Through a combination of talking heads and archives, Ryan Boyko’s That Never Happened looks at Canada’s first internment camp victims. Most audiences assume that those victims are the Japanese, who endured a lot of xenophobia during the Second World War. But they’re actually the Ukrainians during the First, and the archives show deplorable newspapers spreading propaganda against them. The Ukrainians came here a generation before that war, as the Canadian government enticed them through land grants. Years later they received a double whammy of prejudice. The first comes from the fact that some of them were subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were escaping that foreign regime, but that couldn’t dissuade English and French Canadians. The latter perceived the Ukranians as the enemies they should watch for.
That Never Happened also shows that these camps were functional until 1920. One would assume that to be the result of foot dragging from the government. But it could also be because of the second reason. The reason English and French Canadians perceived the Ukrainians as a threat. They were Slavic enough for Canadians to assume that they were communists. Their traditional garb also contributed to the prejudice against them. Most of the people in the camps were men, forcing women and children to fend for themselves. When the movie isn’t showing the past it shows the present, the rivers where these hardships played out. We hang onto the words of their descendants who knew these stories. They share it with a world who knows nothing about these injustices.
That Never Happened is equally concerned about finding those smoking guns as well as the people within those narratives. We see more home videos of older Ukrainian women laying out traditional fabrics and possessions that remind them of home. Many Ukrainian-Canadians practice their traditions if only for a day or two. These videos are in contrast to the living talking heads who look English or French. It shows the violence of assimilation. Assimilation is normally a word we associate with Western Europeans. About how they shoved down their culture to First Nations people or to people of colour like myself. But it equally applies to white or people who pass as white. They had to use that quality to effectively let their cultures and pasts disappear.
Now we come to criticizing a movie like this, if such a thing is possible. It’s not the most handsome film but it combines its sounds and sights despite its constraints. The voices it includes, once again, contextualizes spaces that have no physical evidence of these atrocities taking place. There’s also a focus on metal fencing that we put in spaces right now. They’re reminiscent of the rusting barbed wire that are still present in unmarked places where the government erected these camps. Nature seems to be an equalizer, healing itself from how people oppressed each other. People contribute to this whitewashing as well, building above these camps’ former sites. But our memories are long and we should not let this important, painful moment in history wash away.
And sure, this feels more like a history class than something with artistic merit. It even shows books commemorating these events like advertisements. But this is aiming for the former. The First World War is over but some are still feeling the consequences of those battles. The job of these descendants, their allies, and Canada at large is to make physical reminders of this history. There’s a silver lining in such a tragedy is that its descendants. They have been in this country long enough to leverage political power. They look just like what we think Canadians look like, but their hearts are with their ancestors, remembering their suffering. Canada promised a better future for these people, and docs like this hope that they finally come true.
That Never Happened will be in theaters throughout Canada. Boyko will be in all of these screenings doing Q&As. For showtimes and tickets go to https://armisticefilms.com/.
- Genre: documentary, History
- Release Date: 11/8/2018
- Directed by: Ryan Boyko
- Produced by: Diana Cofini, Ryan Boyko
- Studio: Armistice Films, Indiecan Entertainment
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