Holding on Through the Generations

Though rooted in the Old World, Ukrainian Canadians are firmly planted in the new.

by Michael Swan

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The men in the front room of the Ukrainian Cultural Center of Toronto hardly spoke, huddled over chess boards and card games on sun-bleached Formica-topped tables. Like the tables, the men were a little creaky and frayed at the edges, well into the autumn of their lives.

The center – a large white building – is a relic of an earlier era, when Ukrainian immigrants were the main residents of the neighborhood. Now, it is sandwiched between the shops and restaurants of a new group of immigrants, Koreans, while the Ukrainians who grew up here have moved to the suburbs.

Music and young voices came from down the hall. Young girls wearing tights and leg warmers stretched their legs and backs, giggling. Just like the men playing chess, these young dancers were a testament to the continuity of Ukrainian culture in Canada.

“If you’re Ukrainian you have to sing, dance, write poetry … everything!” a 21-year-old Ukrainian woman explained in English, her third language.

The York University business student treats her heritage as a sacred trust, though her family left Ukraine for Argentina when she was 5 and moved to Canada six years later.

“I think in Ukrainian. I dream in Ukrainian,” she said. She is convinced she will marry a Ukrainian in a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church and her children will speak Ukrainian and dance Ukrainian folk dances.

There are just over one million Canadians of Ukrainian descent – about 3 percent of the country’s total population of nearly 33 million. Ukrainians are the eighth-largest ethnic group in Canada’s cultural mosaic. Most live in the western provinces, where they first immigrated, though there are sizable communities in Toronto and other large cities in the East.

Recent government policies have contributed to the preservation of Ukrainian heritage. Since 1971, the Canadian government has funded language classes and provided grants to cultural groups such as the Desna Ukrainian Dance Company, which includes 30 or so members. In 1988, Canada’s Parliament passed the Multiculturalism Act to preserve diverse cultural identities.

But the primary force behind the preservation of Ukrainian identity in Canada is the church. “The church provides stability and values, the values that will allow you to adjust to a new country,” said Ukrainian Greek Catholic Father Myroslav Tataryn, Vice President and Dean of St. Jerome’s University College of Waterloo University in southwestern Ontario. Father Tataryn is one of Canada’s leading experts on Ukrainian-Canadian culture. “What’s unique and fascinating about Ukrainians in Canada” – as opposed to other immigrants – “is that the church is playing a much more significant role in how culture is transmitted and preserved.”.

Ukrainian immigrants from the Carpathian Mountains, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, first came to Canada’s prairie provinces in the late 19th century at the invitation of the Canadian government, which feared an expanding United States might annex its western plains. By the outbreak of World War I, 170,000 Ukrainians had immigrated thanks to the promise of free land.

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