Ukrainians prove that a century-old immigration policy was right
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, August 9, 2003

The second Sunday of August is Ukrainian Day in Alberta. Like many stories about the opening of the Canadian West, the Ukrainian immigrant story is a compelling tale of perseverance and citizenship acquired by sweat-equity. It begins with John A. Macdonald. In 1878, Macdonald's National Policy proposed a new railway and external tariffs to protect industry. But it wasn't until 1897, with the appointment of Clifford Sifton as minister of the Interior, that its third objective, opening western Canada, became a reality.

Sifton tackled the job of encouraging immigration, settlement and agricultural development in Canada's West with zeal and determination. As a result, between 1897 and 1913, the largest pre-modern infusion of immigrants - about one and a half million of them - accepted the offer of free transportation, 160 acres of land, and the chance of a new life in western Canada.

Within a generation, the overwhelmingly British population of the region was reduced to half, while Eastern and Western European groups comprised most of the rest. Of the Eastern Europeans, most were Ukrainians from Austria-Hungary where class rule and rapid economic development created vast numbers of a nearly landless peasant class in the provinces of Galicia and Bukovyna. In 1898 alone, some 48,000 Bukovynians arrived at various western Canadian destinations.

Despite criticism, Sifton didn't care that many were illiterate or couldn't speak English. They were experienced farmers and that, he believed, was what Canada needed.

The Catholic Galicians and Orthodox Bukovynians settled in the parkland regions starting at Winnipeg and Dauphin, Manitoba, extending through Regina and over into Edmonton and north-eastern Alberta. It was a hard life of picking rocks and clearing bush. The mosquitoes and the winters were excruciating.

The woods provided building and other materials. From the earth they fashioned sod huts and clay ovens. Flavourful food, colourful clothing, sheepskin jackets and Byzantine churches dotting the prairie landscape made Ukrainians the most visible of the prairie immigrants and with it, objects of ethnic slurs.

But Sifton was right. They knew how to farm. Their phenomenal work ethic and ability to endure privation expanded their numbers. By 1940, the politically factious immigrants created a loose coalition dedicated to democratic principles and British institutions, to promoting Ukrainian cultural objects in Canada and to supporting the aspirations of Ukrainians in Europe. Later, they influenced the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission to adopt multiculturalism as national policy and worked with the Canadian government for Ukraine independence.

Ukraine independence in 1991 was a high point for organized Ukrainian-Canadian activity. More than 10 years later, despite widespread assimilation, low immigration from Ukraine and declining use of the language, Ukrainian-Canadians maintain a unique national presence. Redress for internment as enemy aliens and recognition of Stalin's artificially created famine that starved seven million Ukrainians in 1932-33 are today's unfinished political business. Increasingly, the Ukrainian-Canadian experience is being institutionalized in well-endowed foundations and university chairs.

But it is in western Canada where they maintain their strongest cultural presence. The heads of their churches are located in Winnipeg, as are the offices of their Congress. And north-eastern Alberta, or Kalyna ("high bush cranberry") Country, where the largest bloc of pioneers settled, now supports the country's largest Ukrainian heritage projects. In addition to the 360-acre Cultural Heritage site, an eco-museum three times the size of Prince Edward Island has been created. Over 100 Byzantine churches, one of which is in the Museum of Civilization, remain standing and many of the province's 300,000 Ukrainian-Canadians reside in the area. Of Alberta's 100 Ukrainian dance troupes, the Shumka ("whirlwind") Dancers of Edmonton perform internationally.

After 100 years, Ukrainian-Canadians may be the poster group for Canada's most successful immigration policy - one that served both Canada and its Ukrainian immigrants in exemplary fashion. To Alberta's centenary pioneers and to Clifford Sifton, a hearty Mnohayalita - "congratulations!"

Margret Kopala, whose Ukrainian great-grandparents emigrated to Alberta, writes weekly on western perspectives.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.