The province of Saskatchewan has proclaimed 2016 to be the Year of Saskatchewan Ukrainians. This designation acknowledges the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the first Ukrainian immigrants in Canada.
Both my husband’s and my ancestors were among those hardy souls arriving here in the first great immigration wave. Those who came left Ukraine to escape an oppressive regime and many wanted to avoid military duty. But more than this, they were enticed by the possibility of purchasing their own farmland and by the hopes of providing better opportunities for themselves and their children.
My husband’s paternal grandfather (Gedo) had been drafted into the army by the ruling Austro-Hungarian Empire where his quick wit soon earned him a promotion to an officer position. But when his girlfriend and her family decided to emigrate to Canada, he asked to be released from military duty. He was promptly denied! For two years he continued to seek permission and for two years he continued to be turned down. He finally realized that if he ever hoped to see his sweetheart again, he would have to find another way. So he hopped on board a cattle ship destined for Canada and finally made his way to a new home as a stowaway. (And for the romantics out there – yes, he caught up to his girlfriend and married her.)
Interestingly enough, my paternal grandfather’s story is very similar. Although he had not yet been drafted into the army, he did follow his girlfriend to Canada as a stowaway on a ship. He followed his heart, but left behind his family never to see them again. The stories of so many of those early Ukrainian settlers are equally as enthralling.
At the time, many Canadians questioned the wisdom of Laurier’s government in allowing these Slavic foreigners into the country. Ukrainians were often met with curious stares and sometimes with outright hostility. But Sir Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, defended this decision by declaring that, “a stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations…is good quality.”
Sifton’s conviction would come to be fulfilled as these settlers became excellent farmers, clearing the land and settling the “Last, Best West” as it was dubbed. Subsequent generations of Ukrainians would enter every profession and come to hold many high offices of power. They would greatly contribute to the success of this province and country.
Today, more than 13%, which is about 136,000 people, in Saskatchewan trace their ancestry to Ukraine. And, today, as part of the most recent immigration wave, Ukraine is the 4th highest provider of new residents to this ever-growing province.
Ukrainian culture through its food, dance and art has been woven into the very fabric of our province, so that in some small way, we can all say we are Ukrainian!