscripted; however, Vancouver’s Khalsa Diwan Society, which represented the Sikh population in British Columbia, intervened on their behalf, and called on community members to refuse service until they were granted full franchise rights.

However, some Sikh Canadians did decide to enlist, and were trained at Camp Vernon. The book Becoming Canadians: Pioneer Sikhs in Their Own Words, by Sarjeet Singh Jagpal, describes the experience of Phangan Gill, who was trained in Vernon before heading to Halifax for advanced instruction. Due to a finger injury, he did not go overseas, but was stationed at Exhibition Park in Vancouver, where he witnessed the internment of Japanese Canadians.

Darshan Sangha was also trained at Camp Vernon, and was the only Sikh in his troop. Sangha was later released from the army, and returned to working in a mill. Like many Sikh men, he felt that the war was not his to fight.

Eventually, the Canadian Government relented on compulsory service for Sikh men, and in 1947, Chinese and South Asian Canadians were given the right to vote.

Resources

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

 

Group photo of a family of men, women and children who were internees in the Vernon internment camp during WWI.

The Vernon Internment Camp Opens

On Sept. 18, 1914, the Vernon Internment Camp opened on the site of what is now MacDonald Park. Around 1100 men, women, and children, mostly of Austro-Hungarian and German descent, passed through the Camp’s gates before it closed in February of 1920. They were stripped of their rights and deprived of their freedom, some of them even remaining imprisoned for several months after Armistice.

The Vernon Internee Headstones and Monument Project

In 2015, the Vernon and District Family History Society completed the Vernon Internee Headstones and Monument Project. This project, which was funded by the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, uncovered information about the 11 men who passed away in the Vernon Internment Camp. Their names were Mile Hećimović, Bernard Heiny, Ivan Jugo, Karl Johann Keck, Timoti Korejczuk, Leo Mueller, Stipan Šapina, Wasyl Shapka, Jure Vukorepa, Samuel Vulović and Wilhelm Heinrich Eduard Wolter.

All 11 were originally buried in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery, but four were of German origin and were later transferred by the German War Graves Commission to the Woodland Cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario. The other seven remain interred in Vernon. Thanks to the efforts of the Family History Society, all of their headstones have been restored or replaced, and their lives commemorated.

Woodland Cemetery (Kitchener, Ontario) marker for L. Mueller and W. Wolter.

Leo Muller

While the stories of all 11 men can be found here, one example is that of Leo Mueller, a German who came to Canada in 1906 and was naturalized in 1909. Leo and his wife Martha settled in Vancouver for some time, where he worked as a hairdresser. They had two children, a daughter and a son, who both sadly died before they were toddlers.

In 1916, Leo and Martha were arrested and interned in Vernon. Leo was injured during an altercation with a fellow prisoner and died in the Vernon Jubilee Hospital on July 12, 1919.

While Leo died from an injury, most of the other 10 men succumbed to illnesses including tuberculosis, pneumonia, heart disease, and meningitis.

We Will Remember them

With this weekend representing the 107th anniversary of the camp’s opening, we remember all who lost their freedom and—in the worst of cases—their lives in the Vernon Internment Camp.

Additional Resources

 

Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

doukhobors & freedomites

 

March 19, 2021

The arrival of Russian Doukhobors in Vernon and the Okanagan Valley is a story flush with tension and resilience.

Thousands of Doukhobors began arriving in Canada between 1899 and 1914, escaping oppression under the regime of Tsar Nicholas II.

The first group of Doukhobors settled four colonies in what would later become the province of Saskatchewan.

The Doukhobor homestead crisis of 1907 caused some of their number to leave Saskatchewan for British Columbia and by the 1930s, they reached the Okanagan Valley.

cultural & spiritual divide

Doukhobors were perceived as a a cheap source of labour during World War Two. Although their wages where higher in the Okanagan Valley than in the Kootenays, they were paid considerably less than English-speaking labourers.

The cultural and spiritual divide between the Doukhbobors and their British neighbors strained relationships between the two groups.

Several articles in the Vernon News from the early 20th-century describe the Doukhobors as “crazy,” “trouble,” and “fanatics.”

sons of Freedom

This reputation for fanaticism among the Doukhobors was due to the actions of a minority sect among them, the “Freedomites,” or “Sons of Freedom.”

The Freedomites espoused a return to the more traditional Russian-style of communal living and self-governance. 

 

Doukhobors in Okanagan fields
(Image credit: Vancouver Public Library. Photo No. 17115)

 

 

The foyer of Vernon’s Professional Building after a terrorist attack by Freedomites in 1958. The actions of this minority group contributed to generalized anti-Doukhobor sentiment.(GVMA)

 

 

During the 1950s, they became known for their public protests; they burned money, refused to send their children to public schools, and paraded nude through busy streets. In response, many Freedomite children were snatched by the Canadian government and placed in an internment camp in New Denver.

Although pacifism and anti-war sentiment is a fundamental component of the Doukhobor belief system, some Freedomites used violent means to advance their message and oppose the imprisonment of their children. In the early hours of August 14, 1958 a bomb went off in Vernon’s Professional Building on 31st Street, causing extensive damage but no injuries. The detonation coincided with attacks on post offices in Oliver and Osoyoos, and five male Freedomites were later arrested and charged.

statement of regret

The relationship between the federal government and the Doukohbors improved gradually over the next few decades, following investigations into the systematic abuse suffered by Doukhobor children, the establishment of the Expanded Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations, and a 2004 “statement of regret” by the Government of B.C. Members of the Doukhobor community are still seeking an official apology.

Today, Vernon is home to more than 2,000 people of Russian descent.

Gwyn Evans

Cultural Mosaic: Early Ukrainian immigrants

 

February 19, 2021

Every four to six weeks, the Vernon Museum will feature an individual or family who immigrated to this area.

Bringing some of their traditions and cultures with them, these early immigrants to the North Okanagan have helped to created the community and culture of the North Okanagan today.

ukrainian Canadians

Vernon has a rich Ukrainian Canadian culture. As of 2016, more than one-tenth of the city’s population was composed of people whose origins can be traced back to this Eastern European country.

WWI Internment

Early immigration to Vernon by those of Ukrainian descent was not always marked by respect. 2020 marked 100 years since the closure of the Vernon Internment Camp, where hundreds of  men, women, and children determined to be of Austrian-Hungarian descent were held prisoner—the majority of these were Ukrainian Canadians.

Ukrainian Canadian Culture

In the last 100 years, Ukrainian culture and traditions have flourished and deepened in this local setting.

This can be seen in the beautiful 74-year-old, gothic-style Ukrainian Orthodox Church that adorns the side of 27th Street, or in the colourful and energetic performances of Vernon’s Sadok Ukrainian Dance Ensemble. 

early immigration

It all began with one family—the Melnichuks.

Starting in 1896, under the aggressive immigration policies of Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, Canada began to experience a significant westward expansion of Ukrainian emigrants, many of whom had left their country of birth to escape poverty and oppression, and seek out land of their own.

 

Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Assumption of St. Mary, located at 4105 27th Street. This photographs shows the church shortly after its construction in 1947

 

Sadok Ukrainian Dance Ensemble performing at O’Keefe Ranch in 2018

 

Cultural Mosaic dance reformed by Ukrainian, Celtic, and Bhangra dancers at 2017 Okanagan Military Tattoo

Roman and Rose Melnichuk, both of whom were born in Ukraine, were the first to arrive in Vernon in 1914. They initially lived in a house on Mission Hill, but later Roman purchased property on both sides of Swan Lake to start a farm and raise a family. The couple would go on to have 12 children.

The second eldest of the children was Nicholas Melnichuk. From a young age, Nick had an adventurous spirit, and at only 12-years-old left Vernon to work as a ranch hand across the border in Washington State. He returned to Canada as a young man, and married Lucy Bordula. 

Nick served for two years in the motorcycle regiment of the Canadian Army during the Second World War, and for the next 35 years after that as a construction worker. In an article for the Vernon Daily News of 1981, he was quoted as saying “sure wish I had a dollar for every mile of road I drove the cats for various construction companies during that time.” Following his well-earned retirement, Nick spent his time trout fishing in the mountain lakes around Vernon. Nick Melnichuk remained in the city until his death in 1992. 

From this first pioneering family, the local Ukrainian community has proliferated and diversified, and their vibrant and symbolic traditions help to enrichen our city’s cultural mosaic.

Gwyn Evans

 

celebrating japanese culture

 

September 25, 2020

In 1934, a Japanese Cultural Centre opened at 1895 Bella Vista Road. Although its opening did not draw much interest from the general population of Vernon, this was a major milestone for the local Japanese community. The centre would serve as as stronghold of Japanese culture over the next few years, a period when many Japenese immigrants faced significant social and political opposition.  

Japanese citizens began immigrating to the Okanagan Valley at the turn of the 20th century. The first to arrive was Eijiro Kojama, who settled in Coldstream in 1903 and was naturalized at the Vernon Courthouse in 1908. Kojama served as foreman at the Coldstream Ranch, hiring other Japanese immigrants to work as labourers. By 1911, 314 Japanese were living in the Greater Vernon Area.  

 

 

Members of the Vernon Japanese community gathered for a celebration at the Japanese Community Hall located on Bella Vista Road, circa 1935.

In 1908, the Canadian Government negotiated an agreement with Japan that restricted the number of new male Japanese immigrants to Canada to only 400 a year. A 1916 Vernon News article descripes “orientals” as “undesirable immigrants,” and states that the “proportion of orientals to the white population of British Columbia is far too great to admit any [further immigrants] without grave danger.” Despite these social and institutional barricades, the Okanagan Valley Land Company opened a Japanese work camp, where both men and women were employed in the fields and packing houses. Japanese churches, community centres, and associations began cropping up across the Okanagan Valley.

World War Two was a tumultuous time in Canada for Japanese immigrants. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Okanagan Security Committee began pushing for the use of interned Japanese as involuntary orchard labourers. At the end of August 1942, around 250 Japanese men were accompanied by police from the Greenwood internment camp to orchards in Vernon. Labourers made less than 4$ a day, and were stripped of their civil rights. They were not permitted to shop on Saturdays, nor visit Vernon Cafes at night. In September of 1942, around 70 Japanese workers at the Coldstream Ranch were re-interned after petitioning for higher wages.

In 1967, the Canadian Government introduced a new points-based immigration policy that no longer considered race a factor for exclusion, introducing a new generation of Japanese immigrants to Canada and the Okanagan Valley. Today, the Vernon Japanese Culture Centre still stands, and its society, as well as associated organizations like the Vernon Judo Club and the Vernon Japanese Women’s Auxilary, proudly promote a culture that has withstood generations of suppression.

Gwyn Evans

what this site has seen

January 10, 2020

The site of Vernon’s W.L. Seaton Secondary and MacDonald Park is fraught with memories. Not only was it the former location of a World War One internment camp, but also less commonly known, a Hospital for the Insane. An article from the Vernon News of 1946 indicates that even then it was hard to find people who knew, or were willing to talk, about the Hospital that once occupied a turn-of-the-century brick building, lined by an avenue of trees. 

 

Seaton Secondary

 

Photo of “The Asylum”, Vernon, BC, 1902

Today, the hospital’s history is virtually unknown, buried, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally, beneath the location’s current uses.

The building was built in the spring of 1902, and was originally used as a jail until 1904, when the Provincial Insane Asylum in News Westminster was overcrowded. Two carloads of inmates were sent from the Coast to Vernon, while prisoners of the former jail were sent to Kamloops; by the end of the year, there were forty-eight inmates in total.

In the 1946 Vernon News article, well-known Vernonite Fred Hardwood recalled visiting the hospital as a grocery delivery boy; he said that the order was collected by a Chinese cook who was an inmate, as well as a talented chef and master of mental calculation.

The building was surrounded by beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, but an underperforming hot water system, and a worn out furnace and boiler, made life on the inside rather bleak.

The hospital closed in 1912, and the sixty-nine patients were transferred back to New Westminster. The site stood vacant until 1914, when it became an internment camp for so-called enemy aliens. The building was destroyed some time before 1943, and with it the memories of the men and women who had been locked behind its doors.

We are lucky that this past is behind us, and the location has been put to much more positive uses; however, the Hospital for the Insane remains an important, if unfortunate, aspect of our city’s history, and one that must be uncovered if we are to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Gwyn Evans