David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Discovering Rewritten History

Brandon Sun, September 24, 2018 – David McConkey

Earlier this summer, I was walking through the Brandon Cemetery, planning a route for my Doors Open historical walking tour. I came upon a grave that I had not noticed before. The headstone had been changed; history had been rewritten. Sometimes rewriting history is a good thing.

Let’s first step back a bit. “History” has two meanings. History is what happened in the past. And that, of course, cannot be changed. But history is also an account of the past. And that can be changed: we discover new information and develop new insights.

There is a further distinction. As ordinary citizens, we don’t much care about academic studies revising some historical details. We are more interested in our public history: like statues in parks, names of buildings, historical plaques, textbooks our kids read in school, and stories about our past that we tell ourselves. As recent news items show, these can be very controversial!

Let’s return to the Brandon Cemetery, to the grave of Nick Burtnyk. He died in 1915. On his headstone, there is a new oval metal plaque. Images of barbed wire frame the words, “In Honour of Those Who Lost Their Lives During Canada’s First National Internment Operations.” A grave that had languished in obscurity for a century is suddenly quite conspicuous. Now that is rewriting history!

That plaque is part of an ongoing effort encouraging people across Canada to remember the internment camps of the First World War. Those camps imprisoned thousands of “enemy aliens” – men who had been born in countries that Canada was at war with. Affected were those whom we today call Ukrainian-Canadians: immigrants who had left the old Austro-Hungarian Empire seeking a better life in Canada. Unfortunately for them, Canada entered the Great War, to fight against not just Germany, but also Austria.

After the war, with prisoners released and the camps closed, most Canadians wanted to forget all about it. Who wants to think about something bad that happened during the war?

We now regard the First World War internment camps as an injustice that should be remembered. Knowing about those unsavoury parts gives us a more complete understanding of our past. After all, we are guided in the present by what we choose to remember of the past.

And that includes Brandon’s past. From the fall of 1914 until the summer of 1916, an internment camp was set up in the Winter Fair buildings on Victoria Avenue between 10th and 11th streets. At any one time, the camp held as many as 900 prisoners.

After years of being forgotten, the Brandon Internment Camp is now being remembered. In 1997, a plaque about the camp was placed in front of City Hall. In 2014, another plaque was placed where the camp actually was, which is now the parking lot of the police station.

One of the prisoners in the Brandon Internment Camp was Nick Burtnyk. We don’t know much about him. But we do know he became ill and was taken to the Brandon General Hospital on Sept. 27, 1915. One week later, Burtnyk died of pneumonia. On his death certificate, his age was recorded as 50, his date of birth as 1865 (month and day unknown), his birth place as Austria. Names of relatives were unknown. For both his usual place of residence and for his occupation, the answer was given as “Prisoner of War.”

On Burtnyk’s grave, the government-issue headstone was inscribed with his name; that he died on Oct. 4, 1915; and the location in the cemetery: Plot 18, Block G, Section 1. (On the stone itself, though, his first name was spelled “Nik” and the Block erroneously identified as “CW.”)

Over the years, anyone looking for the grave of Nick Burtnyk could have searched in vain. In the government registry of deaths in Manitoba – as well as in the city’s record of burials in the cemetery – there is no Nick Burtnyk. Instead, those sources list his name as Nick Wurtnick.
Quite possibly, no one visited or even knew of the grave until last year when the plaque was installed on the headstone. The plaque was placed there by the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund.

A forgotten prisoner of an internment camp 100 years ago now has some recognition. How should Nick Burtnyk be remembered? How does remembering him shed light on our society today? As we rewrite our history, those are some of the questions to ponder. 

* * * *
See also: 

Dark Side of Brandon’s Past    

Reflections on “Brandon’s Ghetto”

Reflections on the Great War

Lessons from the Election of December 1917

Look at Broader Context Before Removing Building Names

An Education Lesson From 100 Years Ago

How Do We Remember War?



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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