- According to Baba: A Collaborative Oral History of Sudbury’s Ukrainian Community by Stacey Zembrzycki
Stacey Zembrzycki’s book about Sudbury’s Ukrainians between 1901 and 1939 is a unique and refreshing contribution to the historiography on Ukrainian Canadians. It is the first oral history of the ethnic group, the first social history to focus on a particular Ukrainian-Canadian community, and the first in-depth examination of Ukrainian immigrants in northern Ontario’s mining districts.
The book is very much a collaborative effort. On most interviews the author was accompanied by Olga Zembrzycki (b. 1927), her baba (grandmother) and a lifelong member of Sudbury’s Ukrainian Catholic parish. Baba provided entrée into the community and helped to round up eighty-two interviewees, all thirteen years of age or younger in 1939. The author also relied on several translators (including the present reviewer, who helped with documents from Ukrainian Catholic archives) to grapple with Ukrainian-language newspapers and other primary and secondary sources. Zembrzycki’s attempt to “share authority” with Baba during the interviews forms the core of the book, and it is discussed with great candour and gentle humour. Regrettably, her collaboration with the translators is not elucidated and readers will wonder who selected the sources for translation and what criteria were implemented.
Zembrzycki’s major contribution is to illuminate the socio-economic milieu and daily lives of working-class Ukrainians in a one-industry company town. Men, who outnumbered women by a significant margin, played relatively minor roles in the home. They worked twelve-hour shifts in the mines and spent their free time in the parish halls, national homes, and labour temples that defined the ideologically factionalized Ukrainian community. Women held families together and managed the household economy; they raised children, gardened, took in single male boarders, and even bootlegged on occasion. When they found the time, women also cooked, cleaned, and raised funds for the community organizations led and dominated by men. By the late 1920s the community had polarized into a leftist, pro-Soviet, “progressive” faction that met in the local Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association hall and a conservative, Catholic group that overlapped with several mutually antagonistic nationalist organizations, all headquartered in the St. Mary’s Church basement. The bitter, occasionally violent relations between progressives and Catholics constitute one of the book’s most important themes. Zembrzycki reveals how the mining companies, particularly INCO, relied on Catholic priests to control their labour force. Priests wrote letters of reference for churchgoers, and INCO reciprocated with lavish donations [End Page 526] for church construction. As a result, men suspected of leftist sympathies were at a disadvantage and in constant peril of losing their jobs.
Zembrzycki’s analysis of Ukrainian community politics, on the other hand, lacks depth and nuance. Interviewees who were preadolescents in 1939 had little to say about the complex local and transnational issues that agitated their parents. Nor did the translated Ukrainian newspaper articles at Zembrzycki’s disposal offer much insight. A majority of these were from the progressive press and concerned only events in Sudbury. Editorials, polemical articles, and Communist Party and Comintern directives that denied or tried to justify Stalinist crimes—show trials of intellectuals, draconian grain requisitions that cost four million Ukrainian peasant lives in 1932–33, bloody purges of the Ukrainian elite—were beyond her purview. Yet it is precisely within this context, and not simply as a function of their collaboration with INCO, that the hostility of Catholics and nationalists toward the pro-Soviet leftists must be seen. Zembrzycki’s attempt to deconstruct the stoning of her baba’s home by progressives in 1933 would also benefit from greater attention to context. She surmises it was an act of vengeance against her Catholic great-grandfather, who may have been an INCO informer. This is possible, but so are other explanations. In 1932–33 the progressive press dismissed the famine in Soviet Ukraine as anti-Soviet propaganda invented by Catholic priests and the Polish state. In July 1933 Winnipeg progressives...