Barbed Wire

Stewards of a stalwart culture

Written by Craig McInnes

The Globe and Mail
17 May 1993

Barbed Wire

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Leaving the compound, Jessie Carothers Collection (Photo courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)

In Bill Korec's Grade 4 language-arts class, English is the dominant culture, but Ukrainian is the language of instruction.

A blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag hangs over the door, in counterpoint to the eternally youthful faces of the Queen and Prince Philip that look out from the wall over the chalkboard.

A generation of children raised between the two symbols urgently wave their hands for a chance to read aloud from a Ukrainian text. They are English-speaking Canadians who spend their school days immersed in the language of their ancestors. Most of their parents are Canadian as well, born and raised in the region, as were the parents before them.

It has been almost a century since Ukrainians first came here to farm the northwestern prairies. Through the years, Ukrainian Canadians have retained a distinct identity - not just here, where even Chinese restaurants serve Ukrainian fare, but across Canada.

And their personal industry and political influence have shaped this country as much as they have been shaped by the forces of assimilation.

But it is 45 years since the last significant immigration from Ukraine. Many in the Ukrainian community fear their culture may soon disappear if Canada does not do more to foster the principle of multiculturalism, a concept that Ukrainian Canadians have fought for.

"The people who do speak Ukrainian are primarily over 70 years of age," says James Jakuta, an Edmonton lawyer who is the head of the Alberta branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. "Without further steps, the Ukrainian language will die off as a living language in Canada."

Their complaint is part of a larger debate - one that is becoming more intense - over what role immigrant cultures that are neither English nor French should play in Canada and what responsibility governments have in keeping them alive.

At the same time, Ukrainians in Canada are adjusting to the tumultuous change that began when Ukraine won independence from the former Soviet Union after seven decades.

The opening of Ukraine has had a profound effect on the Ukrainian-Canadian community, particularly those who came here after the Second World War.

Families that have been out of contact for half a century can now simply telephone long-lost relatives.

"You direct dial through and it rings at the other end," Mr. Jakuta says.

Dozens of Ukrainian-Canadian entrepreneurs, academics and lawyers are making contacts and heading off to Ukraine. Some want to help out in the emerging nation, others to offer Canadian know-how and take advantage of the good will toward a country with one of the largest Ukrainian communities outside Ukraine.

"It will be a shame if Ukraine is finally free and nobody in the diaspora is going to be able to communicate with them," says Oleh Romaniw, a Winnipeg lawyer who is the national president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

Many Canadians believe that is the way it should be - that over time, ethnic groups should become barely distinguishable parts of Canada's two dominant cultures.

The Reform Party, for example, opposes the federal policy of multiculturalism and would do away with the multiculturalism ministry as a cost-cutting measure.

"I think the feeling is, rightly or wrongly, 'If you want to practice your own heritage, your music and your dancing, you pay for it. Why should we pay for it with tax dollars?'" Mr. Romaniw says. "I think multiculturalism, in the not-too-distant future, may be dead."

Most of the roughly one million Canadians of Ukrainian ancestry have already homogenized with the dominant culture, but Ukrainian-Canadian leaders argue that their culture and language deserve to survive, just as French and English are protected - not as historical artifacts, but as a part of modern life.

"The Ukrainian Canadian Congress does not believe in a two founding peoples concept of Canada," Mr. Jakuta says.

They argue that, particularly in the West, Ukrainians are also a founding people and, as such, their culture in Canada deserves public support.

During the negotiations before the Constitution Act of 1982, Ukrainians in Canada tried unsuccessfully to get multicultural language rights entrenched in the Constitution.

They were successful, however, during the days of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, in promoting the idea of other ethnic groups in Canada being a "third force" in Canada, leading to the policy of multiculturalism that was announced in 1971.

Ukrainian community leaders now complain that multiculturalism has been squeezed unfairly in the current era of government belt-tightening because it is seen as a frill, not a historical prerogative.

Vegreville, a farming community 100 kilometres east of Edmonton, was first settled by French Canadians. But it is in the heart of kalyna country (kalyna is Ukrainian for the cranberry, which grew wild along the riverbanks and in bogs), where Ukrainian has been the de facto other official language for much of this century since the land was cleared by settlers from western Ukraine, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When Val Eleniak was a child growing up in the 1920s in Chipman, a smaller town a few kilometres northwest of Vegreville, Ukrainian was just about the only language he ever heard.

"When I went to school, I didn't speak any English," the 77-year-old explains during an interview in the comfortable motorhome in the backyard of the frame house to which he and his wife retired in 1983, just down the street from the A.L. Horton School, where Mr. Korec is holding forth.

Today, Ukrainian is heard only sporadically on the streets in kalyna country.

It is disappearing here as it is in the rest of Canada, even though up to half of the population around here is of Ukrainian descent. In the 1971 Canadian census, about 150,000 people reported speaking Ukrainian in the home. Twenty years later, that number had dropped to 50,000.

But Ukrainians in Canada have been able to maintain a high profile here, despite the passage of time, with strong cultural associations and political organization.

Canada was the first country to recognize the Ukraine as an independent nation, a move that Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., attributes simply to Brian Mulroney's political instincts.

"The Prime Minister is cognizant of the fact that there is a large Ukrainian population here that had that abiding interest in Ukraine," he says.

"I know that my father, who is a life-long conservative, would have voted for the Communists if Mulroney had not done what he'd done. That would have been suicide, politically."

Ukrainian Canadians are also working to help more Ukrainians emigrate to Canada and they are frustrated by the process. Only 28 to 30 applications a month are being processed by the Canadian embassy in Kiev, according to Bob Mykytiuk, president of the Ukrainian Immigrant Aid Society.

That seems grossly unfair, he says, when the annual number of immigrants being allowed into Canada approaches a quarter of a million. "All we're asking for is the same treatment that everyone else is getting."

Many observers believe that the robust community that remains is partly the result of the sense that Ukrainians in Canada have been the stewards of a culture that was under extreme pressure in its homeland because of Communist rule.

The Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic Churches have also had an important role in keeping the culture alive in Canada, with Ukrainian language rites and language classes for children.

Canada and the majority culture in Canada have often been hostile to those who have had an identifiable Ukrainian identity. And many Ukrainian Canadians complain of subtle discrimination.

"We're still confronted with a glass ceiling," Mr. Jakuta says. "If you insist on maintaining your heritage, Canadian society will throw up obstacles."

Mr. Eleniak's grandfather Wasyl, who came to Canada in 1891, was one of the first of the roughly 170,000 Ukrainians who came between 1891 and the outbreak of the First World War.

They were invited here by the Canadian government, who wanted farmers to domesticate the vast West. Ukrainians had the right stuff.

"When I speak of quality...I think a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born to the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for 10 generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality," Clifford Sifton, then minister responsible for immigration, said in a now-famous quote.

Like the Chinese labourers who were brought to Canada to build the railways, however, their work was given a warmer welcome than the people themselves.

"They were considered these inferior peasants in sheepskin coats who might have been good for manpower, but weren't quite the quality in the finer things in life that Canada was sure it wanted," says Frances Swyripa of the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies of the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

"There were some extremely racist descriptions of Ukrainian people at the start, as mongrel people, as defeated men, as biologically inferior and all the rest of it," Mr. Luciuk says. "We forget that now, we don't see that, but in those days Ukrainians were treated with contempt and prejudice."

When the First World War erupted, Ukrainians in Canada were declared to be enemy aliens, even though Britain advised Canada they should be considered as allies because the Austro-Hungarian passports they carried were those of a conquering power in the Ukraine.

About 5,000 Ukrainians were interned and thousands more stripped of their Canadian citizenship and forced to register with the government. It is an old wound that has yet to heal. The Canadian government is still considering a request for a formal apology and some form of financial compensation.

After the war, many Ukrainians changed their names and tried to leave their heritage behind, Mr. Luciuk says.

Some feared further repression; others simply wanted to succeed in outside communities.

"They changed their name because of necessity, more than anything else, to gain a foothold in the community, especially professionals," Mr. Eleniak says.

When the Second World War started, the Canadian government was again worried about the loyalties of Ukrainians, particularly the thousands who had joined the left-wing Ukrainian Labour and Farm Temple Association.

That concern lasted only until Germany turned on the Soviet Union just long enough for the government to insist on the creation of the Ukrainian National Committee (which became the Ukrainian Canadian Congress after the war) as the unified, loyal voice of Ukrainians in Canada.

After the war, the committee helped with the settlement of about 36,000 displaced people in Canada. Now much of its focus is the role of the Ukrainian culture in Canada and co-ordinating efforts to help their newly independent homeland.

For example, the committee raised $1.7-million to pay for the setting up of a Ukrainian embassy in Ottawa and to pay operating costs for the first year.

Despite their abiding interest in the old country, few Ukrainian Canadians expect to emigrate to Ukraine. "We're not going back because we never were there," says Mr. Luciuk, who was born and raised in Kingston.

"One of the joys in my life was seeing Ukraine go free, not so much for myself, but because I know how much it meant to my mother and father," says Mr. Luciuk, whose parents came to Canada after the Second World War.

"My heritage may be Ukrainian, but however much I want to celebrate that with them, it's not my place. I don't feel like a salmon that I have to return and spawn there."

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Copyright © 1994 Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Copyright © 1994 Lubomyr Luciuk

We acknowledge the help in the preparation of this document by Amanda Anderson

Page layout, design, integration, and maintenance by G.W. Kokodyniak and V. Pawlowsky

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Originally Composed: Wednesday December 4th 1996.
Date last modified: Thursday October 30th 1997.