ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Holding on Through the Generations

The perseverance of Ukrainian-Canadians

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.

Other waves came after World War II, when portions of Ukraine independent of the Soviet Union were gobbled up by Stalin’s armies, and in the aftermath of Ukrainian independence in 1991, when Ukrainian emigration policies were relaxed.

Life was difficult for the earliest Ukrainian immigrants. They lived in sod huts and tilled their land by hand, dragging wooden plows, because horses were too expensive. In school, children were taunted for their heavily accented English and rough clothes.

During World War I, 5,000 Ukrainian immigrants were interned alongside other Eastern Europeans in 24 camps the Canadian government established for “enemy aliens.” (It was not until August of this year that Prime Minister Paul Martin recognized the internments as a “dark chapter” in Canadian history, and his government established a $25 million reparation fund to promote Ukrainian-Canadian history and culture.)

The post-World War II generation arrived amid nativistic fears that immigrants would take away “Canadian” jobs. The immigrants were looking to start over after the calamitous war experience, which claimed five million Ukrainian lives. They were also fleeing the memory of a Soviet-orchestrated famine that killed as many as 11 million Ukrainians.

The land from which these immigrants came is rich in cultural influences yet plagued by centuries of political upheaval and religious schism. Throughout its history, the rich lands of these Eastern Slavs have been contested by Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and Austro-Hungarians, and all have left their mark. Broadly speaking, the Dnieper River, bridged only by Ukraine’s historical capital of Kiev, has for centuries formed a line of demarcation, separating Ukraine linguistically, culturally, even religiously. To the west, Ukrainians are more likely to speak Ukrainian, belong to the Greek Catholic Church or an Orthodox Church independent of the Moscow Patriarchate and see themselves as European. To the east of the Dnieper, Ukrainians are more likely to speak Russian, belong to the Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church and culturally identify themselves with Russia.

These divisions endured in Canada, where there are four times as many Ukrainian Greek Catholics as Ukrainian Orthodox (a nearly exact reversal of the situation in Ukraine). Both churches are based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the geographic center of North America but known in Canada as the “Gateway to the West.”.

In recent years, the rift between the two Canadian communities has narrowed. No doubt, the experience of immigration has helped. Both Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Orthodox share the same Eastern Christian traditions inherited from Byzantium, from which they received the Christian faith in 988. Though jurisdictionally divided, Ukrainian-Canadians share a cultural heritage, common traditions, habits and foods. Since the 1960’s, joint prayer services have become common events, as has intermarriage between Catholics and Orthodox. Though rifts remain, particularly in western Canada, years of attending weddings, funerals and myriad cultural events have warmed over old tensions.

Each Desna dancer began in a church-sponsored dance troupe. Desna President Jerry Moroch started when he was 9 at St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral near downtown Toronto.

“Everybody started somewhere under a church group,” Mr. Moroch said. The dancers include Orthodox and Catholics.

Desna emerged 31 years ago as an outlet for dancers who wanted to go beyond the ambitions and means of small church groups. Just below the level of a professional dance company, Desna often performs at Ukrainian festivals in Canada and the United States. There are plans for a trip to Ukraine to study with the internationally renowned Virsky Dance Company. (Desna’s Artistic Director and Choreographer, Yuri Grekov, and his wife, Luba, are former members.)

It is initiatives like Desna that preserve Ukrainian culture among the latest wave of immigrants, most of whom are young, well-educated and optimistic about success. Eager to assimilate, they are less likely to turn to the church or other Ukrainian cultural institutions.

“It’s a problem that our leadership [in the churches] is not addressing,” said Father Tataryn. While the youngest arrivals go to church, “there’s no real engagement,” he said. To remain relevant, Ukrainian churches will have to portray themselves as something more than a bulwark against a sea of Anglo-Canadian culture, he added.

The problem is not unrecognized. On a 2003 pastoral visit to Toronto, Ukrainian Catholic Major Archbishop Cardinal Lubomyr Husar urged Ukrainian-Canadians to think of their church less as a vessel for their culture and take on the evangelical mandate of the Christian faith to reach out to all people.

The message resonated with Ukrainian-Canadians like Gus Korchinsky, a retiree and Knights of Columbus member, who has been trying to persuade his organization to learn about the Eastern churches.

Mr. Korchinsky believes his Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has much to offer Roman Catholics and that the key to preserving Ukraine’s broad heritage in Canada is to heal the lingering rifts among Ukrainian churches.

For third-generation Ukrainian-Canadian Greek Catholic Lisa-Ann Bilinsky there is no tension between the Eastern and Western churches. On Sundays, the 31-year-old sings in the choir at the English-language Mass at Holy Eucharist Church, which, she insisted, is no less Ukrainian or Byzantine just because it is in English. During the week she works as a chaplain for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, in a thoroughly Roman Catholic environment. She is the daughter of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, but does not speak Ukrainian – and does not think she is any less Ukrainian because of it.

As Mrs. Bilinsky demonstrates, the preservation of the Ukrainian identity in Canada is a balancing act between the desires to participate fully in Canadian life and to hold on to the culture of one’s ancestors. It is a challenge that resurfaces with each generation.

Back at the chess tables, Nick Hrona said he was proud to see his Ukrainian heritage passed down to his grandchildren. Arriving in Canada in 1952, Mr. Hrona took a job at a tannery before securing a better job in the public school system, working in maintenance.

He and his wife reared two children, now 42 and 51. They have two grandchildren.

On weekends, the grandchildren attend a Ukrainian school to learn the language, said Mr. Hrona with obvious pride.

“It’s important. That’s the mother tongue.”

Michael Swan is a reporter with the Catholic Register in Toronto.

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