Marco Levytsky, NP-UN Western Bureau.
On May 17, Ukrainians and friends from 50 countries around the world celebrated Vyshyvanka (Embroidery) Day.
Through a grass roots initiative in Ukraine, the third Thursday of May is designated the International Vyshyvanka Day (Всесвітний День Вишиванки). This day is a wonderful opportunity for Ukrainians, those of Ukrainian heritage and friends of Ukraine around the world, to wear a vyshyvanka (embroidered shirt), demonstrate their pride in Ukrainian culture and heritage and to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Considered everyday clothing under a century ago, the vyshyvanka tradition has existed in Ukraine for centuries and enjoys a variety of patterns and designs in every region of Ukraine. Today, it had become both a fashion statement and a Ukrainian cultural emblem. As Alberta MLA Jessica Littlewood, whose Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville constituency includes Canada’s first Ukrainian settlement and who herself of Ukrainian origin, put it: “Vyshyvanka Day isn’t just about embroidery, it’s about preserving Ukrainian culture in the face of those who seek to destroy it.”
There are indeed those who seek to destroy Ukrainian culture. Chief among them are the rulers of Russia – a state whose very foundation is built upon the destruction of Ukrainian culture. If one is to establish an historic date for the beginning of modern-day Russia as a distinct national entity separate from Kyivan Rus-Ukraine, it is 1169 and the sack of Kyiv by the most inappropriately-named Prince Andrey Bogoliubsky of Rostov-Suzdal. Unlike previous usurpers during the fratricidal wars that cursed Kyivan Rus, he chose not to retain the seat of power in the historic capital, but, after destroying the religious and cultural treasures of Kyiv, to move it to the northeast fringes of the medieval state where he felt at home. This cemented the already existent ethnocultural divide that was to evolve into the two modern-day nations of Ukraine and Russia.
After Moscow gained control over Ukraine with the ill-fated Pereyaslav Treaty of 1654, Russia’s rulers continued their campaign to destroy Ukrainian culture, even usurping the name Rus itself, transforming it to Rossiya. This prolonged campaign extended from the tsarist years and the ban of the Ukrainian language, right through to the Soviet Union and the genocide of the Holodomor perpetrated by Moscow’s communist leaders. And in today’s Russian Federation (home of the largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world) Ukrainian culture is severely repressed.
But despite the Russian attempts to destroy Ukrainian culture, it survived and is currently enjoying a popular revival in the home country. And it has also thrived in Canada (home of the second largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world). In fact, during the years of Soviet Russification of Ukraine, Canada became a beacon of Ukrainian cultural growth. And this culture has not only been nurtured by our own community, it has also been enthusiastically embraced by Canadians who are not of Ukrainian background. Members of the federal Parliament routinely don embroidered garb on the third Thursday of every May and pose on the steps of the Parliament buildings for photographs. This year, they were joined by Members of the Alberta Legislature, who posed for such a photograph at Noon. One-and-a-half hours earlier, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley posed for such a similar picture with Littlewood, Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous and members of the Alberta Council of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.
But wearing a vyshyvanka is nothing new for Premier Notley. Even though she is not of Ukrainian origin, she wore one as a child growing up in the small town of Fairview, Alberta (current population 3,000) and performing with the Fairview Veselka Dance Club. Her experience is typical of the Prairie Provinces where Ukrainian dance groups are as much a part of small-town life as minor hockey. In Alberta alone, there are over 80 Ukrainian dance groups with approximately 10,000 members. Participation crosses not only ethnocultural, but racial boundaries as well. Ukrainian food staples like varenyky (usually called by their Polish name, perogies) and cabbage rolls are widely sold in grocery stores. Enrollment in Ukrainian bilingual programs is multi-racial.
In Western Canada, Ukrainian culture is no longer restricted to an exclusive ethnocultural group. It has become an integral part of mainstream Canadian culture. When groups like Shumka or Cheremosh travel abroad, they do so as cultural ambassadors of Canada – not Ukraine. And that is fitting because Ukrainians can legitimately be considered as one of Canada’s Founding Nations – at least on a regional level.
This year the Ukrainian Canadian Congress asked Vyshyvanka Day participants in each province from British Columbia to Quebec to join together and form one letter of the name C-A-N-A-D-A. In Edmonton, close to 300 participants gathered on the Alberta Legislative grounds to form the first of three “A’s”. This not only symbolized how Ukrainian culture has thrived within Canada, but also reflected the gratitude of a community to a country which has permitted such a bloom.
In that respect the human-linked Vyshyvana (Embroidered) C-A-N-A-D-A that participants of Vyshyvanka Day in their respective provinces created, is reflective of the Embroidered Canada that has become a virtual reality.