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Winnipeg Free Press | 23Jun2012 | Bill Redekop

Ukrainian community, scarred by Holodomor, helped shape Winnipeg's cultural mosaic

The letter writer denied the Ukrainian Holodomor, in a letter to the editor two years ago in the Carillon newspaper, which serves southeastern Manitoba.

The Holodomor, the state-imposed famine that starved millions of Ukrainian people to death in 1932-33, never happened, the writer argued. He called it the "supposed Russian-induced famine of 1933," and twice referred to it indignantly as "the phoney famine."

"Why do I have a problem with this particular famine of 1933? Because all the population demographics that can be dredged up for Ukraine in 1933 show an increase in population, not a 10-million population decrease."

Of course, the letter is beneath debate. But when such a claim is so easily refuted, it might as well be.

What the letter writer neglected to say is why census figures showed a population increase. In 1937, a national census was taken in the Soviet Union, the first since 1926. It was never published, because it didn't show the population increase Soviet dictator Josef Stalin wanted.

Instead, census-board members were arrested and shot for "treasonably exerting themselves to diminish the population of the USSR."

Whatever. When you're a despot, you make up the laws as you go along.

Another census was conducted in 1939, the one the letter writer refers to. It was much more to Stalin's liking, and showed the republic to be prosperous and growing.

It was a total lie.

Rest assured, Holodomor deniers will only make Ukrainian Canadians stronger. But the letter underscores how difficult it has been for the Ukrainian community to gain recognition for the millions of countrymen who were deliberately starved to death in the Great Famine.

By conservative estimates, 3.5 million Ukrainians died of starvation in the Holodomor of 1932-33. Some scholars have put the figure at five million and the Ukrainian government claims it's as high as seven million.

You have to imagine starvation. It's a very slow death. Bodies swell, maggots start to eat bodies before death, according to survivors' accounts.

People ate horse manure to try to stay alive.

The famine was phoney in one respect: It wasn't caused by weather. Stalin used famine as a weapon against the Soviet Union's best farmers to break their resistance to his disastrous collectivized-farming campaign.

Stalin kept the people in Ukrainian cities alive -- after executing the intelligentsia -- because the government needed the money from urban industry.

But he ordered the ransacking of every cupboard and bin and the confiscating of livestock in the countryside where the vast majority lived. People in towns, collective farms and more than 20,000 villages starved to death.

"They took every piece of food. They'd empty pots of potatoes on the stove," said Myroslav Shkandrij, professor of Slavic studies at the University of Manitoba.

Then, border guards sealed off cities to keep starving peasants out. Protesters who tried to get at granaries stuffed with confiscated grain were mowed down with machine-guns. People taking the train reported seeing corpses strewn across the landscape.

Stories are legion: A woman seven months pregnant was beaten to death with a board for picking a few kernels of wheat; a man was tried and executed for hiding a piece of bread under a pile of clover (Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest).

Men died first, then children, then women. Shkandrij said it officially became genocide when a law was passed declaring "local nationalism is the main enemy of the Soviet Union."

"It's very hard to believe that you could starve to death between three and five million people and get away with it. It just sounds so incredible, especially when the Soviet Union was selling grain on the open market. Countries were buying grain from them. How could there possibly be a famine?" said Shkandrij, whose paper on the Holodomor will be published in an upcoming issue of Polin, a journal of Polish-Jewish studies.

Even today, a mere 36 photos of the Great Famine have survived. However, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, more documents are emerging detailing the Holodomor atrocities.

It is why the Ukrainian Canadian Congress argues this is the perfect time to memorialize the Holodomor; this is the perfect place, Winnipeg, in the centre of the continent, with its prominent Ukrainian population; and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the perfect platform, the congress argues, for a permanent Holodomor exhibit.

Others, such as Shkandrij, take a broader view. Shkandrij suggests the human rights museum consider one large Holodomor-to-Holocaust exhibit, a single permanent exhibit examining the sheer madness of that period in European history. From 1933 to 1945, Hitler and Stalin murdered and starved more than 14 million civilians and prisoners of war.

Timothy Snyder, the leading American historian on Eastern Europe, advocated this broader panorama during a recent visit to the University of Manitoba. He suggested the human rights museum include a pavilion on the history of human rights, a pavilion on human rights in Canada, a European pavilion covering the 1930s and '40s and an international pavilion.

A 1933-45 European exhibit makes sense because the release of so much new information on Eastern Europe has resulted in historians' complete "reconceptualization" of that period, said Shkandrij. A Holodomor-to-Holocaust exhibit would include all Eastern and Western Europe, a complete picture of the madness of that time.

This article is not a debate on that issue. But perhaps the Canadian Museum for Human Rights should not be too quick to dismiss the Ukrainian position. This isn't the first time the Ukrainian community has thrust itself into the public eye with an unwelcome message.

When the federal government set up its Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the 1960s, one panel member, Jaroslav Rudnyckyj, of Winnipeg's Ukrainian community, issued a minority report.

What about the rest of us? Rudnyckyj asked. Canada was multicultural, not bicultural, he argued. His report started the ball rolling for Canada's policy on multiculturalism. Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau acknowledged as much when he announced the country's first multicultural policy at a Ukrainian event in Winnipeg.

We probably don't realize how influential Ukrainian Canadians have been in Manitoba and Canada.

"When Ukraine came in, they were probably the single largest non-French, non-English group, that came, settled in the West and changed the social geography of Canada," said John Lehr, University of Winnipeg geography professor, whose new book is Community and Frontier: A Ukrainian Settlement in the Canadian Parkland.

-- -- --

The 2006 Canadian census showed 167,000 people in Manitoba identified themselves as Ukrainian.

The first Ukrainian immigrants to Canada arrived in 1891 near Edmonton and a second migration of 28 families, totalling 94 people, settled in the Stuartburn area of southeastern Manitoba in 1896. Most of those first immigrants to Western Canada were from the provinces of Bukovina and Galicia in Western Ukraine. They had essentially come for the opportunity to farm and for their children to own land.

The Ukrainians were settled on just about the poorest farmland available, swamp, peat, poplar forest and stony fields that were often beyond cultivation.

But they continued to settle there even when better prairie was available because it was land on which a person could work at subsistence farming. It had water, a little bit of open prairie for crops and for livestock to graze, and forests for timber for homes, fences and firewood.

Subsequent waves of immigrant Ukrainians followed, settling on aspen parkland running from southeastern Manitoba through the Interlake and into Dauphin and the Parkland area surrounding Riding Mountain National Park all the way to the Peace River district in Alberta.

In Winnipeg, the North End was the first residence for most urban Ukrainians.

They were met with hostility from the British Canadian establishment. The Winnipeg Telegram called the new pioneers "the scum of Europe," "moral lepers," and "the sweepings of European gaols," as Lehr mentions in his new book.

But they followed a pattern of other immigrants. First they built their famous pear-topped churches, many of which resemble Disney-like castles. They built their own schools to preserve their language. They developed many of their own services and institutions.

One of them is the Ukrainian Labour Temple, which helped in the formation of the Communist Party of Canada. They established Ukrainian credit unions.


Ukrainians interviewed seemed weary at having media fuss over their traditional foods yet again. It's not a new story. Even so, it's remarkable how perogies, kielbasa and holubtsi have become part of the diet of all Manitobans, not just Ukrainian Canadians.

Who's got the best perogies? Many Ukrainians would say their local church. Ukrainian people buy a lot of their perogies from churches, which use the sales as fundraisers.

One example is the St. Ivan Suchavsky Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral at 939 Main St. It even has a Perogy Hotline (942-1991). It is one of the longest-running perogy-sale fundraisers in the province, started in 1967. Volunteers make about 1,000 dozen perogies a week. There is no freezing. All are sold same-day fresh. The church sells to the general public and some delicatessens.

The perogies are made every Thursday and Friday by the Perogy Club of mostly retired seniors. People phone in orders on the Perogy Hotline Wednesday-Friday.

About 15 volunteers show up to make perogies. Many are in their 80s and some, Doris Skakun for one, are older than that.

Skakun, 90, has been making perogies every week for the past 45 years. She remembers when the Perogy Club sold perogies for 25 cents a dozen. Today, they sell for $4.25.

"I love people, and that's why I love doing this," she said.

"The volunteers amaze me," said Dorothy Hardy, who is in charge of the program. "They will come out rain or shine. Some of them require a cane, and many of them take the bus."

The Perogy Club rakes in about $40,000 a year, covering at least a third of the church's annual costs. The Perogy Club also makes other products such as holubtsi. All that for a tiny parish of just 125 people!


Ukrainian polka bands and dances were a huge part of Manitoba's entertainment scene in the 1950s and '60s. A polka dance could be found any night of the week, and were for younger people, not for seniors.

The original polka bands only needed a fiddle and tsymbaly, similar to a hammer dulcimer. Ukrainian bands added accordion after the Second World War, then came drums and then came the influence of country music in the form of guitars.

Local musicians included people such as accordionists Ted and Ron Komar, fiddlers Tommy Buick and Steve Myk, the Interlake Polka Kings.

Husband-and-wife team Mickey and Bunny (Modest Sklepowich and Orysia Evanchuk), who, in the early 1960s, translated Ukrainian songs into English and English pop songs into Ukrainian. Their This Land is Your Land album, with lyrics sung half in English, half in Ukrainian, sold more than 50,000 copies.

"There was no exchange of cultural information (between Ukrainian Canadians and Ukraine) during the Cold War, so people here had to create their own culture and music," said Brian Cherwick, a former Winnipegger with a PhD in Ukrainian folklore and ethnology, now working in St. John's, N.L.

The famous Mandolin Orchestra, which started in the 1920s, grew out of that self-reliance, as did programs in choral music and traditional dance.

Three Ukrainian music labels sprang up in Winnipeg: Regis Records in the 1950s; V-Records; and Sunshine Records. V-Records would produce the first single for Neil Young's band, the Squires.

"A whole record industry actually evolved in Winnipeg and grew across the Prairies," said Cherwick.

Sunshine Records, owned by former V-Records employee Ness Shydlowsky, started in 1974 and still operates on Selkirk Avenue. Its Ukrainian label, Baba's Records, is currently re-releasing the entire catalogue of Mickey and Bunny albums, about a dozen in total, on compact disc.

"We're trying to preserve this music and the heritage and traditions," said Shydlowsky.

The polka gave way to new music. Ukrainian musicians were influential in the early rock 'n' roll days with people such as Joey Gregorash and the Mongrels, (his dad was well-known Ukrainian fiddler, Jim Gregorash); guitarist Derek Bylyk of the Deverons; drummer Ken Hordichuk of the Shondels; the D-Drifters; and Randy Bachman, who is Ukrainian on his mother's side. Among contemporary Ukrainian Canadian musicians are Chantal Kreviazuk and Alexis Kochan, with her group, Paris to Kyiv.


If the Sons of the Ukrainian Pioneers have their way, the new Disraeli Bridge will also have a new name: Steve Juba Way.

Juba was Winnipeg's first non-Anglo-Saxon mayor, serving from 1957 to 1977. He was a natural salesman, starting two small businesses before he was 21, and his wholesale distributing firm, Keystone Supply Ltd., made him rich. He was in his 40s when he became mayor.

He was a flamboyant self-promoter. He ditched the city-issued car and chauffeur, driving around in his own bright-yellow Cadillac instead. (Some accounts say it was a plum-coloured.)

He promoted himself as a man of the people, and was brash and politically cagey.

"Steve Juba was fast with his mouth. But he was also fast with his mind," writes Herb Schulz, in his book, A View From the Ledge: An Insider's Look at the Schreyer Years.

Schulz tells of the opening of the Imperial Tower on Broadway. Then-industry minister Leonard Evans was about to smash a bottle of champagne to "christen" the building when Juba suddenly yanked the bottle out of his hands. Juba dropped it in a bucket and had it pulleyed up to the roof where some men were working.

"There is no point in wasting good champagne. The hard-working guys on the roof will enjoy it," Juba told the stunned Evans.

"It was arguably the most spontaneously astute political act I have ever witnessed," wrote Schulz.


Manitoba's most beloved Ukrainian Canadian criminal was Stan Zedd, the kingpin of illegal crap-game operations in Winnipeg from the 1930s and 1950s. He also ran an illegal international bookie joint.

Even police officers vouched Zedd was more trustworthy than a banker.

Mind you, Zedd would send frozen turkeys to Winnipeg's finest every Christmas so officers might tip him off when a raid was coming, which they did. Those were the days.

"To us, he was a hero," CBC personality Larry Zolf once said. Zedd was known as "a fixer," always helping people in the North End, Zolf said.

Zedd was also a great sportsman -- with a cigar always jammed in the side of his mouth -- and owner of the Winnipeg Buffaloes in the former Man-Dak baseball league, fielding the only all-black baseball team from players unemployed when the Negro Leagues disbanded.

Again, it was Zedd helping the underdog. Someone like musical playwright Danny Shur should bring Zedd back.

New blood

Twin brothers Oleh and Nazar Poshelyuzhnyy, 19, are the new faces of the Ukrainian community. They arrived in Dauphin with their parents three years ago and moved to Winnipeg last year to attend university.

It's a super-smart family. Oleh is studying engineering, Nazar is in business administration, and mom, Seitlana, has two degrees.

But it's still not easy. Part of the trouble is Seitlana's degrees -- one in nursing -- aren't recognized here. She is hoping to work in child care.

Their father, Volodymyr, had his own custom-made door and window business in Ukraine but here he does maintenance work in an apartment building.

The language and culture are also hurdles, despite the strong Ukrainian culture here.

"We didn't expect it to be such a great change," said Oleh, who has summer work doing website development for the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

Even so, the salaries are better and career opportunities for the twins will be better, too. Family connections and the promise of a better life for the kids lured the family here.

Immigration from Ukraine to Manitoba had virtually stopped in the early 1990s. It has been resurrected thanks the to the Provincial Nominee Program. About 250 people a year in each of the last dozen years have emigrated from Ukraine, which is about the size of France.

Winnipeg, with 110,335 people listing themselves as Ukrainian in the 2006 census, is the third-largest centre for Ukrainian Canadians after Edmonton, 144,620 and Toronto, 122,510.

The provinces with the largest Ukrainian populations (single and multiple origins, 2006) are: Ontario, 336,355; Alberta, 332,180; British Columbia 197,265; Manitoba, 167,175; and Saskatchewan, 129,265.

In the United States, major centres of the Ukrainian diaspora are New York, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, in that order of Ukrainian population size, according to the 2006 U.S. census.


Yes, Ukrainians even invented socials. They were a Ukrainian custom to help couples get a start in married life.

"These gatherings are usually held in community clubs, and although there are some creative variances, the standard social is best characterized by late-night snacks that include rye bread, pickles, kielbasa and cubed cheese.

Pretzels and Old Dutch chips are spread around on tables, and at some point the DJ will play YMCA by the Village People, Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin and some polkas (from the Manitoba Encyclopedia).


Chalk up another one to the Ukrainian community. One has to be careful of giving too much credit to any one individual or ethnicity, but the Ukrainian community was certainly front and centre in Folklorama's creation in 1970, led by people such as Leon Kossar, a Winnipeg Tribune reporter at the time, and Cecil Semchyshyn.


The influence here, beyond the obvious religious one, is beautification of the countryside with their pear-domed roofs. The grandest may be the Ukrainian Immaculate Conception at Cook's Creek.

But up close, many people are surprised to find the brick exterior isn't brick at all, but concrete stencilled with black marker to look like brick; and the marble pillars inside aren't marble real marble, either.

Some people have described that as kitsch. Not true. Think of it more as in the old Beatles song, Can't Buy Me Love: "I may not have a lot to give, but what I've got I'll give to you."

Lack of money didn't stop the early Ukrainians from building the most beautiful cathedrals imaginable.

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Ukrainian immigration by the numbers

1989 0-5

1990 0-5

1991 0-5

1992 10

1993 40

1994 35

1995 30

1996 85

1997 80

1998 95

1999 110

2000 170

2001 120

2002 175

2003 165

2004 300

2005 225

2006 245

2007 315

2008 225

2009 245

2010 485

2011 275

-- statistics only available since 1989

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J1