Skip to content

Ukrainian Heritage Month Bill

Second Reading--Debate Continued

October 31, 2023

Honourable senators, this item stands adjourned in the name of the Honourable Senator Plett, and after my intervention today, I ask for leave that it remain adjourned in his name.

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Is leave granted?

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

So ordered.

I rise today to speak in support of Bill S-276, an Act respecting Ukrainian Heritage Month. After all, I come from Edmonton where pretty much every month is Ukrainian heritage month.

There’s a simple reason for that, because the area just northeast of Edmonton is where Ukrainian Canadians first came to be.

On September 7, 1891, Iwan Pylypow and Wasyl Eleniak landed in Quebec City and began a trip across Canada, looking for a place that Ukrainian pioneers could settle and farm. They criss-crossed the Prairies, assessing for suitability. They made stops in Winnipeg, in Langenburg, in what is now Saskatchewan, and in Calgary. In the end, they decided to follow the lead of some of their Mennonite friends and neighbours from the old country and founded a colony northwest of Edmonton, near what is now the town of Lamont.

The first group of six families — Canada’s very first Ukrainian pioneers — arrived in Edmonton in June of 1892. The colony they established grew to become the largest agricultural bloc settlement founded by Ukrainians in Canada. By 1914, it stretched 110 kilometres east to west and for 70 kilometres north to south.

Life was not easy for those first Ukrainian settlers, who had to break and clear their homesteads, build shelters against the unforgiving cold and try to hold on to their language and their faiths in the face of the forces of xenophobia and assimilation.

But they persevered.

In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, the government of Canada declared the War Measures Act, and under its powers, imprisoned thousands of Ukrainian males as enemy aliens in internment camps across the country. Many were forced to perform hard labour, working on projects such as the building of Banff National Park, as well as in mining and logging operations. Another 80,000 “enemy aliens,” most of them Ukrainian, were forced to carry identity papers and regularly report to local police.

The irony is that the land we now call Ukraine was then split between the Russian Empire, which was a wartime ally of Great Britain and Canada, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was on the opposing side.

While thousands of Ukrainians were interned, hundreds of Ukrainian Canadians volunteered to serve in the war. Ukrainians, for example, made up one of the largest contingents in Edmonton’s own 218th Canadian Overseas Infantry Battalion, which dubbed itself, rather inaccurately, the Canadian Irish guards.

Among those who enlisted in the Canadian Irish guards was Andrew Shandro, Alberta’s first Ukrainian-Canadian MLA and the first person of Ukrainian descent to be elected to any provincial legislature in Canada. It must be said, though, that Shandro’s decision to enlist may not have been entirely selfless. He was already a sitting MLA in 1914 but stood accused of bribing voters to win his seat, which, given Alberta politics at the time, was probably not so unusual. But when the war began, Alberta changed its electoral law to say that any MLA who joined the military would be allowed to retain their seat by acclamation in the 1917 election. And Lieutenant Shandro thus proudly wore his uniform into the legislature, despite being told that that was against the rules.

While Shandro left a mixed legacy in the legislature, in 1926, an Alberta teacher and community activist, Michael Luchkovich became Canada’s first Ukrainian MP, representing the district of Vegreville as a member of the United Farmers of Alberta. He served two terms with distinction, spoke out passionately for the rights of Ukrainians in Canada and in Europe and went on to become one of the founders of the CCF, or Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of today’s NDP.

William Hawrelak, who just happened to be Andrew Shandro’s son-in-law, became Edmonton’s first Ukrainian-Canadian mayor in 1951 and the first Ukrainian Canadian to be mayor of any large Canadian city. He held office until 1959, again from 1963 to 1965 and again from 1974 until he died in office in 1975.

In some ways, he was Edmonton’s greatest mayor, responsible for the building of our modern post-war city. But his years in office were controversial ones, as he was repeatedly accused of unethical and illegal behaviour and forced to resign twice. But his popularity was such that he kept getting re-elected, including in 1963, when the campaign culminated in a genuine riot between Hawrelak’s opponents and backers.

Nonetheless, when William Hawrelak died in office, the city renamed its most important river valley park in his honour.

Today, the influence of Ukrainian culture and heritage is everywhere in Edmonton and the wider Edmonton region. Some of those symbols are creative — a giant statue of a pysanka Easter egg in Vegreville; a giant statue of a kubasa sausage in Mundare; a giant perogy on a giant fork in Glendon — and some are more mundane, like Cheemo perogies in every supermarket freezer case.

Other legacies are less obvious, perhaps. Ukrainians weren’t just among the first settlers to break the land. They worked in mines and packing plants. They built railway lines and worked on road crews. And they built other things too, such as Edmonton’s Al Rashid Mosque, the first mosque in Canada, which was designed and built by Ukrainian Canadian Mike Dreworth, who created a mosque with a uniquely Eastern Orthodox vibe, another example of how Ukrainian culture permeates the city.

We see that cultural legacy too in the story of the Holowach family. Sam Holowach originally came to Alberta to farm in the Bloc Settlements, but gave up the country life to open a tailor shop and dry cleaners in downtown Edmonton, where he became one of Edmonton’s first Ukrainian entrepreneurs. His son Walter was a gifted musician who returned from studying violin in Vienna to become first violinist and then the concertmaster with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

With his younger brother Ambrose, Walter co-founded Edmonton’s Empire Opera Company in 1940. Ambrose, with a flair for the operatic, perhaps, then went into politics, first as a federal MP in 1953 and then an MLA, in both cases for the Social Credit Party.

In the House of Commons in the early 1950s, Ambrose Holowach spoke out strongly about Indigenous land rights and living conditions on-reserve. He also gave speeches about the importance of funding for the arts.

In 1959, he ran provincially and became Alberta’s first Ukrainian cabinet minister. He was the moving force behind Alberta’s provincial museum — now the Royal Alberta Museum — choosing the site, hiring the architect and pushing for the completion of the project.

But strangely and poetically, the Holowachs are best remembered now for their magnificent tree, a horse chestnut which was planted in 1920 by the father, Sam, from a seed that Walter, the violinist, brought home from Europe. Today, the Holowachs’ family business is just a memory — but the tree, more than 100 years old and 30 feet high, still stands, gloriously, in downtown Edmonton, a symbol of beauty and survival against all odds.

There is so much more I could tell you about Edmonton and Alberta’s Ukrainian heritage and legacy. I could talk about the splendid writings of popular historian Myrna Kostash and novelist Todd Babiak; the glorious whirlwind of the Shumka dancers; the art of William Kurelek or Ron Kostyniuk; the acclaimed cuisine of Metis-Ukrainian chefs Brad and Cindy Lazarenko and the remarkable courage of outspoken trans activist Marni Panas.

Ukrainian cultural leaders from Edmonton and Alberta were a vital part of the third-force coalition of Canadians who pushed past the binary of Canada as a bilingual and bicultural country. They helped to create the template for multiculturalism itself, which made room for all the other cultural communities to find a place for themselves in the Canadian mosaic.

Let me give you a concrete an example. Let’s take Mike Strembitsky, the first Ukrainian superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools. As a boy, growing up in Smoky Lake, Alberta, he was beaten for speaking Ukrainian at school. As superintendent, in the 1970s, he pioneered Ukrainian bilingual immersion programs in Edmonton Public Schools. Those programs were so successful that Edmonton Public Schools expanded its heritage language programs to include immersive bilingual schooling in Arabic, Mandarin, German, Hebrew and Spanish, while the Edmonton Catholic School Division, to follow suit, has programs in Ukrainian, Tagalog and Cree. But this groundbreaking multicultural educational philosophy pioneered in Edmonton was only possible because Mike Strembitsky led the way.

For more than 130 years, Ukrainian Canadians preserved their culture and language in Canada, including during times when the Soviet Union sought to destroy it. That same commitment to their homeland explains why so many Albertans have opened their homes, hearts and wallets now to support a new wave of Ukrainian refugees and settlers.

I am not Ukrainian, but I grew up immersed in Ukrainian culture because my German family and my Jewish family all came to this country from Ukraine. Relations amongst those communities weren’t always easy in the old country, or here in the new one. These are complicated, interlocking stories, and sometimes they are deeply painful, but — together — Germans, Jews and Ukrainians left the old world behind them, travelled to the Prairies and endeavoured together to build a new community here, where we could all be equal and accepted. It’s been a long journey, and it’s not yet complete.

As a child growing up in Alberta, I grew up immersed in the triumphant, mythic story of Ukrainian settlement — the story of doughty pioneers who left poverty and oppression in their homeland, settled on the Prairies, faced down both the bigotry of their Anglo-Saxon neighbours and the harshness of the Alberta elements, hung on fiercely to their culture and language, and triumphed as advocates for multiculturalism. It is a great narrative, and one worth celebrating.

But I never fully realized in my Alberta youth how much that settler narrative erased the story of the original peoples of this place, or how much our province’s official glorification of its Ukrainian pioneers relied upon the official forgetting of the bitter truth of First Nations and Métis cultures all but destroyed.

That’s why I want to end this speech by telling you the story of Ancestors and Elders, a truly remarkable work of dance theatre co-created by Edmonton’s Shumka Dancers and the Running Thunder Cree Dancers.

I first saw this show on stage at Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in the spring of 2019. It was a revelation, and I wish I could show it all to you. It combined Eastern European and Indigenous dance traditions in a theatre piece that explored reconciliation, resilience and cultural preservation — the pains of racism and the parallels between two cultures under threat and struggling to survive. It made traditional Ukrainian folk dance into something entirely new and contemporary — fresh and fierce, politically relevant and absolutely Canadian. It filled me with hope for the country we are striving to build together.

So when I voice my support for a Ukrainian heritage month, I’m not just talking about preserving the past; I’m talking about the hard work of creating our future — a nation where we recognize all the painful history that we share, but where we work together with joy and perseverance to make a better Canada for all Canadians.

Thank you, hiy hiy and spasibo.

Back to top