Celebrating Canada Day always evokes in me a deep feeling of gratitude that I was born and raised in this country and not any other. I say that not out of any abstract or sentimental sense of patriotism, but as a result of having travelled widely across this globe of ours and having experienced the reality and ethos of many other nations. Canada, though far from perfect, is one of the few countries in the world that has successfully evolved into a place where people can live in security, freedom and comfort, where diversity is accepted and valued, and where an individual can realize whatever his potential may be. Compared to the vast majority of other countries, it is a moral, fair and just place to invest your life.
Of course, it has not been an easy road to get to this current state, and Canada’s history is not lacking in events, policies, political and social movements that we now look back upon and wonder “What were they thinking?!” Our treatment of our indigenous populations, the Metis Rebellion of 1885, the abominable residential school system for native children, the racist head taxes on Chinese immigrants at the turn of the nineteenth century, the internment program during the First World War, the Winnipeg riots of 1919, the formation of relief camps during the Depression and the resulting Regina riot, the invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970, these and many more chapters in Canada’s history are testimony to the fact that social and political evolution is not an easy or straightforward matter.
For some 125 years now, Ukrainians have been part of this process of evolution and we have been no strangers to trials and tribulations along the way. Back in the 1890’s the Canadian government was keen to populate its vast western expanses and Ukrainian immigrants seem to be one way to achieve this. Although land was provided free to the incoming peasants, those stalwart hardworking “men in sheepskin coats” from the Galician provinces of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it was conditional on it being brought under cultivation within a limited period of time. The government provided virtually no support. The immigrants were dumped onto the prairies and basically left to fend for themselves. The non-Ukrainian establishment in the West looked down upon these newly arrived “bohunks”, and did everything possible to force them to abandon their culture and language and assimilate into a WASP mainstream.
With the advent of World War I, mistrust and xenophobia amongst many Canadians caused the government to intern thousands of so-called “enemy aliens”, mostly Ukrainians, on the simple basis that they came to Canada with Austro-Hungarian passports. Discrimination and racism continued through the Depression years, spurred to some extent by the fact that Ukrainians were prominent in the strong Socialist and Communist movements that sprung up in response to the severe economic crisis of that time.
Throughout it all, Ukrainians persevered, organizing themselves to preserve their language, culture and identity. Through hard work, dedication and perseverance, their succeeding generations began making their mark in the professions, the business world and in the political arena. Over the course of the 1900’s they proved to their Canadian compatriots that they were significant contributors to every sphere of Canadian life. During wartime, they volunteered for the armed forces in numbers far beyond their proportion of the population. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s they were a driving force in getting the government to recognize multiculturalism as a defining principle of Canadian society, culminating in the passage of the Multiculturalism Act of 1988. Ukrainians adapted to Canada, and conversely, Canada learned much from the Ukrainian experience and adapted itself into becoming a far more tolerant and inclusive country than it would have otherwise been.
Though the road has at times been difficult, Canada has evolved into a shining example for the world on how people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and cultures can come together and live peacefully and successfully in a rapidly changing and challenging global political and economic environment. It has done this not by trying to fit everybody into some form of a pre-defined nationalist mold, but by trying to understand and adapt to all the communities that live within its boundaries. It is a society that is built on tolerance, understanding, kindness, social responsibility, fairness and justice for all. As countries such as the U.S. and the United Kingdom show signs of becoming increasingly dysfunctional and divided, Canada stands tall as an example of what a modern democracy in an increasingly connected world should be.
Happy Birthday Canada! I am proud to be a Canadian.