Homage to a World War I Moment: Photos and Story of Internment of Ukrainian Canadians, with a Peek into My Father Jehangir Merchant’s Internment in Mozambique in 1961-1962

Castle Mountain Interment Camp, Banff National Park, Bow Valley Parkway
Castle Valley Internment Camp on Bow Valley Parkway, Banff National Park; photo taken on October 16, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos.

By MALIK MERCHANT

Summer officially ended September 21, 2022, but temperatures remained high for several more weeks, until October 22 when Calgary saw some 15 cms of snow. The skies too remained clear for this extraordinary “Indian summer.”

The night sky has always intrigued me and I use timeanddate.com to find out exciting natural phenomena that occur in our planetary system and beyond. This keen interest in the night sky led me to a very interesting website celebrating the weeklong Dark Sky Festival that is held in mid-October in Jasper National Park — a 4-hour drive from Calgary.

In 2011, the park was designated as a Dark Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society in Canada, due to its limited light pollution that creates ideal conditions for dark sky viewing. Indeed, Jasper National Park is considered to be the second largest night sky preserve in the world encompassing over 11,000 sq kms.

At Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park, the Milky Way, Dark Sky Preserve
At Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park, the Milky Way running through Cassiopeia and Perseus with the Andromeda Galaxy visible at the top; taken on October 18, 2022. Photograph: © Ron Richey, Edmonton, Alberta.

Thus, with temperatures as high as they were, with forecasts of clear skies during the first few days of the weeklong festival, I spontaneously took off for Jasper, driving through the incredibly beautiful Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper. My previous trip to Jasper some 15 years ago with my daughter Nurin was a rushed one. During that earlier visit to the Rockies, I had focused more on Banff and Lake Louise and we spent only 1 day in Jasper.

I prepared for the Jasper drive by seeking out suggestions from numerous websites about interesting stop-overs on the Icefields Parkway. There were hundreds of suggestions but Cora’s informative and comprehensive website, Epic Travels – Road Trip from Calgary to Jasper, impressed me the most. Cora, a passionate traveller herself, recommended that between Banff and Lake Louise it would be good to drive through the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A) instead of the faster 93 route, where the speed limit is 90 KPH.

Banff National Park, The Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A), Banff National Park; taken on October 16, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos.

I took Cora’s advice and made numerous fascinating and scenic stops along the way. One thing Cora strongly recommended was to “Pause at Castle Camp Memorial.” She notes on her blog:

“This is a short but sobering stop…I’m ashamed that I didn’t know about this place before I stumbled on it during my drive from Calgary to Jasper.”

The sad story as described on the website of the Canadian War Museum is as follows:

“At the outset of war in August 1914, the Canadian government quickly enacted the federal War Measures Act (WMA). The Act’s sweeping powers permitted the government to suspend or limit civil liberties in the interest of Canada’s protection, including the right to incarcerate “enemy aliens.” The term “enemy alien” referred to the citizens of states legally at war with Canada who resided in Canada during the war.

Castle Mountain Interment Camp, Banff National Park, Bow Valley Parkway
Panel at Castle Camp, Bow Valley Parkway, Banff National Park, providing an overview of the internment; taken on October 16, 2022. See close-ups below. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos.
Castle Mountain Interment Camp, Banff National Park, Bow Valley Parkway
Close-up, a powerful photo of World War I internees behind barbed wires at Castle Camp, Bow Valley Parkway, Banff National Park; taken on October 16, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos.

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Castle Mountain Interment Camp, Banff National Park, Bow Valley Parkway
Close-up, a descriptive plaque on the legacy of labour from internment during World War I, Bow Valley Parkway, Banff National Park; taken on October 16, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos.

“Under the authority of the WMA, Canada interned 8,579 “enemy aliens” in 24 receiving stations and internment camps from 1914-1920. The majority of those interned were of Ukrainian descent, targeted because Ukraine was then split between Russia (an ally) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an enemy of the British Empire. In addition to those placed in camps, another 80,000 “enemy aliens”, again mostly Ukrainians, were forced to carry identity papers and to report regularly to local police offices. The government frequently employed internees on massive labour projects, including the development of Banff National Park and numerous mining and logging operations. Internees had much of their wealth confiscated, although most were paid $0.25 a day, far less than that offered to labourers of the time period. Interned Canadians were also disenfranchised during the course of the war.

Castle Mountain Interment Camp, Banff National Park, Bow Valley Parkway
A view of the memorial at Castle Camp on Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park; photo taken on October 16, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos.

“The internment of Canadians left painful scars and, for Ukrainian Canadians in particular, the lingering suggestion of widespread disloyalty. In November 2005, after a long grassroots campaign by the Ukrainian community, Bill C-331 recognized the internment of Ukrainian Canadians during the First World War and called for negotiated settlement between government and members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community. Since 2005, negotiations have taken place between members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community and the government over issues of redress.”

In her own description about the plight of the internees, Cora includes a quote from the Calgary Daily Herald’s 1915 story entitled Intern them all which stated: “There is only one safe way to handle this question, and that is, as the Herald pointed out the other day, to intern all German and Austria alien enemies, without regard for their present harmlessness.”

In response to this Herald opinion, Cora writes: “Wow. Not the Canada I’ve been so proud to call my home.” Cora then writes that Castle Junction is “a tribute worth stopping to see for yourself on your drive from Calgary to Jasper.”

I did precisely that. As I read through the plaques, I learnt that the majority of those who were interned were of Ukrainian origin, which is also noted in the War Museum article.

Castle Mountain Interment Camp, Banff National Park, Bow Valley Parkway
Close-up view of sculpture of an internee at Castle camp, Bow Valley Parkway, Banff National Park; taken on October 16, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos. See caption plaque, next photo.

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Castle Mountain Interment Camp, Banff National Park, Bow Valley Parkway
Caption on sculpture of Ukrainian internee shown in previous photo(s); taken on October 16, 2022 October 16, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos.

As I stood at the site taking photos of the memorial, my own dad Jehangir’s internment some 60 years earlier vividly entered my mind. He was among thousands of Indian Citizens in Mozambique — then a Portuguese colony — who were interned by the Portuguese Government in retaliation to India’s annexation of Goa and Daman in December 1961. My mother (Mrs. Merchant) was just days away from giving birth to my youngest brother Alnoor. As my dad and mum were preparing to report themselves to the Portuguese authorities as demanded by public announcements, my dad thoughtfully asked one of his great friends, Tajdin Hussein, to look after me and my younger brother Fahar.

Little did I know that he would be away from us for almost 6 months! The doctor at the camp, seeing my mum’s grave condition, immediately asked the authorities to release her from the camp and place her in a hospital for a safe and healthy delivery. Following the delivery, she was moved to a government run hospital until my dad’s release several months later. A few days after the delivery of my then unnamed brother my dad wrote a very touching handwritten letter to my mum, of which I reproduce an excerpt below. He said in the letter:

“Mubaraki…heartiest Mubaraki to you. Everybody coming to see me gives me the good news that the Baba [my youngest brother Alnoor had not yet been named] is healthy and good looking. By the Immense Grace of Mowlana Hazar Imam [a reference to the 49th Hereditary Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, as our family is Ismaili Muslim], I am quite well and there is nothing to worry about. If you worry about me you will not be able to look after the Baba well. You know you have to feed him and you know that mother’s milk is the best food for the child. I am sure I will be with you within a few days, Inshallah [God Willing]. Every night we used to pray to Hazar Imam for four of us; now pray for five.

“The Jamat [community] has shown sympathy towards us and the Jamat is doing a lot for us. Pray to Hazar Imam for the uplifment of the Jamat. The Jamat is taking the trouble for you, me and the kids. I will never forget the sympathy of the Jamat to all our three kids. I assure you I am well. What have you decided to name the Baba? There is absolutely nothing to worry about. Consider I am out of town for a holiday. Please take care of your health and Baba. Everybody has informed me that the Baba is very healthy. When I come, I want to see Baba very healthy. Everything depends on you. See that you don’t disappoint me. Love and kisses to you and our three beloved kids. Ya Ali Madad. Yours for ever and ever Jehangir.”

Several weeks later, he was allowed to visit my mum and his new son once a week, and he would spend an hour with them under the watchful eyes of 2 Portuguese soldiers accompanying him. He was also allowed to attend the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) on the occasion of Navroz March 21, 1962 [Persian New Year], again accompanied by soldiers.

In the meantime, my brother and I were moved from Tajdin uncle’s home which was very small — they had 4 children — to the much larger mansion of the Gulamali Rawji family. By then, as an 8-year old, I had been informed of my dad’s whereabouts and began visiting him at the camp once every week on Thursdays, accompanied by members of the Ismaili leadership. My dad and mum were the only Ismailis in Mozambique who held Indian passports; others who were born in the country were automatic Portuguese citizens, while the remainder had opted for the citizenship of Pakistan when it became independent. The camp was located several miles out of the the city.

I would return to the Rawji home from my visit to the camp carrying two giant bottles of Coca-Cola and Fanta. My dad would tell me to share the soft drinks with my brother as well as the children of the Rawji family. During the entire internment period, I missed school and that played havoc with my education then and also in the ensuing years. Both the Hussein and Rawji families treated us like their own children, and I never ever forgot the names of everyone in the two families. At the Rawji home, “Never on Sunday” became my favourite song.

Jehangir Merchant in Mozambique
Students and their teacher Jehangir, fondly known as “Mastersaheb”, leading a prayer at an event held at Lourenço Marques Ismaili Jamatkhana. Photograph: (Late) Jehangir Merchant Family Collection.

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Jehangir Merchant in Mozambique
Jehangir discusses curriculum material with Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, during his visit to Lourenço Marques. A key question Mawlana Hazar Imam asked Jehangir was whether the meanings of the Holy Dua [Ismaili Muslim prayer in Arabic] were being taught to students. Photograph: (Late) Jehangir Merchant Family Collection.
Jehangir and Malek Merchant
Jehangir and Maleksultan Merchant in later years. They passed away in 2018 and 2021 respectively, both at the age of 89. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos.

At the camp, my dad, being a teacher, was assigned to give classes to the children and the youth who had been interned with their parents. He taught them English and Gujarati. Others at the camp had to perform labour work but nothing as strenuous as what the internees in Canada performed during World War I. The Portuguese never mistreated the internees. However, visiting my dad and seeing him through the barbed wired fence scared me and I prayed nothing would happen to him. He was finally released in May or June 1962, and the family along with several thousand Indian citizens were given 90 days to leave the country. My parents settled in Tanzania, where they continued their work as teachers.

Thus, my stop at the internment camp at Castle Junction on the Bow Valley Parkway was an inspiring moment which brought back memories of the past. My entire trip to Jasper was wonderful. On Pyramid Lake Island, I was able to see the Milky Way stretch across for tens of thousands of light years. I stood alongside Ron Richie who was taking pictures of the sky. He educated me about the stars and nebula. Another individual with a fantastic telescope showed me Jupiter and its 4 moons. I subsequently presented photos taken by Richie HERE.

As I was departing Jasper, I instinctively decided to visit at the spur of the moment, Lac Beauvert located by the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Along the way to the beautiful lake, I found another memorial to those who were interned in Jasper.

Jasper Interment Camp, near Lac Beauvert
Internment Camp Memorial at Jasper National Park on route to Lac Beauvert; taken on October 19, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simergphotos.

Like Cora, whose blog led me to the camps, I had witnessed for myself a sad era in Canadian history. I am happy that Canada has welcomed Ukrainians who have been displaced by the war waged against it by Russia. Ukraine’s response and resistance to Russia’s invasion has surprised the world and can be considered as a moral victory in itself. May the Ukrainians who have recently arrived here in Canada as refugees settle down quickly and contribute to the richness of this vast and beautiful country. May they also have the opportunity to return or visit their country of origin once again, very soon.

Date posted: October 25, 2022.
Last updated: November 5, 2022.

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