Straddling Two Worlds: Canada's Ukrainians

A look at Canada’s Ukrainian Greek, Catholic and Orthodox churches.

by Jars Balan

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In 1988, Ukrainians in Canada commemorated 1,000 years of Christianity in their ancestral homeland with a mixture of happiness, sorrow and anxiety. Deeply moved by the rich spiritual legacy passed to them by their forebears, Ukrainian Canadians were equally concerned for the destinies of their churches in the New World and the continuing oppression of fellow believers in Soviet Ukraine.

Just three years later, while celebrating the 100th anniversary of their arrival in Canada, Ukrainian Canadians welcomed Ukraine’s emergence as an independent state. The swiftness with which the Soviet Union unraveled and the peaceful way in which Ukraine escaped centuries of foreign domination were widely regarded as miraculous in view of the violence that devastated Ukrainian lands throughout much of the 20th century. Nevertheless, these upheavals, which altered the face of Eastern Europe, have also rocked the foundations of Ukrainian Canadian society.

Fatigued from carrying the burden of Ukraine’s tortured history, Ukrainian Canadians were overwhelmed when their yearnings for a free Ukraine were suddenly realized, compelling them to reexamine their mission in Canada. Not only must Ukrainian Canadians now grapple with the contradictory tug of the Byzantine East and the Latin West, they must also reconcile competing contemporary influences from Canada and Ukraine.

These tensions have plagued New World Ukrainian communities – in fact all ethnic communities in emigration – from the beginning. They have also been the source of much creativity, sustaining Ukrainians through decades of isolation and hardship.

The origins of Ukrainian church life in Canada may be traced to the years immediately following the arrival of the first pioneers from Carpathian Ukraine. In the late 1800’s, the Canadian government, fearing its sparsely populated western plains were vulnerable to annexation by the United States, wanted to settle these lands. When it proved impossible to attract a sufficient number of farmers from Western Europe, government leaders looked to the Slavic East for hardy folk who would be willing to take on the task of homesteading the prairies, especially the partly wooded areas that were less amenable to cultivation.

In 1891, two adventurous villagers from Austro-Hungarian Ukraine traveled to Canada’s Northwest Territory to see if the free lands offered by the Canadian government were suitable for agriculture. Ivan Pylypow and Wasyl Eleniak were impressed with what they saw and their enthusiastic reports encouraged massive immigration that brought approximately 170,000 of their kinsmen to Canada by the outbreak of World War I. Almost all of these newcomers came from the poor, overcrowded provinces of Galicia and Bukovina in the Hapsburg-ruled territories of modern-day western Ukraine. The former were mostly Greek Catholic; the latter were almost all Orthodox, resulting in the division of the Ukrainian community into rival religious camps. These groups then fragmented further along denominational, jurisdictional and ideological lines.

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