Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor
On January 6, Christmas Eve on the Julian calendar (which he incidentally celebrated), former Speaker of the Alberta Legislature and cabinet minister Gene Zwozdesky passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Among Canadian politicians of Ukrainian background, Zwozdesky stands with greatest of his generation – no mean feat, especially in Alberta which boasts of one former premier (Ed Stelmach), two would-be premiers (Julian Koziak, who came in second to Don Getty in the 1985 Progressive Conservative leadership race and Laurence Decore, who came close to winning the premiership as Liberal Party Leader in 1993), many cabinet ministers, MLAs, MPs and other elected officials too many to mention. Yet Gene Zwozdesky is right up there not only for the very distinguished and lengthy political career he enjoyed, but also for the pro-active role he played in pushing for initiatives that were of particular concern to our community.
First elected to the Alberta Legislature as a Liberal under the leadership of Decore in 1993, Zwozdesky switched to the Progressive Conservatives in 1998, following a dispute over fiscal policy with one of Decore’s successors. As a PC, he was to assume many cabinet positions including Community Development, Aboriginal Relations, Associate Minister for Capital Planning, Deputy Government House Leader, as well as the high-profile portfolios of Health and Education. But he considered his election as Speaker of the Alberta Legislature to be the pinnacle of his political career as that was a position to which he was elected by his fellow MLAs.(As speaker, Zwozdesky succeeded another Canadian of Ukrainian origin, Ken Kowalski.) Zwozdesky won a total of six elections and served a remarkable 22 years as MLA. He served as Speaker from 2012 to 2015 and earned a reputation for both fairness and firmness.
Zwozdesky was very proud of his Ukrainian heritage, a point noted by both Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in their tributes. And he used his position as a government MLA to push for many initiatives that would help the community. He organized two trade missions to Ukraine for Premier Ralph Klein, initiated the Advisory Council on Alberta-Ukraine Relations as well as Memorandums of Understanding between the Province of Alberta and the Oblasts of Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk.
“My Ukrainian soul grows in me and will continue to grow. I grew up with it. I was brought up with it and I will never forget it,” said Zwozdesky, in accepting the 2016 Michael Luchkovich award, awarded annually by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Alberta Provincial Council, to individuals who have previously been elected officials for their significant contribution and dedication to the betterment of all Canadians.
But the one initiative which he himself considered to be the greatest, was the introduction and unanimous passage of the Holodomor Bill in October 2008 – an achievement which took 10 years of work.
“Gene was very human in his approach to politics. I’ve seen Gene cry more than once, but I’ve never seen Gene so personally touched as when he carried and passed the bill to recognize Holodomor, the Ukrainian starvation by Stalin, into a remembrance act and recognize it as a genocide,” noted former MLA and Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk.
Zwozdesky’s activity within and commitment to the Ukrainian community long preceded his political career. Born in Nipawin, Saskatchewan to Alec and Anna Zwozdesky, Gene moved to Alberta at the age of two and lived in Grand Centre (now Cold Lake South), Hinton and Sangudo before moving to Edmonton in 1963. On his first day of school in Grand Centre, he was strapped for speaking Ukrainian, but went on to become a teacher of English and Music.
Zwozdesky joined the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers in 1963, and danced in the troupe for six years before becoming the musical director, composing and conducting Shumka’s music for 25 years. He also served in the same role for the Cheremosh Ukrainian Dance Company. Gene had a melodious voice with a very wide vocal range. Though he normally sang second bass, he could handle tenor parts as well. Among the choirs he was a member of were St. John’s Cathedral Choir and the Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton.
Aside from music, he was also involved in various other cultural organizations, was the Executive Director of the Alberta Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Alberta Ukrainian Canadian Centennial Commission, and has served on various voluntary boards.
Gene’s volunteer work never stopped. After retirement from politics he found himself busier than ever. He served in a total of 21 volunteer organizations right to the end, his most prominent positions being the Executive Director of the Sviato 25 celebration of the 25th anniversary of Ukraine’s Independence, and National Chair for the 100th Anniversary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada. He ably served as MC for the 100th anniversary banquet at St John’s Cathedral in Edmonton on October 26, 2018, although the cancer was already well advanced at the time. He was also a devoted father and grandfather and leaves behind in sadness: his mother, Anna; wife, Christine; daughter, Ariana (Joseph Whitlow); son, Myron (Krystal); three grandchildren, Joshua and Natalie Whitlow, and Charlie Zwozdesky; brothers, John (Marie) and Willi; sister, Iris Ciona (Steve); as well as numerous extended family members and godchildren.
He also leaves behind an entire community to mourn his passing. Be it in politics, be it in culture, be it in education, or be it in volunteer work, Gene’s commitment to the Ukrainian community was incomparable. As Holodomor survivor Natalia Talanchuk once put it, Gene Zwozdesky was “a true son of Ukraine”.