Forty three years ago, a bunch of creative and dedicated people representing the various ethnic communities in the city of Oshawa where I live created a multicultural festival called Fiesta. For a week, people could visit “pavilions” named after the capitals or major cities of the countries where the city’s large immigrant population had come from, sample their food, enjoy some lively entertainment and learn a little about the rich cultures of their ethnic friends and neighbours. For six days and nights, halls and cultural centres named Kiev, Acropolis, Krakow, Belgrade, Budapest and many others pulsated with music and revelry in what became the highlight event of the year for the then bustling industrial city of Oshawa. The Ukrainian community was particularly well represented with four pavilions – Kiev, Lviv, Dnipro and Odessa. I should note, that as a result of the strong de-russification initiatives since Ukraine became independent, the spellings of two of those cities has changed, and they are now officially Kyiv and Odesa.
I remember that first Fiesta particularly well, since I was a member of the dance group at the Kiev pavilion. We did three shows a night for six nights in a row, each show culminating with a rousing “hopak”. By the end of the week, I had lost close to ten pounds from the significant expenditure of effort and energy required by performing our lively repertoire of Ukrainian dances. Nonetheless, the experience was invigorating and fulfilling, and I was in the best physical shape I would ever be for the rest of my life.
This year the festival is still going strong, though the number of pavilions has decreased somewhat over the decades. The four Ukrainian pavilions have been reduced to two – Lviv and Odesa. Time and the forces of assimilation have taken their toll, and though the last census showed that there were some 15,000 people of Ukrainian origin in the greater Oshawa area, the vast majority no longer takes active part in the organized Ukrainian community here.
This decrease reflects both immigration and generational shifts in the Ukrainian population of Canada . Each of the first three waves of Ukrainian immigrants that came to Canada generated a burst of organizational activity. The first wave primarily focused on building churches and parishes, as well as cultural and education structures such as Ukrainian schools and Prosvita societies. The post-World War I wave prompted the creation of political/cultural organizations such as war veterans associations, the Ukrainian National Federation and the United Hetman Organization. The most productive wave was the third one that came in the aftermath of the Second World War. There was a veritable explosion of activity and growth spearheaded by a re-energized Ukrainian national Federation and the newly formed League of Ukrainian Canadians/SUM system. That era also saw a prolific growth in Ukrainian co-operatives and credit unions, business and professional associations, student clubs, scouting groups, dancing groups, choirs and many other organizations.
For some three or four decades, all these organizations flourished, encouraged by the social and cultural freedoms that have become an established part of Canada’s multicultural ethos. Sadly, as that post-war DP generation began dying off over the last several decades, there has been a corresponding significant decline in the dynamism and activity of the Ukrainian community. Second, third and fourth generation Canadian born Ukrainians simply have not shown the dedication to the language and culture that their parents and grandparents did. Compounding this reality is the fact that the fourth wave of Ukrainian immigrants that have come here since the downfall of the Soviet Union, have by and large, not shown the activism and dedication towards organized Ukrainian life that their predecessors did in the first three waves.
The forty five thousand DP’s that came here after World War II achieved great things in terms of building a strong Ukrainian community and presence in Canada. The twenty five thousand or so Ukrainian immigrants that have arrived her over the past twenty five years have, with the exception of a few individuals and communities, not had anywhere near the impact that the third wave did. One hopeful note though, is the fact that the war in Ukraine of the past two years, has prompted many fourth wave individuals to become notably active in the various organizational initiatives that has sprung up to help our beleaguered cousins in the home country. There has also been a greater spirit of unity and co-operation between the various Ukrainian organizations than at any time in our history here in Canada.
Regardless of what the future may hold, the Ukrainians here in Oshawa and elsewhere are still demonstrating a continuing and spirited presence both locally and in Canadian society as a whole. On a personal level, I may not be donning my red dancing boots at this year’s Fiesta, but I will still be there at the Odesa pavilion doing my bit as the emcee for the evening shows. Hope to see you there.