- Cossacks and Indians? Métissage in Action
In 1914 a sojourner in Winnipeg commented on the city’s “Ukrainian Indians” to underline its seeming lack of European sophistication.1 Some decades later, however, that pejorative connotation was no longer operational: the notion of a “Ukrainian Indian” living in Canada was now something to be celebrated. This dramatic turnabout came with the release in 2012 of a blockbuster “bio-pic” produced in Ukraine. The film (“Fire Crosser”)2 depicts the career of a Soviet Ukrainian hero-fighter pilot, allegedly killed in action during World War Two, but discovered years later alive and well as the Ukrainian-speaking chief of a band of Iroquois not far from Montreal. The decades that separated these two polarities offered many opportunities for ethno-cultural interaction, primarily on the Prairies where the harsh realities of pioneering forced Ukrainian settlers to borrow survival techniques from nearby Aborigines, who were invariably highly attuned to the vicissitudes of the very wilderness that the Ukrainians had come to conquer. Life stories from this initial period of Ukrainian settlement generally describe such early encounters as positive, amiable experiences.3 A rare exception is the deadly skirmish imagined by the Canadian poet Yar Slavutych.4 In some instances, however, their proximity to Ukrainian settlements worked against the Aborigines, who unwittingly became convenient scapegoats for criminal acts and missing children.5
After World War Two, with the “success” of Canada’s Ukrainian pioneering experience firmly acknowledged, a new factor surfaced: a Ukrainian empathy for the perceived stagnation and plight of Canada’s Aborigines. In actuality, this awareness had been initiated earlier by sojourning writers from Soviet Ukraine; their stories in Ukrainian dramatized the tragic fate of Canada’s downtrodden Aboriginal peoples.6
With increasing frequency, the “Ukrainian empathy factor” popped up in the art and writings of such prominent figures as William Kurelek, George Ryga, Leo Mol, John Paskievich, Andrew Susknaski, Danny Schur, and others. The same factor highlighted the work of dedicated government bureaucrats and academics; their focus on the plight of Canada’s distressed Aboriginal was largely informed by a similar sense of ethno-cultural oppression and victimhood.7 The reverse process (that is, Aboriginal intakes of Ukrainian culture) awaits serious investigation.8 While these processes were evolving in Canada, another version of the “Ukrainian empathy factor” had already taken root in Ukraine itself where Canada’s “noble savage” titillated the popular imagination, [End Page 359] intrigued a coterie of academics, and, as noted earlier, most recently stimulated the production of a cinematic “blockbuster.” In other words, while these two versions of the empathy factor are obviously related, the two trends had evolved separately. And there was one important feature that distinguished one from the other: the Ukrainian community in Canada never cultivated the image of “the noble savage”—that transformation was left to distant countrymen in Ukraine itself.9
As evident from the foregoing, Ukrainian-Aboriginal cultural interrelations in Canada constitute a complex panorama composed of underlying basics, contrasts, and commonalities. These are expressed by the arts alone: political agendas do not play a role in this domain. Today, with the shift in Canada’s demographic realities, cultural interaction has joined with biological hybridization to form unions that are neither rare nor unusual. Although such blending is not uncommon, métissage with a Ukrainian flavour marks a phenomenon that still intrudes upon a political environment that remains governed by a fixed and well-established historicized narrative—a drawback that bars its recognition on both sides of the ethno-cultural equation. Further studies are needed and investigations continue.10
1. Pavlo Karmans’kyj, Mavpiache dzerkalo/Monkey’s Mirror (Winnipeg: Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Canada, n.d.), 50, 75.
2. “Fire Crosser” (Ukrainian title: “Toi, khto proishov kriz’ vohon’”) was produced in Kyiv in 2011. For filmmaker Mykhailo Illienko, the film’s protagonist constitutes a modern hero. Although Canadians have yet to view this film, the worldwide-web offers many visuals and information relating to the production and reception of this work.
3. For example, in her personal experience narrative (“Lost in the...