It’s the Year of the Ukrainian in Saskatchewan. A government news release in the early new year declared 2016 to be a time to reflect on and celebrate the contribution of Ukrainian settlers to the province.
It’s not clear, though, how “Ukrainian culture and traditions” are to be recognized. The Wall government has been silent on the matter ever since it made the proclamation.
Maybe people should hug their Ukrainian neighbours? Learn a few words of Ukrainian? Try their hand at making pysanka? There’s no shortage of ways to commemorate how Ukrainians, in the premier’s words, “helped build our province.”
Joking aside, the very fact that the provincial government would make such a declaration is nothing short of remarkable given the lowly place of Ukrainian people in early 20th century Saskatchewan.
The Canadian government may have actively recruited Ukrainian immigrants before the Great War, but they were expected to leave their cultural identity behind at the border, like unwanted baggage, and readily assimilate into the dominant Anglo-Canadian way of life.
Even then, Ukrainians were never really welcome. They may have been good farmers, but many Anglo-Canadians openly questioned if they could become good citizens with their unpronounceable last names, pauper-like appearance, and “strange” customs (including eating garlic).
Nor did it matter that the number of Ukrainian settlers was dwarfed by those from Great Britain and the United States. The mere presence of these “foreigners” — as they were called at the best of times — threatened to weaken, perhaps even ruin, the Anglo-Canadian fabric of the province.
Oxford-educated Elizabeth Mitchell, who toured the prairies in 1913, voiced this unease when she asked, “Can Canada … afford to base herself on an ignorant, non-English-speaking peasantry, winning a bare living by unceasing labour? … The immigration of the last few years has been really overwhelming and cannot be met with a careless ‘Everything will come right.’ The need for the moment is for a pause and time to think and rearrange.”
She was not alone in her thinking.
Future Saskatchewan premier J.T.M. Anderson portrayed the “foreign element” as the greatest threat to Canada’s future well being, while George Exton Lloyd, the Anglican bishop for Saskatchewan, maintained that the country was in danger of becoming a “mongrel nation.”
The issue was even debated by academics.
In a paper read before the Royal Society of Canada in May 1926, E.H. Oliver, the first historian appointed at the University of Saskatchewan, reviewed the contribution of continental Europeans to Saskatchewan society.
“We need the artist, the poet, the thinker, the musician, and composer quite as much as the sewer-digger and the track-layer,” he concluded, “It is high time we encouraged these people to bring their best to us. Some of them possess rare genius.”
What Oliver did not seem to appreciate was that there were poets, thinkers, and musicians among the people who had decided to make the new province their home, but that they faced outright prejudice in their adopted province.
It was not until after the Second World War, after the province had survived the crucible of depression and then war, that immigrant children and their children were widely accepted as part of provincial society and made the kinds of contributions that Oliver had been talking about.
In other words, whereas continental Europeans were once seen as a blight on Saskatchewan, they were an essential part of the province’s future by the middle of the 20th century.
Perhaps the real turning point came when surgeon and decorated war hero Stephen Worobetz was appointed lieutenant-governor in 1970.
Two decades later, Ukrainians figured prominently in the public life of the province and Canada at large. Saskatchewan gave Canada its first governor general of Ukrainian descent, Ray Hnatyshyn, in 1990. One year later, another Saskatoon child of Ukrainian immigrants, Roy Romanow, was elected premier. He was sworn into office by lieutenant-governor Sylvia Fedoruk. The Saskatchewan chief justice at the time was Edward Bayda.
In retrospect, Saskatchewan’s Year of the Ukrainian represents the distance that the province has come in embracing non-British immigrants as part of its history and identity.
There is still some distance to go, though. Recent newcomers struggle to find a meaningful place in provincial society. Then, there is the role of indigenous peoples in Saskatchewan today.
More than government declarations is needed.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:University of Saskatchewan student Ray Hnatyshyn, a member of the Vigorous College Nine (c. 1956), would be appointed Governor General in 1990.
Photo Source: University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections A-2502-1
Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.