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Chapter 5. Immigration and the Immigrant Experience

5.6 The Ukrainian Westerners

Of the Prairie immigrants, few were so visible numerically as the Ukrainians. Outwardly a homogeneous group, the Ukrainian experience as immigrants was defined far more by their internal divisions. As part of the Empire of Austria-Hungary, they came from one of the most ethnically and denominationally diverse nations on Earth. The Catholicism of Polish-Ukrainians contrasted sharply with the Orthodox Christianity of Ukrainians, who had stronger connections to Russia. Differences of dialect were important too, but the centrality of religion to the peasant life in Galicia produced deep rifts between the immigrant communities when they arrived in Canada.

Canadian administrators were frustrated by these divisions. They were obliged to keep immigrants who came from Bukovyna (now in northern Romania and southwestern Ukraine) separate from those originating in Halychnya (stretching west from Bukovyna to southeastern Poland), both on the land and even in the immigration sheds. The immigrants’ desire was to settle in blocks, which Ottawa preferred. As was the case with Mennonites and Doukhobors, Ukrainian block settlement improved the chances of economic and agricultural success, and the block settlements tended to fill up with chain migration. Among the Ukrainians, however, there was a definite preference to settle in either Bukovynan or Halychnyi blocks, regardless of the quality of the land. In 1898 one land commissioner despaired to the deputy minister,

They are apparently an obstreperous, obstinate, rebellious lot. I am just sick of these people. They are worse than cattle to handle. You cannot get them, by persuasion or argument, to go to a new colony except by force. They all want to go where the others have gone.[1]

What the land commissioner disliked were the very things that leant strength to the newcomer population: cultural integrity, mutual support, and the ability to fabricate an expatriate community based around familiar institutions and practices. Distinctive dialects survived; churches were sustained; and agricultural techniques refined in the Steppe and forests of Eastern Europe were honed further to suit conditions on the Prairies. Their ability to succeed in these respects helps to explain the scale of Ukrainian settlement; by 1914 there were 170,000 immigrants from Galicia in the West.[2] The strategies that made Ukrainian and other block settlements viable were antithetical to the Anglo-Celtic Canadian ideals of individualism and the family as the principal independent productive unit; they were also at odds with various legal practices associated with property ownership and liability, as well as representing a serious challenge to cultural assimilation. One study has argued that:

The emergence of ethnic communities played a useful role in helping their members to adjust from one linguistic environment to another, and sometimes from a rural way of living to an urban one. However, in some cases, the ethnic community acted as a brake on the individual achievement and social mobility of its members.[3]

Although Canadian officials might have in mind a variety of schemes for achieving immigrant assimilation, contexts varied sharply across the West and in urban centres. The question of adaptation was, more often than not, one of immigrant strategy rather than host-nation policy.

Key Points

  • Immigrants from the Ukraine included people with very different and sometimes mutually hostile backgrounds.
  • Established Canadians of British or French ancestry tended to view the Ukrainians as a homogeneous group.
  • Building communities around block settlements enabled the survival of pre-emigration values and cultural features while sometimes dampening the need or ability to adapt to the Canadian host culture.

  1. W. F. McCreary, Commissioner of Immigration, Winnipeg, to J. A. Smart, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Ottawa, 14 May 1897, RG 76, vol. 144, file 34215, pt.1, Public Archives of Canada, quoted in John C. Lehr, “Kinship and Society in the Ukrainian Pioneer Settlement of the Canadian West,” People, Places, Patterns, Processes: Geographical Perspectives on the Canadian Past, ed. Graeme Wynn (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1990): 141-2.
  2. See John C. Lehr, “Kinship and Society in the Ukrainian Pioneer Settlement of the Canadian West,” People, Places, Patterns, Processes: Geographical Perspectives on the Canadian Past, ed. Graeme Wynn (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1990): 139-60.
  3. Donald H. Avery, Reluctant Hosts: Canada’s Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), 12.

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5.6 The Ukrainian Westerners by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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