The Ukrainian Voice

Brian Giesbrecht, Commentary, Culture Wars

“Be proud of your heritage – be passionate about your country”, the motto of The Ukrainian Voice, a Winnipeg based newspaper that recently ceased operations. First published in 1910, it was the leading advocate for Ukrainians in Canada. In this digital age it couldn’t survive. Read by many in its day, it will be missed.

The motto sounds nothing like the Prime Minister’s view that Canada has no real identity or culture except for its “diversity”. Dig a little deeper into the history of Canada’s Ukrainian people. When the Ukrainian settlers came, Canada was not a wealthy and comfortable place. Clifford Sifton, the nineteenth century cabinet minister responsible for bringing in people to settle the West, famously referred to Ukrainians as “stalwart peasants in sheepskin coats with … stout wives”. And, they were tough, coming from their homelands with virtually nothing.

Regarded as inferiors by the Anglo-Saxon majority, and knowing little English, with the best farmland already snapped up by earlier arrivals, they were left with rocks, bush and swamp. Disease, especially scarlet fever, took many of their children. Hardscrabble farming, with virtually no help from the government, made for a life with few soft touches.

They passed their toughness on to their children, and while the next generations continued farming, they also became doctors, engineers and every other occupation needed to build a land of peasant farmers into a modern country. Today, the descendants of those hardy people are simply part of the Canadian mainstream. Intermarriage with other ethnic groups blurred ethnic lines, but proud and successful Ukrainian-Canadians celebrate their heritage as passionate Canadians.

This history of difficult beginnings applies to the other immigrants who made Canada their home. Most came from challenging backgrounds- fleeing starvation, persecution or pogrom. The odds were stacked against them. Chinese and Jewish arrivals faced racism and hostile federal and provincial governments. And later, when the faces of the new arrivals were more brown than white, cries of racial slurs too often greeted them. Nonetheless, like the Ukrainians these people too became passionate Canadians.

And let’s not forget about British and French pioneers who arrived here before Canada was even a country. Carving out a life in a cold and hostile environment they were helped by Canada’s Indigenous people. Indigenous people, who had lived in this cold part of the world successfully for thousands of years, partnered with the early British and French arrivals in those important early days of the Canadian enterprise. That relationship has been conflicted from its inception, but is an important part of what Canada is all about.

In spite of all of this rich and inspiring history, our Prime Minister suggests there really is no Canadian identity or culture.  Yes, we are diverse, and yes, we are proud of our ethnic heritage. But we know darn well who we are. When we watch the news, and the story is about another mass shooting incident south of the border, we know we are Canadians as soon as we hear a NRA spokesman argue that everyone should carry guns. Or, when we hear of people being denied health care because they can’t afford it, we know who we are by our reaction against that unfairness.

And, when we hear of people in the Middle East being persecuted because they are Yazidis, or some other vulnerable group, we know we are Canadians by our immediate commitment to them. And, when we hear of women in oppressive countries being treated as property, we speak out against the injustice, because as Canadians we know it is wrong.

Canadians have developed a unique blend of compassion for others that are less fortunate, combined with a steely determination to advocate while we fiercely guard our own hard-won freedoms.
And when we reflect on the country that our ancestors built by means of hard work and sacrifice, we understand it is that very history that has made our odd assortment of ethnicities into one nationality – forged from the original European, Asian, African and Indigenous. Generations proud of their heritage but passionate about their country.

Our Prime Minister gets it wrong. No culture indeed! Just ask a descendant of one of those “stalwart peasants” and they will tell you what it means to be a Canadian. While it is too bad  that The Ukrainian Voice had to fold, but it has left us with a great motto.