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In the heart of Alberta stands a 5,000-pound aluminum Ukrainian Easter egg, a pysanka, delicately balanced on a triangular pedestal, turning like a weathervane. For the past 30 years, visitors have come to gaze upon the giant egg laid by the Vegreville and District Chamber of Commerce in honour of the RCMP’s centenary.

It has been variously described as an aesthetic and scientific wonder, vulgar, kitschy, and attention getting. Some question its dedication to the RCMP, given the Mounties’ heavy-handed treatment of early Ukrainian immigrants.

Like it or not, Vegreville’s pysanka has come to symbolize the history of Ukrainians in Alberta. It’s a complex heritage, with deep roots in the prairie soil but a heart still attached to the old homeland; full of outsized dreams and ambitions, but tempered by a cautious survival instinct; nostalgic and sentimental about the past, but forgetful of painful and difficult moments; resentful of some stereotypes but embracing of others—like the pysanka, something of a Ukrainian cliché, along with pyrogies.

Its very mention provokes a chorus of groans from a trio of students recently pondering their Ukrainian identity. “When you tell people you’re Ukrainian, the first thing they think of is the food and the dancing,” sighs Marta Prystasz, former president of the Ukrainian Students Society at the University of Alberta, who immigrated here as a small child with her parents. Her friend Mykola Bilash, a

chemical engineering student, is a sixth-generation Ukrainian Albertan, whose family was part of the first and largest wave of immigrants who arrived before the First World War. He’s bothered by
the narrow definitions many Ukrainians set for themselves. “They’ll say, ‘I’m Ukrainian; I have a baba and dido, and I eat pyrogies.’ And that’s it,” says Bilash. “We have to get past the stereotypes,” agrees Oriana Masiuk, a U of A political science student and youth development worker with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. Her grandparents were among the Second World War political refugees who fled the brutality of the communist regime.

The three represent the future of

the Ukrainian community in Alberta, which has more than a quarter million people of Ukrainian origin and, living in Edmonton, the largest urban concentration of Ukrainian Canadians. It’s a generation light years removed from the poor Ukrainian homesteaders who first arrived here in 1892, removed also from their parents’ generation, whose ties with the old country were severely restricted by the Iron Curtain and who struggled to learn their language and culture in church basement ridni shkoly, language schools, on weekday evenings and Saturdays.

“They think it’s quite normal to study Ukrainian during regular school hours and to fly to Ukraine to attend camp, study, or visit relatives—freedoms that were absolutely incomprehensible to previous generations,” says Roman Petryshyn, director of the Ukrainian Resource and Development Centre at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton. “Each wave of immigrants was shaped by different circumstances and each made its contribution,” he adds.

Early Ukrainian pioneers helped build Alberta. They carved farms out of raw parkland north- and south-east of Edmonton; laboured in the mines and on the railroads; laid down sewers, roads, and water mains in the newly minted provincial capital. They endured appalling conditions and discrimination. Second- and third-generations helped to define Alberta and Canada as pluralistic, multicultural societies, organizing an intensive lobbying campaign with other ethnic communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, Canada became the first country in the world to adopt an official policy of multiculturalism, which was then enshrined in 1981 in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“There’s no doubt that Ukrainian Canadians, led by prominent Albertans, made a singular contribution in advancing a multicultural identity for Canada,” says Petryshyn. “In doing so, they were able to demonstrate that

ethnicity could no longer simply be dismissed as reactionary and inward looking.”

Although they were not able to have minority language rights enshrined in Canada’s new Constitution, they were able to convince the Lougheed government to establish bilingual language programs, in addition to French; seven language programs, including Ukrainian, are now offered in public schools in the province.

It remains to be seen how successful Ukrainians are in retaining their unique, vibrant culture, especially given the widespread loss of language (in 2001, fewer than 12,000 Ukrainian Albertans reported speaking Ukrainian at home). Tough federal immigration laws have also made it difficult for Ukrainians to come to Canada (only 276 immigrated to Alberta in 2001), which deprives the community of a fresh influx of energy. Aging community leaders worry that no one will take over when they step down. “It takes a lot of time to organize events and there’s so much pressure on young people these days,” notes Catherine Chichak, a former Ukrainian Canadian Congress provincial president.

Ukrainian culture in Alberta has been caught in a time warp after decades of isolation from a Soviet-dominated Ukraine, and it needs to become more modern and relevant, says Jars Balan, coordinator of the Ukrainian Canadian Program at the U of A’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. “We can’t preserve our culture in a glass jar anymore,” he says.

“The kids come back from Ukraine all fired up by Ukrainian rock groups and videos; singing folk songs on stage seems a little dated after that.” The resumption of ties with Ukraine since independence in 1991–92 has reinvigorated the community in Alberta, reuniting many people with long-lost family and sparking a desire to help Ukraine through develop-ment and aid programs.

Prystasz, Bilash, and Masiuk have travelled to Ukraine several times and feel a sense of responsibility to the community there as well as a commitment to the one at home. Prystasz organized demonstrations and vigils in Edmonton to support the Orange Revolution which challenged fraudulent presidential elections in Ukraine last winter. Masiuk was among the Canadians who served as observers in the subsequent free vote. The three believe that their Ukrainian language and culture are an asset in a global economy and are grateful for the “sense of instant identity” their heritage provides in what often seems like a borderless, amorphous world. They get impatient with the clichés, but they also respect the time-honoured traditions that underlie many of them. Crack the stereotyped shell of the aluminum pysanka and you find a symbol that dates back to Neolithic times, one promising hope

and renewal.

 

Olenka Melnyk is a freelance writer in Edmonton.

Cultural reflections
Ukrainians in Alberta, by Olenka Melnyk
Vegreville's giant pysanka
LEGACY   Fall 2005
LEGACY   Fall 2005

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