When Canada was merely 24 years old, two settlers arrived from Ukraine. Today, the Canadian census counts 1.2 million claiming Ukrainian heritage.
Leaving Ukraine for Canada 120 years ago was akin to settling on the moon; only the bravest dared. Reaching the prairies, they were unceremoniously dumped where the train track stopped. There was nothing to mark human progress; distances were overwhelming and other people far away. When meeting them in towns, “established” Canadians mocked the new arrivals’ dress and sneered at their language and religion, heart-wrenchingly described in Pierre Burton’s The Promised Land. There was the ultimate slap-down: go back where you came from if you don’t like it here.
“Here” was Manitoba, where scarlet fever ravaged some 50 children one winter. “Here” was dawn to dusk laying of railway tracks through bogs swarming with mosquitoes and black flies or dying in airless mines. The roster of the perished in shafts, like those in Kirkland Lake, tell the story. “Here” they chiselled through the Rockies to built the magnificent Banff Springs Hotel, but as slave labour; First World War politics made the settlers of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire enemy aliens. This was illegal; Canada’s justice failed the “outsiders.”
But they endured. With little more than sheer force of will – what implements? – they turned virgin grasslands into Canada’s economic powerhouse, the envy of the world’s agribusiness, and its foreboding northern ranges into the globe’s leading supplier of natural resources.
And injustices led them to fights for justice. They leveraged unscrupulous agents by forming cooperatives and wheat boards modelled on those in Ukraine. Canada’s labour, health and unemployment insurance legislation came from sons of these pioneers such as former federal cabinet minister Michael Starr, who changed his name – thousands did – “to fit in,” but knew damn well who he was.
Their grief led to social progress development and their outsider status into the inclusivity of a mosaic. Perhaps it started when Winnipeg’s Dr. Yaroslav Rudnyskyj, member of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, wrote a dissenting report calling for recognition of Canada’s multicultural reality. Conservative senator Paul Yusyk, remembering the Manitoba language issue outlawing Ukrainian in schools, pushed for legislation and Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal prime minister, signed the Multiculturalism Act of Canada, a model of equality for the world.
There are other significant achievements. Roy Romanow, with Jean Chretien, broke Quebec’s constitutional deadlock to keep Canada united and become premier of Saskatchewan. Alberta elected Ed Stelmach, but still felt compelled to mock his accent. Ukrainians in Canada led in cobalt cancer treatment and Imax development. Governor general Ramon Hnatyshyn gave Canada the arts awards and with others – such as John Sopinka, the community’s only Supreme Court justice – began to give back. Canada became the first western country to recognize Ukraine’s independence and offer aid, including training in Canada’s judicial system of equal justice.
But before all this happened, some 150,000 displaced Ukrainians arrived after the devastations of the Second World War. The fine Canadian who penned the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was not of their roots, but he fathomed the horrors rising from behind the iron clad concentration camp that was the U.S.S.R.: 10 million starved during Holodomor, the man-made famine orchestrated by Josef Stalin’s executioner Lazar Kaganovich; another 10 million non-combatants killed by the Nazi and Communist War machines; and a similar toll on its military.
Writing about this human calamity, Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls Ukraine and surrounding territories the Bloodlands between Hitler and Stalin. But good triumphed; the Nazis were obliterated, the U.S.S.R. collapsed while new Canadians, comprising the displaced peoples from the bloodlands, had a very special mission: to bear witness to what really happened.
Last year, Canada’s prime minister paid an official visit to Ukraine, whose current government is, regrettably, backsliding into Sovietlike revisionism. The prime minister was clear in urging respect for human rights and freedoms. He denounced communism’s murderous legacy. His stance, applauded around the globe, was particularly significant: it followed Canada’s recognition of Holodomor as a genocide; a crime against humanity.
Celebrating 120 years of settlement, Ukrainian Canadians, with others, marked the occasion by erecting a monument in Ottawa to an internationally recognized democrat, Taras Shevchenko. Not because there aren’t great Canadian poets. Rather, because he expresses better than most humanity’s eternal values: embrace the smallest among you; truth is found chez-vous; democracy demands vigilance; fight, and justice will not die.
These are Canada’s values, those which have made it inclusive and just; one of the best countries in the world. Thank you, Canada. Happy birthday and many, many more! Mnohaja lita!
Oksana Bashuk Hepburn is a post-Second World War Canadian of Ukrainian decent. She writes on issues close to her heart.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
(reprinted with author’s permission)