October 19, 2020
Enemy Alien is an absorbing and revealing graphic novel looking at the daily life and brutal conditions inside one of Canada’s wartime internment camps where thousands of innocent migrants were placed during the First World War.
Upon joining the war in 1914, the Canadian government quickly invoked the War Measures Act, and issued the Proclamation Respecting Immigrants of German or Austro-Hungarian Nationality. This legislation effectively suspended civil liberties and allowed law enforcement officials to begin arbitrarily arresting and detaining alleged “enemy aliens” — those persons of German or Austro-Hungarian descent who were suspected of aiding the enemy by way of espionage or other subversive and hostile acts.
A total of 24 internment camps and receiving stations were constructed across the country, with more than 8,500 people — primarily Ukrainian, as well as Hungarian, German, Bulgarian, Croatian, Turkish and others — were detained. Those interned were coerced into forced labour. They were put to work in forestry and mining, as well as other large construction projects, such as the development of Banff National Park. These camps operated until the end of the war, with the last camp finally closing in Kapuskasing, Ontario in February 1920.
Combining extensive research and first-hand accounts uncovered in an unpublished memoir by an anonymous Ukrainian survivor who was interned at the Kapuskasing camp, Kassandra Luciuk creates a compelling narrative of life inside these camps from the perspective of the central character, John Boychuk. The story is effectively accompanied by Nicole Marie Burton’s superb illustrations, which reflect the sombre, cold, painful and tense mood, environment and conditions that Boychuk and his comrades are confronted with.
Although the story is tragic, readers are also met with other strong themes that resonate throughout the book — solidarity, rebellion and resistance. We see several incidences of detainees boldly resisting the range of collaborating state actors (law enforcement, camp officials, administrators, guards and employers) responsible for their confinement and exploitation, even under continuous threat of extreme physical and psychological violence. Despite these courageous acts, over 100 detainees were killed during the six years of camp operations by illness, disease, work injuries, suicide or after being shot by guards while attempting to escape.
Enemy Alien is an important piece that ensures the brutal legacy of migrant interment in Canada is never forgotten — especially when it is viewed as a shameful precursor to further (and larger) Canadian internment operations only 22 years later, with over 22,000 Japanese Canadians interned during the Second World War. The book is accessible for those unfamiliar with this history, while also providing a moving and gripping personal account that, at long last, gets to be widely shared.
It is difficult to read this book without contrasting it to experiences and challenges facing migrants today. These include widespread racism and xenophobia, poor working conditions, immigration policies that entrench exploitation of migrant workers, and the continued use of detention and deportations as a coercive state tool to dispose of migrant bodies when they are no longer needed. Yet, just as in Enemy Alien, the spirit of resistance and struggle continues to thrive, with migrants refusing to accept their conditions, organizing in their communities and workplaces every day, challenging bosses and policy-makers, and working to improve their lives in Canada.
Navjeet Sidhu is a labour and migrant justice activist and currently works as a researcher with Unifor and sits on the board of the Council of Canadians.