Ukrainian-Canadians have had one of the biggest impacts on the development of Canada of all the ethnic groups that have immigrated to this multi-cultural land. Along with French, British and Scottish settlers, Ukrainian immigrants make up one of the largest groups to come to Canada. They settled the West and wove their culture deeply into the fabric of Canadian society. Tempted to Canada by a mixture of deep poverty and famine in their homeland and aggressive Canadian marketing to settle the West, millions of Ukrainians came to Canada in three separate waves. Today, 1 in 10 Canadians can trace their ancestry to the Ukraine, and Ukrainian is the fifth most commonly-spoken language in the country!
Canada is home to the second largest Ukrainian population in the world outside of the Ukraine itself. 2.7 million Ukrainian-Canadians, that is, either direct immigrants themselves or descendants of Ukrainian immigrants, inhabit Canada and a further half-million Canadians identify with the the Ukraine through mixed marriages. With more than 3 million Canadians of Ukrainian heritage, the Ukrainian-Canadians make up 10% of the country’s population!
Ukrainians came to Canada in three separate waves, the first beginning in 1891. By the late 19th Century Russian rule over the Ukraine had turned into brutal oppression. There had been several large-scale Ukrainian revolts against the Czars in the previous century, and Czar Nicholas II was taking no chances. Russian soldiers were posted throughout the Ukraine and the peasantry were harassed, abused and arrested with little provocation. While Russia was beginning to industrialize and with the abolition of serfdom wealth was beginning to flow to the cities, the Ukraine was kept in a state of third-world poverty. A drought and a famine added to the general misery of the Ukrainian people.
Along came Canada’s second Prime-Minister, John Abbott, and his plan to settle the West before the Americans could move in. Sir John A. MacDonald had already started the process by building railroads to the Pacific and moving the Mounted Police into the Prairies, but what John Abbott realized is that without large populations the West was still threatened by American Manifest Destiny.
The young Canadian government had been shopping around for immigrants for some time. They had managed to attract a sizeable number of Germans, but these had mostly settled in southern Ontario. The Irish exodus to America had practically finished and those Irish left on the Emerald Isle were unwilling to leave. A smart Canadian ambassador to France, Phillippe Roy (who would remain ambassador for 30 years), hit upon the idea of attracting the starving and oppressed Ukrainians!
Roy drew many similarities between the black earth steppes of the Ukraine and the rolling plains of the Prairies. The Ukrainians were mostly farmers, and Canada needed hardy farming settlers to build the West. Roy and Abbott drew up plans to attract Ukrainians with free land, expense-paid travel and immediate citizenship. The only problem was that Russia forbade Ukrainians to leave the country. In 1891 this wasn’t too difficult to overcome, as borders were generally porous and the rigid passport system of today had yet to be created. Canadian government officials began to market settlement in the west by postering bordering towns in eastern Germany (today’s Poland), Romania and Serbia. A massive gossip campaign was started in what may have been the world’s first social media marketing strategy, targeting travelling Ukrainians who brought word home about the riches and opportunities of this far-away land. By the early summer of that year the first boatload of Ukrainian settlers was landing in Montreal!
Life for these brave people was tough. At first a few thousand men, woman and children, most of whom had nothing but the clothes on their back, no education and very little money, were packed onto trains and shuttled off to the plains of Saskatchewan and Alberta. There they were given two draft horses and a cart each, along with some basic farming tools and food supplies, and shown their plot of land on a roughly drawn map. These families often found that the land was nothing more than a barren desert or a large plot of forest that had to be cleared.
However, these hardy Ukrainian settlers didn’t complain. Quite the opposite. For the first time in their lives they owned their own land, had freedom and were being treated with dignity. With joy and a burning patriotism for their new country, they worked hard. They cleared the trees and dug irrigation channels through the deserts. They built houses and churches and roads and grain silos. They tilled the land and forced wheat, corn, barley and fruits and vegetables from it. They settled new towns in the barren Prairies that grew into bustling centers of agriculture and commerce as more and more of their countryfolk came to Canada. By 1914, the end of the “First Wave”, more than a million Ukrainians had settled in Canada’s west!
The First World War were tough years for the Ukrainians. With the outbreak of hostilities against Germany, a large popular revolt against Russian rule broke out in Ukraine. German armies advanced into the western parts of the country and were greeted as liberators. Paranoia and xenophobia in Canada, brought on by war hysteria, resulted in the internment into concentration camps of about 5,000 Ukrainian Canadians deemed to be German or Austro-Hungarian. Most of these were men, most were immigrants and they did not lose their property. In 1920 they were “paroled” and released. Although the vast majority of the Ukrainian population in Canada was unmolested, this internment of 5,000 people is a dark chapter in Canadian history.
As Russia descended into a brutal civil war and with the victory of the Bolsheviks and the formation of the USSR, the Second Wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada occurred. The civil war in Russia, between the Bolsheviks and White Russians, saw the fragile and poverty-stricken Ukraine torn apart. The establishment of Communist rule over the Ukraine and subsequent tyranny of the Cheka (and later NKVD), collectivization and Stalin’s Terror drove another half-million Ukrainian refugees to Canada. By 1930 Canada had taken on a myth of unproportional size in Ukraine. Every Ukrainian knew somebody who had moved to Canada and struck it rich. Stories of fields sown with wheat and rivers flowing with gold nuggets, cities filled with life and riches for the taking were circulating around the Ukraine like fairy tales. Canada had become a sort of legendary shangri-la for the average suffering Ukrainian, and it is no wonder that so many people sought to escape the terror of their lives in this land.
The problems the Second Wave faced upon arrival were much different than the First Wave. Whereas the First Wave had been incredibly successful, had settled the west and had founded a part of Canadian society, the Second Wave met roadblocks immediately. There was no more free land to be given away, for starters, and most of the vast farmlands of the Prairies were not for sale. The Great Depression was on and there were few jobs available for poor and illiterate immigrants who didn’t speak English or French. Most of the Second Wave Ukrainians did eventually manage to find work in industry, forestry and mining, with most of them settling in Ontario. These Second Wave Ukrainians played a key part in growing the bustling cities of southern Ontario and, more importantly, developing the rich natural resources of the northern Ontario’s Canadian Shield.
After the Second World War and during the last half of the 20th Century, the Third Wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada occurred. This wave was different. Rather than coming to build a nation or escape death and war, the Third Wave consisted mostly of political and economic immigrants. From 1951 until 1991, it is estimated that a further quarter-million Ukrainians obtained landed immigrant status in Canada. A large number, more than 20,000, came as defectors from the Communist bloc.
These Ukrainians settled across the country in the already established cities of Canada. Large numbers of them settled in the Ukrainian boroughs in Toronto and Montreal, while another Ukrainian segment settled in British Columbia and Alberta. The vast majority of the Third Wave joined already-established industries in the cities they settled in. What is different about the Third Wave Ukrainians is that, unlike the first two waves, these people quietly and quickly integrated with Canadian society and seemed to disappear into the tapestry.
Today, Canada is home to the second largest Ukrainian population in the world (after the Ukraine itself). Ukrainian heritage and the Ukrainian contribution to building this great country are celebrated in commemorative stamps, annual Ukrainian Heritage festivals, monuments to the settlers and victims of famine, and by the large population of Canadians who identify as Ukrainian-Canadians today!