Marsha was willing to take some time to share with me about how she learned about the true events that this novel is based on. Thank you, Marsha!
This novel is one that I had to write. It is a culmination of themes that I had already written about: the Canadian internment operations in WWI (my own grandfather was interned at Jasper in WWI), the Armenian Genocide, and the history of my hometown, Brantford Ontario.
I first found out about a mysterious group of interned Brantford men from two local history buffs: Wayne Hunter and Bill Darfler. They contacted me a number of years ago and suggested that we meet for a chat over coffee. They brought with them a thick file of photocopied newspaper clippings from a century ago. These clippings related a story of a hundred or so men who had come to our hometown from Ottoman Turkey (now known as the Republic of Turkey) and when WWI broke out, there was hysteria against all foreigners, but even worse against these men, because they seemed even more foreign than the fearfully strange Ukrainians, Hungarians and Germans.
Canada was at war not only with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but by the fall of 1914, with the Ottoman Empire as well.
Bill and Wayne knew that I had written five books set during the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey which happened during WWI, and also two books about the Canadian WWI internment operations. They also knew that my own grandfather had been interned in WWI.
I was intrigued by the story that revealed itself clipping by clipping –
Even before the war there was suspicion and hostility towards foreigners, but it only got worse once the war began. Foreigner workers were fired for “patriotic reasons” and then were accused of begging and loitering when they had no place to go.
In November 1914, an anonymous tip was received by the Brantford police, accusing the 100 men from Ottoman Turkey of trying to blow up the local post office in an act of treason. In the middle of the night, the police roused these men from their beds and marched them down the street to the city jail. In time, they were sent to an internment camp in Kapuskasing Ontario.
The sad part was that the anonymous tip was unfounded, but the War Measures Act was in effect. Ottoman Turkey was an enemy of Canada: these men were enemy aliens.
Those among them who held naturalization papers were released, but the rest were interned.
How could I not research further and write about this? It was as if all of my previous research passions had combined into one.
I plunged into the research, going far beyond the clippings supplied by Wayne and Bill. My husband flies a Piper Dakota, so he and I flew up to Kapuskasing and walked the grounds of where the internment camp had been. We spoke at length to Julie Latimer, the archivist at the Ron Morel Museum. She showed us old photos and an old journal by one of the camp guards.
As I continued with the research, I was confronted with more questions than answers. Many of the old documents referred to the Ottoman internees as “Turks” but I knew that these men rented rooms from Armenians in Brantford. Would Turks rent rooms from Armenians in 1914? It seemed odd. After all, the Balkan Wars had already taken place and ethnic tensions were at an all time high. Just months after WWI began, the Armenian Genocide would take place. Add to this various newspaper references that these so-called “Turks” had no love of their homeland.
I delved further. And found many eerie parallels with my own grandfather’s internment experience. In WWI, Ukrainians were called “Austrians” because they came from Austria Hungary. Canadians seemed to be oblivious to the fact that it was the persecuted ethnic minorities from Austria Hungary who were most likely to immigrate. After all, why would you immigrate if you were one of the majority and treated well in your homeland?
The same proved true of these so-called “Turks”. Those rounded up were not ethnic Turks at all, but a hodge podge of ethnic minorities: Assyrians, Armenians, Albanians, Greeks, Macedonians. Those hundred from Brantford were mostly Alevi Kurds, who were distantly related to the Armenians and were persecuted much like the Armenians. They even came from the same villages and understood each others’ languages. So, like my grandfather, these men had escaped an oppressive regime in the hopes of finding refuge in Canada. But when they got here, they were labeled with the name of their oppressors and treated with hostility by Canada.
My novel is an intertwining tale of Ali, interned in Canada as an enemy alien, and his fiance, Zeynep, who is left behind. While he experiences war as a prisoner, she is plunged in first-hand. She is an eye-witness to her Armenian neighbours being rounded up and marched into the desert with no food or water, where a million and a half end up dying.
And I discovered another untold piece of history as I did my research for Zeynep’s voice. The Alevi Kurds did not just passively witness the genocide of their Armenian neighbours. Some of them set up a secret passage out of Ottoman Turkey and through the mountains to Imperial Russia. Forty-thousand Armenians were rescued from the Genocide by their Alevi neighbours. In my novel, Zeynep is involved in this rescue operation and her day to day experiences are founded on real first-person accounts. This is a part of WWI history that has not been told. I pride myself on writing about unsung heroes and untold stories, but none of my novels has delved into so many untold histories twined together as Dance of the Banished does.