To state that Ukraine has had a difficult history as a nation, would be quite the understatement. From its beginnings as Kyiv Rus at the end of the first millennium, it has been beset on all sides and at all times by pillagers, invaders, jealous neighbours and expansionist empires. The list of those who unleashed the dogs of war on Ukraine is prolific.
Prior to the formation of the Kyiv Rus state, the steppes north of the Black Sea were invaded and settled in turn by the Trypyllians, the Dacians, the Cimmerians, the Scythians, the Sarmatians, the Greeks, the Goths, the Ostrogoths, the Bulgars, the Khazars, the Antes, the Magyars and the Vikings. Following the establishment of Kyiv Rus, a new set of invaders began their onslaughts on Ukrainian lands – the Pechenegs, the Byzantine empire, the Mongols, the Ottoman empire, the Tatars, the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Russians and the Germans. There was hardly a time when Ukrainians were not engaged in defending themselves from a myriad of enemies.
The harsh realities of Ukrainian life obviously had a profound effect on the character, the culture and the traditions of the Ukrainian people. Living in perpetual conflict hardened the soul and shaped a society based on a warrior mindset and a constant struggle for survival. This became embedded in the art, music, folklore and values of every Ukrainian. It sharpened the emotions and instilled in Ukrainians an appreciation for getting the most out of life whatever fate and circumstance would allow. That is why Ukrainian song and music is so deeply emotional, reflecting both the pains and sorrows they experienced, as well as the unbounded joy of being alive or in love. When death and destruction loomed behind every shadow, you lived each moment to the fullest, eschewing subtlety and nuance in favour of energy and exuberance. Ukrainians worked hard, fought hard and celebrated hard.
Even when Ukrainians emigrated in large numbers to Canada over a century ago, their trials and tribulations did not stop. Life on virgin prairie lands was incredibly hard and the established Canadians of that time did not exactly welcome the people in “sheepskin coats.” Discrimination and racism was commonplace, reaching its peak with the internment of thousands of innocent Ukrainians during World War I. They struggled for many decades and it has only been in the last thirty or forty years that Canada has properly recognized the contributions of Ukrainian immigrants and Ukrainians have come to be accepted and valued in this multicultural country of ours.
It is therefore not surprising that many of those aspects of Ukrainian social and cultural life that played such an important role in the original homeland, were carried over to these shores. Cherishing and celebrating life to the fullest is as much a part of Ukrainian life here in Canada as it was and is in Ukraine itself. Now that Ukrainians have earned their rightful place in the Canadian mosaic, we take every opportunity to celebrate our “Ukrainian-ness.”
Each year throughout Canada, almost every major Ukrainian population centre stages a festival showcasing Ukrainian history, art, music, song, dance, cuisine and folklore. One of the oldest and best known is the annual Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, Manitoba which started during Canada’s Centennial year in 1967. Similar festivals take place every year in almost every province.
The largest of these, and the largest in North America, takes place in Toronto every September. For three days, six blocks of one of Toronto’s busiest streets, Bloor Street, gets shut down in the western part of Toronto, and there is a most enjoyable explosion of all things Ukrainian. Hundreds of thousands of people come out every year to enjoy an impressive array of Ukrainian entertainment of all kinds, to devour mountains of perogies, cabbage rolls and other Ukrainian delicacies, to admire Ukrainian art, costumes and folklore, and to simply revel in all things Ukrainian.
This year’s festival runs from Friday, Sept. 13 to Sunday Sept. 15 on Bloor St., from Runnymede to Jane St. There is continuous entertainment spread over three stages Friday evening, and from noon each day on Saturday and Sunday. The headliners for Saturday’s gala concert is the well-known rock group from Ukraine, “Bez Obmezhen” (Without Limits).
As written in Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” This weekend, in Toronto, will be the time to celebrate being Ukrainian. Hope to see you all there.