From perogies to politics, Ukrainians have made an indelible mark on Manitoba's identity

From peasant farmers leaving an aging empire to modern-day information technology specialists, Ukrainians of all stripes have made Manitoba their home over the course of its history and shaped much of its identity to this day.

The first family of Ukrainian immigrants arrived in Manitoba in 1891

Early Ukrainian immigrants to Manitoba brought many of their cultural traditions with them, including music and clothes. (University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

From peasant farmers leaving an aging empire to modern-day information technology specialists, Ukrainians of all stripes have made Manitoba their home over the course of its history and shaped much of its identity to this day.

"Ukrainian-Canadians in Canada, and in Manitoba in particular, are an extremely vibrant and dynamic group that have contributed a lot to the cultural, historical, political and other spheres of development of Manitoba," said Yuliia Ivaniuk, co-ordinator of the Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies at the University of Manitoba.

In Canada, which has the second-largest Ukrainian diaspora group in the world after Russia, Manitoba has the largest proportion of people who identify as Ukrainian with more than 180,000 people. 

Over more than a century of living here, Ukrainian-Manitobans have left an indelible stamp on the identity of this province.

"Even the fact that pretty much anyone in Manitoba knows what perogies are, or is involved in some way in Ukrainian dancing, or knows what it is, is already a great sign of the Ukrainians' influence on the province," Ivaniuk said.

The first wave

The first ethnic Ukrainians arrived in Manitoba from what were then provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1890s, although other groups from what would eventually become known as the country of Ukraine, such as Mennonites, began arriving decades earlier.

The first Ukrainian family came to Manitoba in 1891 and settled on a farm near Gretna, where many Mennonites who spoke the Ukrainian language already lived, according to an article published in 1951 by the Manitoba Historical Society in celebration of the 60th anniversary of their arrival.

Over the next two decades, the Canadian government actively recruited Ukrainians to settle the Prairies with offers of cheap land. 

They brought many of their cultural practices with them, building Ukrainian Orthodox Churches with their distinctive bulbous spires, and establishing schools that followed their own traditions.

The ability to live together and practise their language, religion and traditions was an important factor for many Ukrainian immigrants who chose to live in Manitoba. This photograph shows several Ukrainian immigrants in Ethelbert, Man. around 1911-1912. (University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

While farming attracted most of the immigrants during the first wave, which lasted until about the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, some Ukrainians began to take up residence in Winnipeg, particularly in Point Douglas and the North End.

They worked in the railway yards, construction projects, meat-packing plants and iron works of the booming city. 

Many of the earliest immigrants didn't actually call themselves Ukrainians, instead referring to themselves as Ruthenians, Ivaniuk says.

That would change with the second wave of Ukrainian migration to Manitoba, in the years between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second World War.

"At that time, they were coming from western Ukraine, which was under Polish rule, and they were extremely well aware of their Ukrainian identity as they were being politically suppressed back home," Ivaniuk said.

Culture and politics

Whereas people in the first wave settled primarily on the land, the second wave brought large numbers of Ukrainian-Canadians to the cities, where they established many of their own cultural and political organizations.

The Ukrainian Labour Temple would feature prominently as a gathering place during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

In the early decades of Ukrainian migration, there were periods of backlash from the larger Canadian society. 

After Canada declared war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, thousands of Ukrainians were placed in labour camps across the country, including at the Fort Osborne Barracks in Winnipeg.

Some families changed their names to hide their origins. 

The first wave of Ukrainian immigration to Manitoba came primarily seeking farmland, while later waves settled mostly in urban areas. This photograph shows a woman in traditional sheepskin coat at a railway station in Emerson in 1922. (Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre Archives)

The third wave of Ukrainian migration, roughly between the end  of the Second World War and the early 1960s, brought a large number of educated members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia fleeing the Soviet Union. 

These people made great efforts to preserve their language and culture, in the hopes that they would eventually return to Ukraine, although that would not be possible for many until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

At the same time, they contributed greatly to the cultural, artistic and political life of Manitoba, and helped to develop the country's policy of multiculturalism.

"They believed that it was important for different nationalities to have the ability to represent and to practise their unique cultural ways, and to share their history and their ways of living with others," Ivaniuk said. 

Modern day

The strength of the Ukrainian identity among Manitobans is partly what led Dmytro Malyk to move to this province in 2014. 

"Why we decided to come to Manitoba, first, one of the most significant factors was the presence of a huge Ukrainian community," said Malyk, the vice-president of the Manitoba branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

"We kind of knew that we would not be left alone, that we would be able to find people within our cultural framework — that we would be able to maintain our national identity and be able to help our son to stay Ukrainian-Canadian."

One under-researched area of scholarship is the relationship between Ukrainian communities and Indigenous people in Manitoba, Ivaniuk says.

She recalls recently seeing a post on social media by an Indigenous man speaking about how his grandmother adopted the practice of wearing a headscarf or babushka. 

"And eventually they couldn't even tell whose tradition it is that they were so close with one another," she said.

The fourth wave of Ukrainian migration to Manitoba began after 1991. 

They brought with them diverse skills. Many of them, including Malyk, work as information technology specialists.

"This is an opportunity to come to another country, to try new opportunities, to try to live in a different world," he said.

Ivaniuk says some scholars say we are in a fifth wave of Ukrainian migration, which began after the Maidan uprising in 2014 that overthrew a Russian-backed regime and ushered in a more Western-oriented government.

It is that government that is in danger of being toppled by the Russian military. 

For Malyk, one of the most attractive things about Canada for Ukrainians has been its democratic tradition, something it shares with the current Ukrainian government. 

"Ukraine does have problems," he said. "Democratic institutions there are not perfect. However, they are democratic, no matter what."