A monument was unveiled Saturday in Emerson to honour men of Ukrainian and Eastern European descent who were arrested and held in internment camps during the First World War.

The men, who were labelled as enemy aliens, were travelling to the U.S. in search of employment.

Wayne Arseny is the tourism coordinator for the Municipality of Emerson-Franklin.

"I think as a Ukrainian, it's always nice to see tribute to our ancestors, good or bad," he said. "It's a piece of history that happened and it's nice to tell the story that we've come a long ways since that 1914-1915 saga to where we are today."

Arseny told the story of how the men were arrested.

"I believe about 2,000, or roughly, started the trek from Winnipeg to Emerson in this 1915 timeframe. Roads were not the best, it was a long trek on foot and many decided it was too far and turned around. Approximately 200 did make it to Emerson and when they crossed that CN bridge, which was the route that you had to cross the river in order to enter into Noyes, Minnesota, law enforcement was waiting for them and they were arrested. They were held in what was Emerson's former agricultural barns. The mayor at that time didn't have any reason to not like these people, so he had some funding released and they were fed. The next day a train came from Winnipeg and they were loaded and taken to Brandon where they were put into wired enclosed camps. After that, many were taken to Banff National Park, where they worked on work gangs to establish the park. In Emerson here, they were only here for a short time but nonetheless we have photos. We have the location of where this happened. We don't know the names of everybody that was interned here. There doesn't seem to be any family members in the area of those that were interned here but nonetheless, it's a piece of history that in today's time we don't want to forget our wrongs and we look forward to learning from our mistakes."

He talked about the hardships facing the families of the men who were arrested.

"They were held in captivity until 1918 when the war ended. There's a lot of history that goes with it. I'm not sure if they were paid when they were held in these camps, but nonetheless they were separated from their families and how their families survived in this period of time without having their husband around to support them is unknown but it was definitely troubling times."

The three-sided photographic monument, unveiled during a special ceremony at the Emerson Complex on Saturday, tells the story in English, French and Ukrainian.

A $10 million education grant was announced by the former Harper government back in 2008 to educate Canadians about the forced labour camps, which housed thousands of people at that time.

In a news release, the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation (UCCLF) notes that in 24 camps across Canada, more than 8,000 men, women, and children, primarily Ukrainians invited by the Dominion government to settle the West, were unjustly interned as enemy aliens from 1914-1920 under the War Measures Act, their possessions taken, and not all returned. 80,000 others were forced to register semi-regularly with authorities.

The UCCLF worked collaboratively with the Municipality of Emerson-Franklin Tourism Committee and others to create the permanent exhibit, which features a photographic monument, as well as an interpretive panel.

“There cannot be reconciliation without education,” said UCCLF’s Borys Sydoruk. “We are grateful for the hard work by the volunteers in this community and from across Canada in helping plan, design, create and consecrate this important memorial. The exhibit will educate as well as emotionally remind visitors to the park what happened in Canada a century ago, to minorities like Ukrainians and others, when the government implemented laws based on fear and hysteria and directed it at specific ethnic groups.”

The affected communities included Ukrainians, Austrian, Bulgarians, Croatians, Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Poles, Romanians, Serbians, Slovaks, Slovenes and others, most of which were civilians.

EMERSON UKRAINIAN MONUMENTThe traditional table with three braided Ukrainian breads
EMERSON UKRAINIAN MONUMENTBlessing of the monuments by Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic ministers
UKRAINIAN MEN ARRESTEDA photograph of the men arrested in front of the CN bridge at Emerson
UKRAINIAN MONUMENTThe monument tells the story in English, French and Ukrainian - Photo courtesy Amber Knutt