I know where I will be this coming weekend. So will almost half a million other people from the greater Toronto area, from across Canada and the U.S., as well as from abroad. This is the weekend of the Toronto Ukrainian Festival, the largest of its kind in North America. For three days, a long stretch of Toronto’s main east-west thoroughfare, Bloor Street, will be shut down from Runnymede to Jane, and converted into a celebration of all things Ukrainian. Food, continuous entertainment, displays, arts and craft sales, a children’s midway, a parade and lots of opportunity to enjoy the best that Ukrainian culture has to offer.
The festival is entering its twentieth year and has grown in every aspect since its inception two decades ago. It is a testament not only to the organizational capabilities of Toronto’s Ukrainian community, but also to the fact that Ukrainians have become not only accepted but also respected and valued within the broader Canadian society.
As anyone familiar with the history of Ukrainian immigration and settlement in Canada knows, it was not always thus. In the decades that followed the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants that started in the 1890’s, our ancestors here were looked down upon as essentially ignorant, uncultured peasants in sheepskin coats. Their language, culture and customs were denigrated and they were faced with strong pressure to assimilate and shed their Ukrainian identities as quickly as possible. The ultimate insult occurred after the outbreak of World War I, when Canadian politicians and a xenophobic Canadian populace, ignorant of Ukrainian history, declared Ukrainians who had immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to be enemy aliens, and subjected them to further persecution, including incarcerating thousands of them in internment camps for the duration of the war and even after.
For the next century, those Ukrainians, as well as those that followed in succeeding waves, faced the prejudices and challenges thrown at them, and overcame them all. They organized, politically, religiously, economically and culturally. They put a premium on education for their kids, and labored hard to establish themselves on the farms and in the towns and cities of this vast country. They brought the wild Prairies under cultivation and made Canada into a giant on the world’s grain markets. They worked by the thousands in the mines of northern Ontario and Quebec, tapping into the vast mineral resources of our northern lands. They toiled in the large factories of Toronto, Oshawa, Hamilton and Windsor in the vast manufacturing boom that Canada enjoyed for most of the 20th century. And, one cannot forget, that during the two major military conflicts of that century, Ukrainians served in the armed forces in numbers that proportionately far exceeded the ratio of Ukrainians in Canada’s population
Within several generations, Ukrainians were playing prominent roles in all aspects of Canadian life. There have been numerous Ukrainian members of parliament at both the provincial and federal levels. We have had Ukrainian cabinet ministers, provincial premiers, judges and even a Ukrainian Governor General. We have Ukrainian Canadian millionaires and billionaires, media stars, famous hockey players, military heroes, literary and artistic celebrities, and even an astronaut. Perhaps most importantly, Ukrainians were the driving force in changing the long established perception of Canada being a bilingual and bicultural (English/French) country into the contemporary recognition both popularly and legally, that Canada is indeed a multicultural country, where diversity and cultural pluralism are foundational principles of our existence and our future.
We have arrived at that stage in history where virtually all Canadians recognize the role that Ukrainians have played and will continue to play in the building of this country. Canadian society not only now accepts the Ukrainians in their midst, but it can also be said that it is quite comfortable and pleased with this fact.
This is something worth celebrating on this 125th Anniversary year of the first Ukrainian immigrations to Canada. Here in 2016 we can enjoy being Ukrainian Canadians.