The arrival of mid-September each year in Toronto means only one thing – it is time for the Toronto Ukrainian Festival. In years past it was more commonly known as the Bloor West Village Ukrainian Festival after that stretch of one of Toronto’s prime arteries that the festival takes over for a weekend of fun, food and festivities.
The festival has been an annual event since 1995, and despite some grumblings from a few jaded former attendees, I never get tired of it, and it continues to be a permanent fixture in my annual calendar of events. To be sure, there are many things one can grouse about, most of them the result of the festival’s stupendous growth and success.
The festival now takes over six blocks of Bloor Street West, from Runnymede to Jane streets, an area that at one time used to be prime Ukrainian territory, and still is to a large extent. Its popularity is self-evident, with attendance over the three days estimated in the hundreds of thousands. Such popularity, needless to say, also brings its share of challenges and problems. The crowds can get to be overwhelming. The line-ups for food and drink can tax one’s patience. On hot sunny days, the overwhelmingly concrete and brick venue can be a bit of a sauna.
Nonetheless, the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences. The most prominent of these is the extraordinary scale and quality of the entertainment. The two stages at either end of the festival provide the festival goer with absolutely the best and the most talented Ukrainian performers in the world. The program is non-stop throughout the day and far into the evening and covers the entire spectrum of song, music and dance. The best Ukrainian talent from Canada, the U.S. and Ukraine are showcased, and remarkably, the entertainment is provided entirely for free. The highlight star attraction on the Saturday evening is always one of the best and most popular rock bands from Ukraine. The festival undoubtedly provides an unparalleled opportunity to overdose on Ukrainian culture, and I always take full advantage of it.
There is of course, no shortage of Ukrainian food and drink. It would be interesting to know how many hundreds of thousands of varenyky (perogies) are consumed over the course of the three-day festival, or the number of bottles of fine Lvivske beer. No doubt it would be a staggering number.
The festival is also a grand opportunity for me to add to my not insubstantial collection of embroidered Ukrainian shirts, music, books and other knickknacks. Much to the dismay of my wife and kids, I never seem to have enough of these.
Perhaps one of the biggest attraction of the festival for me and many other Ukrainians who are actively involved in Ukrainian organizations and the Ukrainian community, is that it is our opportunity to set aside the more serious aspects of being Ukrainian, to let our hair down so to speak, and to just plain enjoy being Ukrainian. With the turbulence and seemingly never-ending series of crises that have been afflicting Ukraine over the past few decades, Ukrainians here in Canada, both individually and through the many Ukrainian organizations, have been working hard to provide all possible assistance and support to our mother country in its hour of need. This is in addition to all the regular efforts and countless hours that are required to keep Ukrainian culture and identity strong here in our adopted land. Being an activist Ukrainian is hard work, and during the festival, we can for at least a few days set aside our stresses and responsibilities and just enjoy the “fun” side of being Ukrainian.
In some ways, this parallels a lot of what Ukrainians have been doing for many centuries. History has not been kind to Ukraine, which seems to be perpetually assailed by invaders and oppressors from every direction. Life has always been difficult and challenging for Ukrainians. Yet, in those brief intervals of time when they were not engaged in war or struggling to survive, they always managed to celebrate intensely the joy of being alive with music, food and culture.
The Toronto Ukrainian Festival is a continuation of that tradition. We work hard at being Ukrainian, and when the opportunity presents itself, we also find time and room to celebrate the joy of being Ukrainian.