- Ukrainian Canadians, Canada, Ukraine, and the Popular Imagination
“Look at where Canada is, and look at where Ukraine and Russia are. … Neither Canada nor the U.S. have [sic] the same amount [sic] of interests in Ukraine as Russia does.”– Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, as reported by the Canadian Press, May 24, 2014
This special issue of Canadian Ethnic Studies is being published at the intersection of two momentous events. In Canada the 125th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement will be celebrated in 2016. Although it is highly likely that individual Ukrainians came to Canada much earlier, 1891 is generally accepted as the beginning of the first wave of mass migration from Ukraine. Canada is now home to the third largest population of Ukrainians in the world (after Ukraine and Russia), numbering over 1.2 million or approximately 4% of the population in 2011. In Ukraine, contemporaneously, a battle is being waged to preserve an independent, integral Ukraine.
As recently as a quarter-century ago and for centuries before, the preceding reference would have been to “establishing,” not “preserving,” an independent Ukraine. In the century preceding 1991, when Ukraine declared its independence, Ukraine’s cultural heritage was under threat—as it had been for centuries before—but a variant of it was preserved and developed in Canada. This fact was noted with some surprise by Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s second president, when he was serenaded in Ukrainian by school children enrolled in the English-Ukrainian Bilingual program in Edmonton on October 25, 1994.
With Ukraine’s declaration of independence, Ukrainian Canadians at last had an independent homeland with which they could identify. Older generations—especially the so-called “DPs” (Displaced Persons) who had been forced to leave Ukraine during and after World War II—returned to visit the country that had been preserved [End Page 1] only in their memories. They came back to Canada having realized that their true homeland was Canada and were grateful for it. This realization was no doubt helped along when their naively offered, unsolicited advice on various matters was rebuffed by Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Krawchuk, who told them in no uncertain terms not to meddle in Ukraine’s affairs.
Now, finally, we all seem to be on the same page. A younger, more sophisticated, worldly, and English-speaking leadership has emerged in Ukraine—a leadership that has recognized the importance of gaining the support of the Western world of which it wants to be a part. This change in attitude and outlook is exemplified by Ukraine’s national anthem: the first stanza was slightly modified in early 2013 and the result was the transformation of a dirge sung in a minor key in Canada to a triumphal hymn.1
Canada has responded positively and supportively to the most recent events in Ukraine, thereby eliciting President Putin’s dismissive and ill-informed comment. Canada had done the same in 1991 when Canada was the first country to recognize the newly-independent Ukraine. Of course, one does have to admit that the Canadian government’s response in both instances may not have been wholly altruistic since Ukrainians constitute the ninth largest ethnic group in the country and arguably exert more influence than their numbers might suggest because they are well organized and because of the younger, more activist leadership of their umbrella organization, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.2
However, what is most striking is that Ukraine has caught the attention and the imagination of the Western world for arguably the first time in its entire history. The United States and Western Europe, as well as Canada, are concerned about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursions along the eastern border of a country they would like to see in NATO. Poland and the Baltic countries are concerned that incursions into Ukraine are a portent of what could happen in their own countries.3 Germany and France are concerned about their gas and oil supplies as Russia periodically threatens to shut down the pipeline at the Ukrainian border. With the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine by Russia-backed “rebels” (July 17, 2014), Western Europe...