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  • From Peasants to Labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration from the Russian Empire to Canada by Vadim Kukushkin
  • Peter J. Melnycky
Vadim Kukushkin. From Peasants to Labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration from the Russian Empire to Canada. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. 283 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $95.00 hc.

On the eve of the First World War, Ukrainian ethnographic territories were divided between the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires. Even before these two solitudes were briefly united by the events of the Great War and its aftermath, in Canada eastern and western Ukrainian immigrants had come together to work in the mines of the Rockies and the industrial shops of Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg. While much has been written about the Ukrainians who arrived in Canada from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially those who settled on western homesteads, little attention has been directed to those who arrived from the Russian Empire. With regard to Belarusan migration to Canada, its history prior to World War II is largely unknown. The academic study of migration from the Russian Empire to Canada has been largely focused on Jewish, Mennonite, Hutterite, and Doukhobor immigrants, even though the largest numbers arriving between 1905 and 1914 were, in fact, Ukrainian and Belarusan peasants who came as temporary labour migrants, drawn by opportunities in the country’s burgeoning resource and industrial sectors.

It is these latter migrants that historian Vadim Kukushkin addresses in his groundbreaking work. He outlines the European and North American contexts of this migration and examines the sojourning communities from the Russian Empire, largely male and highly transient, that were established across Canada as a result. He surveys the factors promoting migration from the western frontier of the Russian Empire, identifying the geographic sources, the chronology and logistics of the outflow, as well as the social backgrounds of the newcomers, including their ages, marital status, literacy rates, and religious affiliations. These migrants arrived from the least ethnically integrated region of the European part of the Russian Empire, which was incorporated in the late eighteenth century, namely the Belarusan provinces of “Grodno, Minsk, Vilna, Vitebsk, and Mogilev” and the Ukrainian provinces of “Podolia, Volhynia, Kiev, Chernigov, Poltava, Kharkov, Kherson, Taurida, and Ekaterinoslav,” along with the “Khotin District of Bessarabia Province.”

To illustrate who these migrants were in the old country and how their community life evolved in Canada, Kukushkin has mined the existing secondary literature, but more importantly, he has focused on relevant Russian- and Ukrainian-language periodicals as well as archival sources in Russia, the United States, and Canada. Especially revealing are collections such as the Alaskan Russian Church Archives held at the Library of Congress, which includes valuable material concerning the spread of the Russian Orthodox Church among Ukrainians and Belarusans from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Even more informative is the Likacheff-Ragosine-Mathers [End Page 367] collection of over 11,000 Russian consular passport and identity documents held at Library and Archives Canada.

What emerges is a rich portrait of a community of transient labourers and sojourners coping with their first exposure to the often-crushing circumstances of low status, arduous, and basic wage jobs in unfamiliar frontier and urban settings, while at the same time attempting to construct a network of community newspapers, churches, and organizations. It is a multi-textured story complicated by internecine squabbles and the tumultuous events in both Canada and Europe brought on by the Great War.

As a pioneering study there are some sweeping suppositions that might be challenged. The claim that there was an absolutely rigid separation between Austro-Hungarian and Russian arrivals is undermined by Kukushkin’s own references to the roles of such leaders as Pavlo Krat and Matthew Shatulsky within “Ukrainian” organizations, by the acknowledgment of growing Ukrainophile segments within the community, and the undermining of the Russian Orthodox Church in Canada through the secession of Ukrainians and other faithful. The notion that “the majority of Ukrainian and Belarusan immigrants who came from the Russian empire were thoroughly Russified in their religion, language, and cultural orientation” (5) and that “they usually retained a Russian cultural orientation until the end of their lives” (6) could probably...


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