A dark part of Canadian history, and Vernon's history, is hiding in a forgotten corner of the Pleasant Valley Cemetery.
In that corner lay the crumbled remains of several headstones, a reminder of a time in history when Canada interned thousands of its citizens -- deemed enemy aliens just by their passports -- during the Great War.
Now, having discovered the forgotten graves, the Vernon and District Family History Society and the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund are working together to repair the graves and bring new light to the atrocity of war that was felt right here at home.
“We just want to pay homage to them and respect their time on earth, and recognize that they died in an internment camp, wrongly so and at a young age,” says Lawrna Myers, Cemetery Committee Chair with the Vernon and District Family History Society.
This repair and recognition project all started when Myers went into the cemetery to take photos as part of a war graves photo project out of the UK. The project aimed to have photos taken of each grave, from all of the soldiers and internees that died during WW1 and WW2.
Myers was given a list of 30 gravestones to photograph in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery and that is when she noticed the destroyed headstone of Stephen Sapich. Sapich was an internee in Vernon who died in 1917. In the ground beside Sapich there lay another six who died at the same camp.
She decided something needed to be done to remember these victims of war and ensure their legacies were not forgotten. She contacted the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund to see what could be done, and the society granted $15,000 to ensure that these men are remembered.
It is work that Andrea Malysh, Program Manager of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund and an internee descendant, is passionate about.
“The internees were literally rounded up,” explains Malysh. “When people are interned, they are disenfranchised, they are treated as enemy aliens, their wealth was taken from them and never returned and they were forced to do heavy labour without any form of compensation.”
After WWI broke out, Malysh says over 8,500 Canadians, many naturalized citizens, were taken to one of the 24 internment camps across Canada, including a large one in Vernon that ran from 1914-1920. Another 88,000 Canadians were forced to register and had to report on a monthly basis to officials.
“The government deemed they could use these men for forced labour,” explains Malysh. “The government used them to build up the national parks system and highways against their will.”
In fact, men out of the Vernon camp were used to build local highways including Hwy. 6 and the highway around Sicamous.
“The BC Government did not have the money to build this infrastructure, so for six years, even 18-months after Armistice, they kept these camps open to use the free labour,” says Malysh.
All seven graves belong to men, in their 20's or 30's from the Austro-hungarian empire, who died from various illnesses in the camp including tuberculosis and influenza.
“We need to do the respectful thing and ensure they are not forgotten,” says Malysh.
The camp in Vernon also housed German civilians and their families; four German men also died while interned. One of those men, Leo Mueller, was actually murdered in the camp and a trial was held.
The remains of the German men were later recovered from the cemetery and reburied in Ontario with other German internees who died across Canada during the war.
The existing grave markers of the remaining seven men will now be cleaned and repaired and new ones will be installed along with them, as well as a memorial plaque.
An official unveiling of the repaired stones and a memorial service will be held May 23, 2015, the same day Sapich was interred in 1917.
Also in recognition of the camps, a internment memorial plaque will be unveiled to mark 100 years. The ceremony will take place at the Vernon Internment Mural site (2749 30 Street) at 11 a.m. on Aug 22.
The names of the internees still buried in Pleasant Valley Cemetery are:
- Mile Hecimovich (d. 1917)
- Ivan Jugo (d. 1917)
- Timoti Korejczuk (d. 1919)
- Steve Sapich (d. 1917)
- Wasyl Shapka (d. 1918)
- George Vukop (d. 1916)
- Samuel Vulovich (d. 1918)
The names of the internees that were originally buried in Vernon and moved to Kitchener, Ontario (Woodland Cemetery) are:
- Bernard Heiny (d. 1918)
- Karl Keck (d. 1917)
- Leo Mueller (d. 1919)
- Wilhelm Wolter (d. 1918)