Ukrainians And Canada

Play episode
Hosted by

You can support Canadian History Ehx with a donation at

The history of Ukrainians in Canada is a deep one, and has helped give Canada some of its most noted citizens.

Ukrainians would start to arrive in the late-1800s and today they are the 11th largest ethnic group in Canada, with 110,000 Ukrainian Canadians stating that Ukrainian was their mother tongue. As of 2016, there were 1.6 million Ukrainian Canadians within Canada.

The arrival of Ukrainians begins long before Ukraine as a country existed. For decades, the Ukrainian people were either under the control of the Russian Empire or Austria-Hungary.

There may have been some Ukrainians who arrived in the early-19th century but the first major immigration period was from 1891 to 1914.

Iwan Pylypiw and Wasyl Elaniak are considered the first two Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, arriving in 1891. During the first winter, Pylypiw would go back to Ukraine for their families, while Elaniak stayed in Manitoba. Unfortunately, Pylypiw was wrongfully accused of sedition and fraud. He would go on trial in Austria-Hungary on May 12, 1892 and spent a month in prison. His trial would ironically generate publicity, resulting in more people wanting to go to Canada. When Pylypiw left for Canada once again, he was joined by seven families. These families would settle Josephburg, northeast of Edmonton, a hamlet that exists to this day.

Pylypiw would live the rest of his life east of Fort Saskatchewan and died a rich man in 1936. Today, a subdivision in Edmonton is named for him, as is Pylypow Lake in Saskatchewan. His farmhouse, the third he built, currently sits at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village.

Five years later, Canada began to promote immigration from Eastern European farmers to settle in the Canadian west. The government wanted the land to be filled with settlers, which would bring in more commerce, railroads and help grow the huge crops available in the Prairies.

Dr. Josef Oleskow and Cyrel Genik would be heavily responsible for the promotion of Canada as a destination for immigrants in Ukraine. Oleskow would recommend areas for the Ukrainians to settle, helping several dozen families find places to settle in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. His literature is believed to be responsible for being a major reason for the fact that period from 1891 to 1914, 170,000 rural Ukrainians came to Canada, mostly settling in the west.

Another major reason for Ukrainian settlement was Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior from 1896 to 1905. He wanted to have new agricultural immigrants come to Canada and he saw the Ukrainians as the right people to settle. There were some around Sifton who were unhappy that he was encouraging Ukrainian immigration, rather than from the United States, Scandinavia or the United Kingdom. He would respond quote:

“I think that a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born in the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and half-dozen children, is good quality.”

The Ukrainian settlers would settle in Ukrainian block settlements throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. These rural blocks would slowly develop into communities such as Vegreville in Alberta and Canora in Saskatchewan.

Driving around rural Alberta, especially east of Edmonton, you will come across several Ukrainian churches. These churches are some of the most beautiful found in the prairies, and I had the chance to visit several over the summer.

During this initial wave of Ukrainian immigration, no priests came to Canada but other denominations such as the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, helped provide religious services for the Ukrainians.

In 1918, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church would be established, eventually becoming the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Ukrainians would begin to enter the political world a short time after they arrived. In Alberta, with its strong Ukrainian-Canadian population, it is no surprise that Andrew Shandro became the first Ukrainian elected to a provincial legislature.

Shandro had arrived in Canada in 1899 with his parents, and had began work as a federal homestead inspector in 1907. Shandro would serve in the Legislature from 1913 to 1922.

Various organizations were formed around this time in Canada including the Ukrainian Labour Farmer Temple Association, the Ukrainian Catholic Brotherhood and the Ukrainian Self-Reliance League.

Unfortunately for new Ukrainian-Canadians, the First World War would begin in 1914 and that ended the first phase of Ukrainian immigration. Ukrainian-Canadians were classified as enemy aliens, even though over 10,000 Ukrainian Canadians fought for Canada, including Filip Konowal who would be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The Ukrainian Canadians who had been deemed enemy aliens under the War Measures Act, amounting to 80,000 people, were forced to report to the police on a regular basis. They had to carry government-issued identity papers at all times. Anyone who had come to Canada after 1903 would also lose their right to vote in federal elections. Ukrainian-Canadians tended to vote Liberal in elections, and the ruling Conservatives, or Union Government as it was called at the time, was able to eliminate all those votes by preventing Ukrainian-Canadians from having their voice heard at the polls.

Of the 80,000, 5,000, nearly all of them Ukrainian men, were put into camps where they were forced to work and often had meager food. Many landmarks, including Banff National Park, owe their existence to these men taken from their homes simply for their Ukrainian heritage.

During the First World War, Munson was the site of a Ukrainian Canadian internment camp where anyone deemed an enemy alien was housed. Those who were kept at the camp were put to work on the railway. At the camp, the structures were simply railway cars that had been set up. Unlike other internment camps, the one in Starland County was set up late in the war, on Oct. 13, 1918. The camp was only open for a brief period of time before it was moved to Eaton, Saskatchewan on Feb. 25, 1919, although some sources say March 21, 1919.

The time the camp was open unfortunately coincided with the Spanish Flu. One of the men in the camp would die of the disease in November of 1918.

There was a camp located near what is today Kapuskasing, Ontario, which would house 1,300 German and Ukrainian prisoners.

At the camp, prisoners were kept active in construction of buildings, clearing the land for an experimental farm, and harvesting the ample timber in the area. The camp was so isolated that there was little in the way of fences and the only access to the location was via the railroad that had been built through earlier.

For those who worked at the camp, they would often deal with mosquitoes that tormented them in the summer heat, while in the winter they dealt with terrible cold.

Of course, even though it was isolated, that didn’t stop some from trying to escape. On Dec. 18, 1917, three Austrians decided to escape from the camp, intending to catch a train to Cochrane, to at least get away from the camp for a few days.

At 2 p.m. on that day, a prisoner slipped across the cleared perimeter into the woods when two guards had their backs turned. Five minutes later, as snow fell, two others took advantage of getting away.

At 3:20 p.m., during regular roll call, it was found that three prisoners were missing. Four guards were dispatched to look for tracks.

At 3:30 p.m., a trail of footprints heading west were found.

At 4:45 p.m., darkness forced some of the searchers to return to the camp, while others continued on in their search for the prisoners.

At 8:10 p.m. searchers once again departed from the camp with lights and retraced steps that they followed until dusk.

At 12:30 a.m., the escapees were caught and returned to their cells.

In August of 1917, the prisoners would briefly strike due to the hard schedule they were forced to work, and their isolation from families and their own homes elsewhere in Canada.

On May 5, 1920, the camp was officially cleared and closed, and the buildings were sold to tender and demolished by a Toronto company.

Today, a small cemetery is all that remains of the camp, which is where victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic were buried.

Most of the internees were Ukrainian-Canadians who were forced off their land simply because they had immigrated from a country that was allied with the Germans in the war. Rather than be identified as Ukrainians, the newspapers simply called them Austrians and Germans. At the camp, there was a total of 63 internees.

The Kingston British Whig would report quote:

“As these men are interned as undesirables, the popular feeling is that they should be deported as soon as the internment camps are broken up.”

The Edmonton Journal would print a story on Aug. 22, 1917 stating that the Ukrainians in Vegreville, east of Edmonton, were looking to revolt against the government. The story stated quote:

“The statement is made that a number of agitators are at work among the Ukrainian population with a view of inciting them to revolt against necessary measures taken by the government to preserve the security of the country.”

The Ukrainians in Vegreville were advised to work quietly and peacefully, to behave themselves and to hold no public meetings.

Even though the government seemed to be against the Ukrainian people, many citizens were on their side. One letter to the editor published on Oct. 23, 1918 would state quote:

“One greatest injustice that is being done to the Ukrainians by the English-speaking public is the fact that they are branded as enemies of their own adopted country. In other words, they are accused of being pro-Austrians and pro-Germans, while the fact is that the Ukrainians have groaned under the Austrian yoke long before any Allied countries were even aware of the unjust autocratic government in that empire.”

During the trying times of the First World War, Ukrainians would come together to help each other, even as the government seemed to want to do everything they could not to help. In late-1917, it was announced that a Ukrainian College was going to be built in Saskatoon but it would cost $100,000 to build it, no small amount for the time. At a meeting of Ukrainians held at the Daylight Theatre in the city, $10,000 was raised in only one hour for the college. Three farmers would give $1,000 each. To put that in perspective, today that $1,000 would amount to about $20,000 today. Another four farmers gave $500 each to the cause.

Ukrainians also took to the land very quickly at this time, which surprised the government. One inspector named Wasyl Swystun was tasked with visiting farms to see the social needs of the Ukrainian settlements.

The Manitoba Free Press Prairie Farmer would write quote:

“They are, he says, progressing very fast. But for one or two poor years, such as 1913 and 1914, they could by now, he thinks, have paid all their indebtness for land, machinery and stock. As it is, he believes the average liabilities of the Ukrainian farmers is not more than $500 for all these things.”

The same report found that Ukrainians wanted their children to get better education and to attend high school. They also wanted their children to be able to speak the Mother Tongue for at least an hour each day at school. The Prairie Farmer continues quote:

“There was no anti-Canadian or revolutionary propaganda going on as far as he was aware, and he felt sure that the people would never dream of pressing their requests in any but legitimate and peaceful ways.”

In Saskatoon in December of 1917, a convention of Ukrainians was held, some calling it the largest such gathering of Ukrainians in Canadian history. The Ukrainians voted in favour of having the responsibilities of British citizenship. Joseph Mega, the chairman would say quote:

“I want to assure our English-speaking friends that this is not a Bolshevik gathering and that we do not aim at sectionalism or racial nationalism but we are striving to co-operate among ourselves and with our English-speaking citizens towards the educational uplift of our younger generation. We gather here as Canadians, always true to our new country and loyal to the British empire.”

While some Ukrainians were allowed to work at regular jobs for private companies by 1917, Ukrainian internment would continue until June 20, 1920, nearly two years after the First World War had ended.

Throughout Canada, there are several memorials dedicated to the Ukrainian internees who were taken from their land including on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building, at Banff National Park, in Kapuskasing, Ontario and at Spirit Lake, Quebec. On Aug. 24, 2005, Prime Minister Paul Martin recognized Ukrainian Canadian internment as a dark chapter in Canadian history. He pledged $2.5 million to fund memorials and educational exhibits but this funding was never provided.

On May 9, 2008, Bill-C331 was passed under the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which established the $10 million Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund. The interest used on this payment funds projects that commemorates the experiences of Ukrainians and other Europeans during their internments.

After the war, a new generation of Ukrainians began to integrate themselves into the political atmosphere of Canada. Michael Luchkovich, who was born in America but came to Canada with his family, would become the first person of Ukrainian heritage to be elected to Parliament in 1926. Representing the Vegreville riding, he quickly became the voice of people of Ukrainian descent. He would speak against discrimination, making him very popular among Ukrainian Canadians. He would serve until 1935 when he became a founding member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which today is the New Democratic Party.

In 1923, the Immigration Act was modified to allow former subjects of the Austrian Empire to immigrate to Canada once again.

After this, immigration once again picked up. Between 1923 and 1939, 70,000 Ukrainians came to Canada, many of them veterans of the war looking for a better life. Most of the immigration came in the late-1920s and early-1930s, before The Great Depression decreased the flow of immigration.

During the interwar years, Ukrainians would establish several organizations including the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association, the Ukrainian Self-Reliance League and the Ukrainian Catholic Brotherhood.

They would also begin to settle in new areas of the prairies. By the time the 1920s came along, most of the land had been taken in the southern and central prairies. In places such as northern Alberta, there was still ample land available.

When you look at the records of the Immigration Hall in Spirit River, Alberta, you find over 200 people who came to Spirit River to start their new lives in just a few years from 1928 to 1930.

Only five people, Fred Robak, D.M. Zukuwski, William Batan, M. Shemko and F. Kozecki came in 1927, during the first wave into the area. By 1928, a couple dozen Ukrainians arrived in the area, which only increased in 1929 to several dozen. The year 1930 would be the biggest year for immigration into the area, before records stop at the end of that year. Of those Ukrainians, every single one, apart from wives and children, listed their occupation as farmer. One interesting aspect of these records is that the majority of Ukrainians did not come with families, but came alone, or with their brothers, often to begin to work the land and establish it. Once the homestead was up and running, their families would come out but that could take years. Other than children, the youngest person to arrive was William Wiznuk, who came with his father Michael, when he was 18 in 1928. It wasn’t just the young who arrived. John Solonnainy came to Spirit River at the age of 54, while Steve Boichuk arrived a month later when he was 59. The oldest in those few years was Anton Holik, who arrived alone in April 1930 when he was 63. For those early Ukrainian homesteaders, it was at times a lonely existence and that was why being able to find someone from your homeland near you was so important.

After the Second World War, with the Soviet Union taking over vast areas of Eastern Europe, Ukrainians began to come to Canada. From 1947 to 1954, 34,000 Ukrainians came here.

During this third era of immigration for Ukrainians, most settled not in the Prairies as had happened before, but in Ontario. This new wave of immigrants would establish many organizations that exist to this day including the League of Ukrainian Canadians, Plast Canada and the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Federation.

By this point, Ukrainian Canadians were making major inroads into Canadian politics on every level.

In 1952, Michael Starr, the former mayor of Oshawa, Ontario, was elected to Parliament and would serve until 1967. During that time, he was named the Minister of Labour from 1957 to 1963, becoming the first person of Ukrainian heritage to hold a federal cabinet post. For two months, following the resignation of John Diefenbaker, Starr was also the first person of Ukrainian heritage to serve as the Leader of the Opposition. Throughout his life, Starr worked with ethnic groups and minorities and helped build the policy of Old Age Pensions for the Progressive Conservative party.

In 1955, William Michael Wall was appointed to the Canadian Senate, becoming the first person of Ukrainian heritage to achieve that honour. Prior this appointment, he had served with the Canadian Army during the Second World War, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel. At 44, he was one of the youngest Senators in Canadian history to that point, he would serve until 1962 when he passed away.

In 1964, Senator Paul Yuzyk began to champion the idea of multiculturalism. This would lead to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and debates with Ukrainian leaders. Ukrainians felt that English-French biculturalism would deny the contributions of other cultures to Canada. As a result of this, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would shift Canada towards a policy of official multiculturalism. Today, Yuzyk is known as the Father of Multiculturalism.

Immigration would slow in the subsequent decades, with only 10,000 Ukrainians arriving from the 1970s to the 1980s. Things would start to increase in 2001, and for the next 15 years, 40,000 Ukrainians came to Canada.

In 1976, Vegreville, a community with a deep Ukrainian history, would create one of the most famous roadside attractions in Canada, the Pysanka.

The art of wax-resist egg decoration dates back to the pre-Christian area thanks to fragments of colored shells found in Poland. Eggs decorated by Ukrainians featured nature symbols that became part of spring rituals. They worshipped a god named Dazhboh, and birds were one of his creations. Humans could not catch the birds, but they could obtain their eggs, which were seen as sources of life. The egg was then honored in Spring festivals as a rebirth of the Earth as the long winter was over. When Christianity spread into the area, the egg became the symbol not of the rebirth of nature, but the rebirth of man.

The art of the pysanka then travelled to North America via Ukrainian immigrants, including to Ukrainian settlements like Vegreville.

The egg would get its start thanks to the Alberta Century Celebrations Committee that was coordinating the centennial celebrations of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to be held in 1974, honouring the 100th anniversary of the March West by the North West Mounted Police. The committee was tasked with distributing funds to communities to build a monument to the RCMP.

For Vegreville, this mean that the Vegreville and District Chamber of Commerce would take up the challenge and while many suggestions came in, the most popular was a giant Easter egg to symbolize the peace and security the Mounties offered the areas during those early years. Designed by Paul Sembaliuk, an artist who was born in the Vegreville area, Professor Ron Resch from the University of Utah was tasked with creating the Pysanka, which required the development of new computer programs. This was no simple Easter egg. The egg would feature 524 star patterns, 2,208 equilateral triangles, 3,512 visible facets, 6,978 nuts and bolts and 177 internal struts. All of this would come together to not only form arguably one of the most famous roadside attractions in the province, but an artistic masterpiece that has the distinction of accomplishing nine mathematical, architectural and engineering firsts and its design represents the first computer modeling of an egg. In all, the egg measures 25.7 feet long, 18 feet wide and is 31 feet high. The base it sits on is 27,000 pounds and turns in the wind like a weathervane.

The Pysanka is coloured bronze, silver and gold, with each colour representing something. The bronze colour represents the good earth of the area, the gold stars symbolize life and good fortune and the three pointed stars alternating in gold and silver represent devotion to the faith of ancestors. In addition, the band of silver has no beginning or end and represents eternity, while the gold and silver windmills with six vanes and points symbolize the rich harvest of the area. As for the silver wolfs’ teeth, that represents the protection and security of the pioneers by the RCMP.

It was such a notable achievement that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the egg during a cross-country tour.

Another amazing fact is that the software used to guide the lasers to cut the Pysanka’s tiles would be purchased by NASA and used for cutting exterior tiles on the space shuttle.

In 1990, Ray Hnatyshyn was appointed as the first person of Ukrainian heritage to be Governor General of Canada. Born and educated in Saskatchewan, where his father John would become the first Ukrainian-born senator in 1959, Hnatyshyn served in the Second World War with the air force, and was then elected to the House of Commons in 1974. As Governor General he established the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and founded the International Council for Canadian Studies. He would also make a state visit to Ukraine.

In 1991, Roy Romanow became the premier of Saskatchewan and the first person of Ukrainian-heritage to serve as the premier of a province. He would serve as premier until 2001 and was courted by the Liberal Party to run for federal office but he would become the Chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan instead.

At one point in the 1990s, the premiers of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and the Governor General, were of Ukrainian-descent.

The descendants of the first Ukrainian Canadians have left their mark on Canada. I am going to cover a few Canadians who have Ukrainian ancestry to finish this episode.

  • Seth Rogen
  • William Shatner
  • Alex Trebek
  • Mike Bossy
  • Johnny Bower
  • Wayne Gretzky
  • Dale Hawerchuk
  • Terry Sawchuk
  • Paul Brandt
  • Dr. Roberta Bondar
  • Chrystia Freeland
  • Rona Ambrose
  • Ed Stelmach
  • Randy Bachman
  • Chantal Kreviazuk

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Saskatoon Daily Star, Montreal Gazette, Wikipedia, Vancouver Province, Calgary Herald, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Winnipeg Free Press Prairie Farmer,

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts