Born in Saskatoon during the Great Depression in 1933, Alma Alexandra Bilak embodied the accomplishments of the Ukrainian immigrants that built the Prairies. Her parents came to Canada in 1927, bringing with them a stalwart work ethic, commitment to Canada, and an enduring love for their homeland. Her father, Volodymyr Kossar, was a trained agronomist who secured a research position at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Her mother, Franka, was a school teacher who taught Ukrainian to some of Saskatchewan’s future leaders. Her parents taught Alma and her older brother Leon the principles that shaped their generation: hard work, humility, self-reliance, and dedication to and self-sacrifice for the greater needs of the family and community.
“Sacrifice” became the hallmark of the Kossar household. Alma’s father believed that Ukrainians could make a profound contribution to their new country if they were better organized nationally. He left his secure position at the U of S, moved the family to St. Boniface, Manitoba and set about developing the national infrastructure of Canada’s Ukrainian community – he was co-founder of the Ukrainian National Federation of Canada (and, at 17 years, was its longest-serving President), the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the Ukrainian Cultural and Education Centre in Winnipeg, known as Oseredok.
As Volodymyr traveled the country and the family fell on hard times, Alma and Leon learned self-reliance and self-discipline from their formidable mother, who became a seamstress to help the family make ends meet; young Alma helped by putting herself through school by teaching children piano.
Franka prized education and encouraged her children to aim high. Leon became a musician and journalist and, along with his wife Zena, founded the hugely popular International Caravan Festival staged in Toronto for 33 years. Alma graduated from the University of Manitoba, the Ontario College of Education at the University of Toronto, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto; she became a school teacher and accomplished pianist.
Alma’s father’s efforts to bring Ukrainians together was not, however, all hardship for her: through the UNF Alma met her husband Jaroslaw – the organization’s version of an “arranged marriage”. They first met in 1949 when Jaroslaw, himself a recent immigrant, was appointed by Alma’s father to become a national organizer of the UNF’s youth wing. Only two years in Canada, Jaroslaw’s first requirement was to attend Ukrainian summer courses in Winnipeg “to get acquainted with Canadian youth”. Here he met 16 year-old Alma, who addressed him as “Pan (Mr.) Bilak”. Years later, when Alma graduated from the University of Manitoba and was about to join her brother in Toronto, Leon was leaving town on a journalistic assignment and asked his friend Jaroslaw to “look after my sister.” This he did loyally and lovingly for 58 years, until Alma’s death.
Alma channeled her childhood lessons of duty and commitment to community into her love for teaching and music. In this way, Alma reached out to embrace diversity and always accepted people as they see themselves. Alma was always inclusive, setting parameters, but never erecting barriers; establishing expectations, but not making demands. She always sought and found the good in people, whomever they might be, or wherever they came from.
After teaching at elementary schools in Etobicoke and Beamsville, Ontario, and Ukrainian kindergarten (Sadochok) in Hamilton, Alma obtained a certificate to teach English as a Second Language when the family moved to Oakville. While teaching new immigrants English, she related their experience to the challenges her own parents had faced in a new land. In recognition of the respect, dedication and dignity with which she treated people, the Multicultural Centre of the Town of Oakville presented Alma with the Volunteer of the Year Award, for which her family was incredibly proud.
Alma also used music to bring the rich Ukrainian culture she loved to the wider community. She sang in the renowned Oleksandr Koshetz Choir in Winnipeg and was one of the principals in the 1979 success of the Canadian Ukrainian Opera Association’s staging of the the folk-opera “Kupalo” by Anatole Vachnianyn.
Alma’s most cherished role, however, was being “Baba” (grandma) to her twelve grandchildren. She was the “Great Harmonizer” – an indomitable force for family harmony and unity who was the nucleus of her far-flung family. Although her children, Daniel, Roman, Sonya and Donna live in Ukraine, Calgary, and New York, the family coalesced each year around Baba’s table in Oakville and at the family cottage near Peterborough to embrace her and Dido’s (Jaroslaw’s) warmth and generosity.
Alma grew up in an era where children were seen, but not heard, where the collective struggle for the family’s, and the community’s, well-being took precedence over individual needs. Yet, her children and grandchildren always felt her love and compassion. She didn’t need to articulate her feelings; we felt them in every sacrifice and selfless act she performed.
These factors became pertinent to Alma’s and the family’s greatest challenge: her diagnosis a year ago of fourth-stage cancer. Typically, she took charge and refused to let the disease define who she was. She drew on the lessons of her upbringing and life, her great faith in God and she did what had to be done. As usual, her primary concern was not herself, but the well-being of her husband, children and grandchildren. She spoke openly, matter-of-factly and directly about the progression of her gradual decline and used her sickness to prepare us all for her departure.
Alma used her last strength to fortify the rest of the family. She gave everyone time to reflect on what she meant to us, and what we all mean to each other; it was the Great Harmonizer’s final unifying act. She prepared us for her death with humility, grace and dignity – the same attributes that characterized her whole life.
May her soul rest in peace.
Alma Alexandra Bilak
October 4, 1933 – June 11, 2015
In memory of our dearest Mother
on the 40th day of her passing to eternal rest,
Danylo, Roman, Sonya, and Donna.