Discrimination and profiling
October 30th, 2020
Firebird by Glen Huser (Ronsdale $12.95)
Review by Sage Birchwater
After Canada entered World War One as an ally to Great Britain in August of 1914, many immigrants who had fled to Canada years before to escape poverty and oppression in Eastern Europe were dubbed enemy aliens. Many were arrested and imprisoned in 24 makeshift, forced labour camps across the country.
On the strength of the War Measures Act, passed by parliament on August 22, 1914, over 8,500 men were confined until 1920. More than 100 died from disease and malnutrition in the harsh living conditions. Some were shot trying to escape. Many more suffered psychological damage that lasted long after the ordeal was over.
In Huser’s novel, set in rural Alberta in 1915-1916, thirteen-year-old Alex Kaminsky and his older brother Marco, orphans from Ukraine, had been living with their uncle on a small farm east of Edmonton when war was declared.
One tragedy follows another and in December of 1915, Alex, now fourteen, suffers serious burns escaping a house fire that claimed the life of their uncle. Marco is away working as an itinerant farm labourer, and when he fails to show up for Christmas as he promised, Alex is worried.
Alex gradually recovers from his injuries through the kindness of neighbours. But a new threat looms when he is treated hatefully because of his Ukrainian heritage. The animosity intensifies when news is received that a beloved young soldier from the family with whom he is staying has been killed in action while fighting in Europe.
The emotions of the family members are well depicted as they deal with the tragedy and their resentment toward Alex grows. Alex is given refuge by the village postmaster and storekeeper who realizes his innocence and reaches out to help the young man as he sets out on a perilous quest to find his brother.
Eventually Alex learns that Marco has been imprisoned in Castle Mountain Internment Camp in Banff, Alberta. [Huser notes that the site of the Castle Mountain Internment Camp has been set aside as a national shrine, a memorial to remember the shameful treatment of innocent men, mostly of Ukrainian heritage, caught up in the hysteria of the First World War.]
Huser charts a thread of human kindness and generosity that helps change Alex’s fortunes. Difference-makers include the small-town postmaster, a Ukrainian hobo who helps him jump a freight train, a kind-hearted carpenter and his family, a school teacher in Edmonton and the teacher’s benevolent aunt in Calgary, who all reach out to allow Alex to achieve his goal and find his brother.
The author’s background as an educator and his intimate understanding of the psychology of youth and life in small towns on the Canadian prairies combine to give authenticity to the story. Huser portrays the triumph of human decency through the eyes of children unfettered by prejudice. He conveys the narrowness of powerful individuals consumed by the smallness of their own self-importance and how these shortcomings diminish those around them.
Lastly, he paints a delightful portrayal of the heroic: that is, bending the rules and reaching beyond the limitations of personal circumstances, or boxed-in institutional normalcy, which is what it takes sometimes to make a difference. Firebird illuminates the irrationality of war and the shallowness of racial discrimination and profiling.
Few can disagree that this is a lesson that every society has to learn and relearn, generation after generation.