Calgary teacher explores dark period in Canada’s past with debut novel, Kalyna
Written by Eric Volmers
Source: Calgary Herald
Author Pam Clark (a teacher at Connaught School in the Beltline) has written her first book, called Kalyna, about Ukrainian internment camps in Banff.
Perhaps it’s the teacher in her. But Pam Clark says she is delighted whenever she hears that her debut novel has inspired someone to do a little homework on their own.
Kalyna (Stonehouse Publishing, 293 pages, $19.99) is a work of historical fiction that uses a dark passage in Canadian history as a backdrop for a love story and a family saga that, while not directly inspired by Clark’s family’s experiences, draws on her Ukrainian heritage.
At the heart of the novel is the Ukrainian Canadian interment from 1914 to 1920, which imprisoned thousands of so-called “enemy aliens” during and after the First World War and often used them for slave labour. There were 24 such camps in Canada, including Castle Mountain in Banff. Opened in 1915, nearly 700 people were interned there, forced to live in brutal conditions while building roads and other infrastructure in what would eventually become Banff National Park.
“I would love if people would find their own truth in it and research,” said Clark, in an interview while on a break from teaching at Connaught School. “A lot of my girlfriends who have read the book in my community say, ‘I didn’t know. Now I’ve gone out to Banff and I’ve seen the museum and I’ve seen the statue.’ Even if you’re not Ukrainian, we’re all from somewhere. Everyone’s story deserves to be told.”
In Clark’s novel, Castle Mountain Internment Camp is where the eternally optimistic Wasyl is sent, not long after settling in the Ukrainian colony of Edna-Star in Alberta with his wife Katja. Attracted to the Canadian prairies for its freedom and promise of a new life, the wartime internment is a devastating betrayal that separates Wasyl from his young family.
Clark’s grandmother was born in Edna-Star but none of the family endured the camps. Nor was it ever spoken about when Clark was growing up in Edmonton. In fact, it wasn’t until 2000 that she first learned about this dark period while listening to a radio program. She had spent much of her career teaching history to junior high students, but had never heard of these internments.
“By this time, my Grandma — my Baba — had passed away so I wasn’t able to ask her about in more in depth,” she said. “My family did not first-hand experience the internment, but they certainly knew about it. My mom did know about it when I spoke to her about it. But nobody really spoke about it.”
The silence wasn’t limited to Clark’s family. It took years of lobbying by The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association to get some official acknowledgment from Canada about what happened in the camps.
In 2008, the federal government established a $10-million fund for projects to commemorate the internments of Ukrainian Canadians and others of European descent, which eventually led to the unveiling of a pavilion in Banff in 2013.
But long before the pavilion was set up, knowledge of the camp would haunt Clark whenever she would go into Banff.
“Each time I would cross over the bridge in Banff and go toward Cave and Basin, I knew about it,” Clark said. “It just took me a long time to put pen to paper. Through archival photos, these characters just spoke to me”.
Clark pored over Glenbow’s extensive photo archive from the period and also relied heavily on Lubomyr Luciuk’s 2001 historical book In Fear of the Barbed Wire Fence: Canada’s First National Internment Operations and the Ukrainian Canadians, 1914-1920 for research.
It was clear that conditions in Banff during the period and many of the other 23 internment camps were dire. Families were torn apart. Prisoners were kept behind barbed wire. There were suicides, hunger and those attempting to escape were often shot.
But Clark did not want to write a unremittingly grim story. Kalyna, she says, is a novel about hope, perseverance and forgiveness. While her grandmother’s story doesn’t match the narrative, she did inspire the main character of Katja.
“It was that strength of my grandmother and her ability to face incredible hardships,” Clark says. “She would just move forward. I think with the luxury of time we have now, it seems we talk about problems over and over and over again. That just wasn’t done. It was survival. If something was broken you fixed it. You moved on. You forgave. That was family. Throughout the novel I kept seeing her and hearing her stories.”
While this makes the tale deeply personal for Clark, she hopes it also strikes a universal chord. Yes, Kalyna is about a very specific place and time in Canadian history, but it carries themes that should resonate with readers today.
“There’s families being separated and in really difficult circumstances,” says Clark. “In the novel, they wait weeks and weeks and weeks for letters and word from home. It’s not instantaneous. I think for some refugees there isn’t a lot of communication with home, even with our technology. I really did feel it resonated for all time. I really wanted that feeling that we are a community of people and we do need to take care of each other and part of that is knowing each other’s story and who we are as people. Everything we do is influenced by our background and often I think we don’t often know what brought a person to the place they are.”