The View From Here: the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the future

Volodymyr Kish.

This past weekend, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) had its Triennial Convention in Ottawa. From all reports it was a grand affair with prominent guest speakers, numerous panels on a wide variety of interesting topics, and a well-crafted balance of celebration, stimulating content, discussion, policy development, social interaction and decision making. It reflected the fact that the UCC is at its peak in terms of power and influence, both within the Ukrainian community, as well as within Canadian society in general. Its leadership ranks are filled with knowledgeable, well-educated and competent professionals who have achieved commendable success in the spheres of business, politics, academia and the arts. It carries an impressive amount of clout and leverage with both the Canadian and Ukrainian governments. It is generally highly regarded and supported by most of the Ukrainian “hromada” in Canada, and is the acknowledged leader of the Ukrainian diaspora throughout the world.

Of course, it was not always so. It was formed in 1940 as an umbrella organization of the then major Ukrainian organizations in Canada. Surprisingly it was not created willingly at the initiative of the Ukrainian community, but at the request of the Canadian government. It was a time of war and the Canadian authorities had gotten frustrated with its dealings with a very fractious and divided Ukrainian community. They demanded that the Ukrainians create one representative umbrella organization that they could deal with, rather than with each of the many Ukrainian organizations then in existence. And so the Ukrainian Canadian Committee was formed, later to renamed the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

After the war, the UCC grudgingly accepted the necessity of having a national representative entity to lobby for its issues before the federal government, and decided to continue its existence. Over the course of succeeding decades, it also formed provincial councils and branches in individual cities, to deal with matters at the provincial and municipal government levels. It also became a key member of the Ukrainian World Congress which represents all Ukrainians in the diaspora. Currently, as well as the national body, there are also six provincial UCC Councils, and some twenty city branches. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the UCC has also expanded its activities to include a working relationship with a now free Ukraine.

The road from its enforced beginnings to its current influential status has not been a smooth one. After World War II, the Ukrainian community was ideologically split between the “Melnyk” and “Bandera” factions of Ukrainian nationalists, and there was no shortage of friction and divisive competition between the two, each of whom sought to dominate the leadership of the UCC. As a result, much of the potential of the UCC in the fields of art, culture, education and other non-political areas remained stunted and under-developed. Too much time and energy were wasted on non-productive ideological infighting. It has only been in the last two or three decades, as a new generation of Canadian born Ukrainians took over the leadership of the UCC, that it finally started making progress as a more balanced and broad-based representative of the diverse Ukrainian community.

Ironically, though it is now as strong as it has ever been as an organization, there is a serious challenge to its future in its existing form. This arises from the fact that the members of the UCC are not individuals, but Ukrainian organizations, and the sad fact is that many of the original long-standing Ukrainian Canadian organizations are rapidly fading away. The two largest ones – the UNF (Ukrainian National Federation) and LUC/SUM (League of Ukrainian Canadians), are but shadows of their former selves and shrinking year by year. Both used to have branches in almost every town and city of Canada where there were more than a few hundred Canadians. Now both organizations are effectively down to some ten or less branches each. Other organizations such as the PLAST scouting organization, the Ukrainian Professional & Businessmen’s Association, the various Catholic and Orthodox lay associations, and others have also been fading away as the older generations of Ukrainians die away and the forces of assimilation wreak havoc on the younger descendants of the four waves of Ukrainian immigrants that came to Canada. To be sure, there have been many new organizations formed, especially by the latest Fourth Wave of immigrants in recent decades, but, by and large, they are small, specialized in their purpose and activities, and are not well integrated or reflective of the broader Ukrainian community.

It would seem that as its organizational base erodes away, the UCC needs to re-invent itself in terms of structure and purpose. If it is to remain strong and relevant, it needs to take over many of the programs, activities, infrastructure and responsibilities that used to be carried out by the founding member organizations. It must transform from an organizational membership base to an individual membership base. Currently, it forms the top of a pyramid, with the organizations providing a base. What has been happening is that as these organizations shrink and disappear, the pyramid is beginning to turn upside down and we will eventually have a strong UCC resting on a much diminished base that will topple sooner or later.