Ukrainian multicultural dance felt 'tokenistic,' says Indigenous dancer

A "Thank you to Canada" dance performed by the Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble at Saskatoon's annual Folkfest is being called "a mockery" despite the group's good intentions.

Saskatoon Folkfest performance incorporated other cultures, including drumming and powwow dancing

Ukrainian dance performance at Saskatoon Folkfest


4 years ago
A Saskatchewan Ukrainian dance group incorporates First Nation clothing and dance into a multicultural performance. 0:54

A "Thank you to Canada" dance performed by the Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble at Saskatoon's annual Folkfest is being called "a mockery" despite the group's good intentions.

Two women who saw the performance Saturday evening also recorded it, and posted the video to Facebook, with commentary on the offensiveness of the piece.

The dance involves costumes and traditional dance from several ethnic groups, including two dancers in First Nations costume, performing a seemingly Indigenous dance.

"Although it kind of looked like a dance, it wasn't showing my culture's dances' honour in the way I would hope to," said Janelle Pewapsconius, herself a powwow dancer.

"Beyond those things happening to us, and being offended, our faces, our emotions, are on display for non-Indigenous people around us."

'They started off with good intentions'

Before the dance began, Janelle and her sister Betty Pewapsconius were looking forward to the Ukrainian pavilion's entertainment.

"I'm very fond of their ballet dance," said Janelle Pewapsconius.

There was an introduction of sorts before the performance, but neither woman was able to hear it.

Janelle Pewapsconias, right, and her sister Betty Pewapsconias saw the controversial dance at Saskatoon Folkfest's Ukrainian pavillion Saturday night. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

"As the dance proceeded, they did their regular ballet part, and a male and female dancer came out," said Janelle Pewapsconius

"I found it a bit odd because their cultural regalia, or outfits ... I had a little bit of a chuckle despite all the triggering factors, because it wasn't very well put-together."

Despite an obvious effort by the pavilion co-ordinators to be inclusive, Janelle Pewapsconius says it felt "tokenistic."

"Even beyond this cultural performance, a lot of Indigenous inclusion is very tokenistic," she said.

 "Each song has a significant meaning, each feather has a significant meaning and has to be earned, and it's a way of healing for lots of people."- Betty Pewapsconius

The women are certain organizers had the best of intentions, but are disappointed with the outcome.

"Even as a person who doesn't dance, I know each song has a significant meaning, each feather has a significant meaning and has to be earned, and it's a way of healing for lots of people," said Betty Pewapsconius.

Bonita Beatty, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan's Department of Indigenous Studies, agrees with the sisters.

"It was surprising to me, in this day and age, particularly with all the media around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and duties to consult even in the social aspect," she said.

'Created with gratitude, love and respect'

The Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble posted a statement to Facebook, saying the dance was created by Serhij Koroliuk around the time he received Canadian citizenship in 2003.

"It was created with gratitude, love, and respect to all of the cultures that make Canada so wonderfully diverse," according to the statement, and has been performed around the world and across Canada.

Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble posted a response to the controversy on Facebook, Sunday evening. (Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble/Facebook)

The dance also includes depictions of Scottish, Irish, Spanish, and Ukrainian cultures.

Pavlychenko Folklorique's statement included names of people from each community depicted, who had been consulted during the creation of the dance, according to the group.

CBC contacted the person consulted for the Indigenous portion of the dance, and has yet to receive comment.

Organizers of Saskatoon Folkfest declined to comment on the dance, or the public reaction.

Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble declined to speak to CBC News, and would not say whether the dancers representing Indigenous culture in the performance were Indigenous.

"One of the things people fail to understand, or don't acknowledge, is that Indigenous people across Canada are not all the same and they have diverse cultures, diverse languages," said Beatty.

Tokenism, as Janelle Pewapsconias characterizes the dance, is just a step away from stereotype, according to Beatty.

"It is based on lack of information, and based on not taking the time to find out and getting to know people."

Bonita Beatty is a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, in the Department of Indigenous Studies. (University of Saskatchewan website)

According to Pavlychenko Folklorique's statement, the dance was choreographed in 2003. Beatty said much has changed in the decade and a half since the dance was created.

"You've had a lot of really good advocacy, and people are aware of treaties and cultural respect, and needing to talk to people."

'Asking for a little respect'

After speaking out on Facebook, Betty Pewapsconius said she has been shocked by the nature of some comments from other users.

She shared the video of the performance with the caption "Who thought this was a good idea?!"

"I appreciate the people asking why, and I will be more than happy to share my perspective on it," she said.

Some have told her she is using hate speech by criticizing the performance.

"It is interesting how asking for respect in 2017 is considered hate, or victim. I'm not a victim. We're not victims. We're just asking for a little respect or equality to represent ourselves."


Bridget Yard is a journalist and content creator based in the Greater Toronto Area. Originally from Schumacher, a small mining community in northern Ontario, she spent a decade pursuing a career in journalism close to home, then in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan with CBC.