Vernon’s latest mural celebrates the human spirit’s ability to prevail while urging future generations to avoid past wrongs.
The mural on the side of Sutton Group Lakefront Realty depicts Canada’s First World War internment camps, but the project has also been embraced by First Nations and Japanese-Canadians.
“We all share the effects of internment,” said Byron Louis, Okanagan Indian Band chief, during a ceremony Friday.
During the First World War, 8,579 so-called enemy aliens, mostly of Ukrainian descent, were placed in internment camps across Canada, including where Vernon’s MacDonald Park now sits. For Japanese-Canadians, they found themselves rounded up during the Second World War while First Nations children were forced into residential schools.
It’s a circle Louis wants to see broken, but he insists the public must be vigilant.
“No matter how far advanced we get, we’re one step away from savagery. It’s so easy to lose rights,” he said.
It’s a message that’s also critical for Michelle Loughery, the lead mural artist.
“Racism is in all of us. Internment is a human flaw,” said Loughery, a descendant of a First World War internee.
“We need to come together and be nicer to people.”
But despite her optimism, Loughery pointed out that conflict continues around the globe, including recent aggression by Russia.
“Put your hearts out to Ukraine and what this (mural) really means,” she said.
During the First World War, internees were used as forced labour to construct public infrastructure, including Highway 97A at Mara Lake and Highway 6 between Cherryville and Edgewood.
More than 100 detainees died at work camps across the country.
But it wasn’t just men who were impacted.
Entire families were held at the Vernon camp.
“It’s a tragic but little known chapter in Canadian history,” said Andrea Malysh, with the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund.
“While images of internment camps, forced labourers, broken families, despair, suffering and prejudice are not commonly associated with the beauty and splendor of the Okanagan Valley, this tragic story and mural does not tarnish Vernon. Rather, they provide a different perspective and understanding of what went into making this city what it is today.”
Malysh has considerable praise for Loughery and her mural.
“It gives meaning to our history in Canada,” she said.
While there was initially some debate within the Downtown Vernon Association about the mural’s dark theme, ultimately it was decided that there needed to be awareness about internment.
“The right thing to do was acknowledge the past and move forward so it can never happen again,” said Ruth Hoyte, DVA past-president.