It is an obvious truism that all wars have consequences, some predictable and some unexpected. The history of Ukrainians in Canada has been greatly affected by wars that took place a continent away, playing a major role in shaping the evolution and character of Ukrainians here.
The internment operations that came in the wake of World War I left wounds that lasted for generations. Several decades later, the influx of Ukrainians displaced by World War II significantly changed the political and organizational structure of this country’s Ukrainian community.
There is no doubt that Ukrainians have been greatly affected by forces in which they were often collateral damage. Although the first wave of immigrants that came to Canada prior to World War I were far removed from the geopolitical causes of that conflict, the fact that most of them came here on Austro-Hungarian passports doomed them to suspicion and oppression by Canadian authorities influenced by war paranoia. Thousands of otherwise innocent Ukrainians spent years behind barbed wire in internment camps.
After the war, many Ukrainians organized themselves into tight-knit organizations and community groups for mutual strength and support.
During World War II, tens of thousands of Ukrainians joined the Canadian Armed forces, partly to counteract some enduring suspicions about their loyalty to their adopted new country. Their bravery and service during the war helped to sway the Canadian government after the war into accepting a large number of Ukrainian immigrant refugees left stranded in Displaced Persons camps in Germany.
These DP-ers as they were called, were generally highly motivated, nationalistic, educated and organizationally experienced, becoming a catalyst in the rapid growth in numbers and influence of Ukrainian organizations in Canada, resulting in the strong multi-faceted Ukrainian “hromada” that we have in Canada today.
These unintended consequences of war play out not only on an international or national level, but also on a much more personal dimension as well. I am one example of such a personal consequence.
My father came to Canada in 1927 as a teenager, escaping the poverty and lack of opportunity in his Ukrainian homeland. His timing couldn’t have been worse, as shortly thereafter Canada and much of the world plunged into the Great Depression.
He crisscrossed Canada many times by hopping freight trains looking for work. He worked on farms in the Prairies, in lumber camps on the west coast, in mines in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Eventually after World War II erupted he joined the Canadian Army and was sent to Europe to fight as part of the Royal Canadian Artillery. After sustaining a back injury, he was transferred to the Canadian 3rd Division 4th Public Relations Group, where he served for another year in the occupation army in Germany after the War ended. The group was responsible for the army’s internal journalistic efforts, documentary film-making, liaison with the external media of the time, and of course managing the military’s “image”.
My mother was a much more direct victim of war. Shortly after the Germans overran Ukraine in 1941, they started implementing a program of forced labour on the Ukrainian population. Young Ukrainian men and women by the millions were rounded up and sent into Germany to work in fields and factories that had been stripped of native labour by the demands of the German armed forces. My mother, then nineteen, was one of those unfortunate conscripts. She toiled for most of the war at a large German farm, and when the war ended, found herself as one of those DP’s in a refugee camp. In 1947, she was recruited to come to Canada on a work contract with a hospital in the remote mining community of Noranda in northern Quebec. There she met my father who had found work in the mines after having been demobilized in 1946.
I am the end result of those two personal histories that came together as a direct result of the unintended consequences of war. I would also like to think that my father’s stint in the Army’s PR group was perhaps a foreshadowing of my eventual interest and involvement in journalism.
There is another war currently going on in Eastern Ukraine, and I have no doubt that it too will have a significant impact on the Ukrainian community here in Canada. Its long term implications may still not clear, but in our strongly interconnected world, you can be sure it will have its unique consequences.