History Slam Episode 146: Enemy Alien

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By Sean Graham

In the midst of the First World War, the Canadian federal government established a program for the internment of Ukrainian Canadians. Since many Ukrainian immigrants arrived in Canada on passports of what were now enemy countries, some government officials believed that confining these people was a necessary precaution. One of the places they were taken was Kapuskasing in northern Ontario, where the forced labour of those in the camp helped build the infrastructure for the new settlement.

Nearly 100 years later, University of Toronto PhD candidate Kassandra Luciuk was in the midst of researching for her dissertation and discovered a first-person memoir describing life in the camp. While the author is not directly identified, Luciuk was able to verify many of the memoir’s details. In the process, it became clear that the story outlined in the memoir could not be lost to history. The only question was in what format should it be told.

The answer comes in the form of the new book Enemy Alien: A True Story of Life Behind Barbed Wire. The graphic novel takes readers through the memoir, pairing engaging images with powerful stories of an oft-forgotten chapter of Canadian history.

As someone who hasn’t read a lot of graphic novels, I was really impressed with Enemy Alien. It is clear that both Luciuk and artist Nicole Marie Burton went to great lengths in researching the book and ensuring readers are presented a final product that respects the source material. The format, which, of course, allows information to be presented visually, is effectively balanced between text and image, making it is easy to find yourself completely engrossed in this story.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Kassandra Luciuk about the book. We talk about the Ukrainian experience in Canada during the First World War, the legacy of the work camps, and her efforts to identify the memoir’s author. We also chat about confirming the memoir’s claims, the decision to write a graphic novel, and the challenges of funding.

Sean Graham is a historian at Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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