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  • The Emancipatory Praxis of Ukrainian Canadians (1891–1919) and the Necessity of a Situated Critique
  • Susan Dianne Brophy (bio)

Policemen (and Anglo-Canadians in general) were amazed by the thorough pettiness of Ukrainian thefts. Only in the Ukrainian bloc, for instance, would thieves stoop to stealing rusty barbed wire right off the fence posts. Outsiders, disregarding the poverty of the bloc settlers, could not understand the motivations behind such filching. … Critics ultimately sought biological and psychological explanations, suggesting that kleptomania was distinctive genetic or national trait. …

Gregory Robinson, “Rougher Than Any Other Nationality?”1

In the preface of an edited collection that was published in conjunction with the centenary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada in 1991, Paul Robert Magocsi recalls an event that took place in 1980. After his inaugural speech as the first (and current) Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto, two students approached the prolific scholar and voiced displeasure at the praise he offered the Canadian government for its decision to fund this new position. He recounts, “the young man and young woman began to lecture me about how Ukrainians had been and – so they seemed to imply – still were discriminated against in Canadian society,” adding, “I was dumbfounded.” For Magocsi, it was incomprehensible why these two students were so misguided, “so anti-Canadian,” as he ponders, “where, then, did they pick up the cultural [End Page 151] baggage that led them to conclude that theirs was a people ill-treated, a people that must somehow be repaid for (Canada’s supposed) past injustice?”2

Magocsi’s reference to “cultural baggage” suggests that the experience of injustice is an illusion perceptible only by an ingrate minority. Yet surely the actual criminalization, internment, disfranchisement, and deportations that Ukrainians faced in the early 20th century justify the discontent expressed by the two students. After all, this same ethnic group was at one time the target of “enemy alien” legislation by the federal government, a label that resonated long after the internment camps were bulldozed from the landscape. Given this history, it is especially jarring that implicit in Magocsi’s comment is the idealization of the “good Canadian,” an enduring trope that demarcates friend and enemy often for exclusive advantage.

If the litmus test for democracy is free and equal participation of its members, then it is crucial to study how such mythical idealization can be mobilized – especially by state law – in order to promote or prevent participation. As a repository of state power, the law racializes, classes, and genders the subject in a way that both sustains and mirrors the incongruity between liberal democratic ideals and the realities of capitalist enterprise. When we look at the dissonant characterizations of Ukrainian Canadians, we see evidence of this foundational discord. For example, Ukrainian Canadians were miscreants threatening the moral fabric of Anglo-Canada, yet their labour was integral to economic expansion.3 This basic incongruity occasions a whole series of paradoxical essentializations: assimilation/discrimination, citizenship/disfranchisement, industriousness/laziness, opportunism/ignorance, criminalization/valourization, devotion/debauchery, and feminization/masculinization. Despite the absurdity of these essentializations, they are nevertheless accompanied by concrete experiences of “arbitrary, unwarranted, and heavy-handed use of state power.”4

In this essay, I focus on the first wave of immigrants who arrived from 1891 to the end of World War I and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. My purpose is to understand the conditions that compelled these people to challenge exclusionary and exploitative practices, and expose the logic behind the dominant Canadian historical narrative that is so pregnant with the “pioneer [End Page 152] myth.”5 Whereas Magocsi’s dumbfoundedness proves the durability of the mythic ideal, my anticolonialist approach provides a systematic challenge to this way of understanding the early history of Ukrainians in Canada, and takes the work of such historians as Donald H. Avery (among others) in a new direction. Four core contributions stem from my application of a situated critique: first, a rediscovery of the emancipatory praxis of Ukrainian Canadians from the era in question; second, a link between the particularities of their struggle to both coeval and current struggles; third, an analytical framework that exposes the reactionary tendencies in select...