Dr Peter T Smylski
Pavlo Terefenko

With the recent passing of Dr Peter T Smylski, the Ukrainian community in Canada lost a man at the pinnacle of public service. His pioneering work in the field of Oral Surgery made him one of the great dental specialists of his day, and anyone who’s had wisdom teeth removed with the benefit of OHIP, can thank Dr Smylski’s efforts. His tireless work with Ukrainian cultural organisations had a priceless impact as is clear through the establishment of St Vladimir Institute as the central cultural location for Toronto’s Ukrainian community and for visiting Ukrainian students from around the world. 
Dr Peter Smylski was born in rural Manitoba, in 1915, to parents Tom and Anna Smylski, who emigrated from Halychyna. Dr Smylski grew up in a four-room house and started school in a one-room rural schoolhouse. He moved on to pre-med at the University of Manitoba, and after two years was encouraged to pursue dentistry. Never forgetting those who supported him in his pursuits, he remembered Harry Tyzuk telling him to get into dentistry because his “… muscles were so strong from farm work.”
Dr Smylski entered the faculty of dentistry in Edmonton and after graduating in 1940, attempted to enlist in the Air Force. He was turned down because of his poor eyesight, but ended up joining the Canadian Dental Corps. Soon after joining he was posted in a POW camp near Sudbury, Ontario where he provided dental services to thousands of prisoners of war.
Being a man with a passion for his fellow Ukrainians, Dr Smylski was very interested in the fate of Ukrainian servicemen and civilians displaced by the war. Along with Bohdan Panchuk, Ann Crapleve, and Steven Davidovich, he took a stance against the forced repatriation of political refugees. Dr Smylski helped draft, print and distribute a pamphlet to the United Nations pleading the DPs’ case. This cause caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, US delegate to the United Nations, and she urged the Yalta Agreement be reviewed.

Quite by accident, Peter became aware of a military camp near Rome called Rimini. He happened upon the camp after talking pilot Joe Romanow into letting him come on a flight to Rome. He and Joe were of the same stature, and this way Peter managed to wear one of Joe’s uniforms, pretending to be an Air Force navigator. What Peter discovered at Rimini was a camp of about 9000 Ukrainian soldiers from the 1st Ukrainian Division of the Ukrainian National Army. The soldiers, who fought with Germany against the Russians, were being held there as prisoners of war after being badly defeated by the Soviet army at Brody, Ukraine in 1944. Peter saw the need to help these people avoid an uncertain fate at the hands of the Soviets. Dr Smylski gained the support of the British, and after several months these POWs were taken to England as free citizens. Most then moved to North America. Dr Smylski and fellow Ukrainians from Canada continued to push to allow Ukrainians in DP camps all across Germany to emigrate to the West, and many did, due in part to these efforts.

After returning from the war, Dr Smylski completed post-graduate studies in Oral Surgery and Anaesthesia and opened his own practice. In the mid-fifties he was asked to lecture at the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Toronto. Then in 1964, he accepted the Chairmanship of the Department of Dental Oral Surgery which he would hold for 12 years. The significance of this term is that he was so well respected and successful, that he served longer than the two-term, ten-year maximum.

While working at the University of Toronto, Dr Smylski realised that the Toronto Ukrainian community needed a residence near the campus. The idea had been floating around for some time, but Dr Smylski decided to put it in motion. Heading up a relatively young board, his efforts were rewarded with the eventual establishment of the St Vladimir Institute. As Dr Smylski put it: “young people either do or don’t, and this group did.” Quite unique at the time, the Institute stood out as a non-denominational Ukrainian student residence. Today’s Institude is more than just a residence, housing various organisations’ offices, a resource centre, space for meetings, and art displays.

Besides putting smiles on the faces of Ukrainian students attending the University of Toronto, Dr Smylski’s talent as an Oral Surgeon had many people, with oral deformities they though irrepairable, also smiling – something they were physically incapable of doing before his surgery. The Toronto Star and Toronto Sun referred to him as a “Canadian pioneer” in developing surgery which allowed his patients to “chew properly, close their mouths,smile as never before, and most importantly to some, stop being called freaks.” 

Ever humble, Dr Smylski would refer to his advanced techniques as “just basic carpentry.” His patients, however, understood the vital importance of his work. As one of his patients once said, “I had become extremely self-conscious about my appearance…now every time I smile I bless (Peter Smylski) who changed my life.”

After retiring from dentistry, Dr Smylski remained a participant in the Ukrainian community. He always set an example with his enthusiasm and readiness to realise cultural projects. The release of the documentary Harvest of Despair was endebted to his exemplary fortitude and he was also a key consultant on the upcoming film .

From his rural roots as a farm boy in Keld, Ontario, to champion of Ukrainian causes, to trailblazer in the field of Oral Surgery, Peter Smylski applied his father’s advice of “Don’t sleep too long, and don’t drink” and served as an example to us all of what great community leadership one can achieve when applying actions to ideas. Dr Peter Smylski lived a full and happy life and entered the Kingdom of Heaven on October 1, 2002. 

Besides Doris, his wife of 60 years, he is survived by sons, Thomas and Peter, daughters Doris-Ann Masnyk, and Nadia Lawrence, and precious granchildren Anton and Tereza.

³÷íà Éîìó ïàì’ÿòü!