William Perchaluk

The day after the 211th Battalion left Calgary, Perchaluk was found hanging by the neck from a puttee fastened to his cell bars.

William Perchaluk (Wasyl Perchaliuk), labourer, internee, and soldier; b. c. 1891 in Dereniowka (Ukraine); d. 5 Dec. 1916 in Calgary.

William Perchaluk was among the more than 170,000 Ukrainians, primarily from the Austro-Hungarian empire, who came to Canada prior to World War I as agricultural settlers and industrial labourers. He became one of the 5,954 immigrants from Austria-Hungary confined in Canadian receiving stations and internment camps during the war. There they built roads, erected and repaired buildings, and cleared and drained land. Although intended to house unnaturalized enemy aliens who had contravened regulations or were security threats, the camps in practice held the destitute and unemployed. Nativist pressure and prejudice were also factors through which individuals, some of them naturalized British subjects, ended up in the camps. As the majority of internees posed no threat to security, by 1916 most had been paroled back into the labour force.

Perchaluk had been initially interned at Lethbridge, Alta, and he was transferred on 19 July 1915 to Castle Mountain in the Rocky Mountains (Banff) National Park. Here over 600 internees worked between 1915 and 1917 on various projects, including the construction of the Banff to Lake Louise motorway. On 26 June 1916 Perchaluk and 25 others were paroled to work for the Canmore Coal Company. In late November he enlisted as a private in the 21lth Infantry Battalion at Calgary. The battalion had entered Camp Sarcee for training in July, but a shortage of recruits necessitated a last-minute campaign to bring it to full strength and Perchaluk was part of this drive. On 2 December, during the excitement surrounding the battalion’s impending departure for Europe, Perchaluk was arrested. Having been recognized by an officer from the Banff internment camp, he was confined in the Calgary police station and charged “as an alien enemy joining overseas forces.” Constable George Millen noted that Perchaluk was in uniform, “spoke broken English,” and was rumoured to be “an escaped prisoner of war from Detention camp Castle Mountain.”

On the evening of the 5th, the day after the 211th Battalion left Calgary, Perchaluk was found hanging by the neck from a puttee fastened to his cell bars. He was cut down and given first aid prior to the arrival of a physician, who tried unsuccessfully to revive him. Perchaluk had no known relatives in the country, and his body was taken to an undertaker’s, where an inquest was held into his death. An autopsy concluded that death had been caused by strangulation and noted the body to be “well nourished and developed” with normal heart and abdominal organs, but with lungs congested and “darkened from coal smoke and dust.”

A protracted correspondence ensued between the Office of Internment Operations in Ottawa and military officials over responsibility for the expenses of Perchaluk’s burial. The Department of Justice ultimately decided that Internment Operations was not responsible for expenses incurred in connection with paroled prisoners. A coroner’s inquest found that Perchaluk’s “rash act would appear to have been committed during a fit of despondency.” The humiliation he had experienced as an internee, his despair over being arrested for enlisting in the service of his adopted country, and the prospect of re-entering an internment camp had apparently been too much for him to bear. Perchaluk was eventually laid to rest in Calgary’s Union Cemetery. In 1926 the Internment Operations Board of Canada still maintained an outstanding account for him, with an unpaid balance of $26.55, the equivalent of 106 1/4 days of labour on the Banff to Lake Louise motorway.

— Text by Peter Melnycky, “PERCHALUK, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 2, 2015. For this article's bibliography and other related information, visit Dictionary of Canadian Biography online.