A continuum of waves

Back 130 years ago, a couple of daring Ukrainian peasants by the name of Wasyl Eleniak and Ivan Pylypiw left their impoverished circumstances in the little village of Nebyliv in southwestern Ukraine and immigrated to the promised land in Canada. Overcoming grueling hardships and uncertainty, they established roots in the new land in Alberta and eventually they attained the success and prosperity they had hoped for. They were part of what is known historically as the First Wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada, and their numerous descendants are undoubtedly grateful.

My father was an immigrant as well, though he came some thirty years later in the 1920’s during the so-called Second Wave, spurred by the same motivations to build a future that was not possible in the turbulence that afflicted Eastern Europe at that time. Several decades later, my mother came to Canada as part of the Third Wave which consisted primarily of Ukrainian refugees from the Displaced Persons camps in Europe which sprung up in the aftermath of the Second World War. As we all know, in recent decades there has been a Fourth Wave consisting of Ukrainians that have come to Canada from Poland and Ukraine seeking to escape the continuing political unrest and economic uncertainty still plaguing Eastern Europe. This wave has added some new cousins to my extended family here in Canada.

I bring this up because several weeks ago I received a pleasant little note from one of the regular readers of my column, one Steven Eleniak from Edmonton. Steven’s grandfather was Ivan Eleniak, Wasyl Eleniak’s brother. Two of Wasyl’s brothers, Ivan and Petro followed in Wasyl’s footsteps and came to Canada as well. They all had large families, to the extent that if you count up all their descendants there are now over 2,500 Eleniaks that trace their ancestry to those three brothers. I was particularly pleased to make contact and subsequently speak with Steven, not only for the fact that I enjoy feedback from the readers of my column in “Noviy Shliakh”, but also for the fact that I now have some ties, however nebulous, to all four waves of Ukrainian immigration to Canada.

It has now become generally accepted by most Canadians that the country was built largely by immigrants, though back a century ago, most of the established anglophone and francophone population did not look too kindly upon the waves of ethnic newcomers flooding into this largely underpopulated land. Most hoped that these immigrants would leave their language and culture behind and assimilate into the mainstream “Canadian” society. They did not anticipate that these newcomers, though dedicated and loyal to Canada, would also seek to preserve their Ukrainian identity and culture. Back then, the relatively recent concepts of multiculturalism and diversity had not yet become accepted and established as a fundamental basis for Canadian society. Being a labelled a “bohunk” was a derogatory slur that many First, Second and Third Wave immigrants had to deal with on a regular basis.

Nonetheless, they persevered, and now several generations later, most Canadians now see Ukrainians as equal and valued members of the Canadian mosaic. We have proven ourselves as citizens and strong contributors to Canada’s prosperity, ethos and reputation as a world reader. The fact that many of us wish to maintain our language, culture and traditions, is no longer seen as a threat but as a vital element of the multicultural nation that Canada has become. We are testimony to the fact that you can be a Canadian and a Ukrainian at the same time.

All those waves of Ukrainian immigrants contributed in their own way to the strength and success of not only the Ukrainian community but equally to Canada as well. The Eleniaks and the rest of those First Wavers opened up the unsettled West and made it the granary of the world. Many of the Second Wavers, including my father, enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces and fought in Europe during the Second World War. Many of the DP immigrants that came in the Third Wave were instrumental in fueling the mining and industrial boom that Canada experienced after World War II. For the last couple of decades, tens of thousands of Fourth Wavers, most of them skilled and well-educated, have been making their own valued contributions towards making and keeping Canada as one of the world leaders, politically, economically and culturally.

We must not forget that the Canadian-born descendants of all those immigrants have also prospered and now occupy prominent positions in politics, business, the arts and sciences in this country. One fine example of this is Chrystia Freeland, currently the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada. We have our fair share of Ukrainian millionaires and billionaires in this country. There are famous Ukrainian Canadian sports figures, artists, entertainers, musicians, scientists, astronauts and writers. There is scarcely any facet of Canadian life where Ukrainians have not succeeded, and indeed, excelled.

I am glad to be part of that Ukrainian continuum in Canadian life that spans 130 years. And a thank you to Steven Eleniak for reminding me of that.