National Post Staff
November 10, 2020
The late Ukrainian Canadian poet Michael Gowda, who in 1907 enlisted in the Canadian Home Guard and sought to create a Ukrainian regiment to serve the British army, once wrote a series of verses addressed directly to his new homeland.
Written from the perspective of an immigrant allowed to live in Canada primarily to colonize the prairie, as 170,000 Ukrainians did between 1891 and 1914, “To Canada” describes these new Canadians as in some sense merely “holders of thy soil.” To be recognized as fully Canadian, their people would have to fight and even die for Canada. It would take a blood sacrifice for their children to one day be “free to call thee theirs,” as the poem reads.
It is an outmoded vision of Canadian citizenship but no less powerful for the cultural change that has occurred since then, as Ukrainian Canadians established themselves in Canada over many generations, with veterans of every war Canada has fought.
Award-winning Winnipeg filmmaker John Paskievich said this poem “proved prophetic.” The sacrifice was real, and the sense of belonging was finally ensured.
His new documentary, A Canadian War Story, describes Ukrainian Canadians’ contribution to Canada’s war efforts. Working for the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, he and other researchers tracked down details of veterans in Legion Halls and various archives, and gave voice to old correspondences.
As a story of racist exclusion giving way to acceptance, the film also offers a chance to reflect on the ethnic diversity of military service, especially from an ethnicity of Canadians who, like Japanese Canadians, were once persecuted as enemy aliens, even interned in work camps.
For Ukrainian Canadians in the late 19th and early 20th century, many of whom immigrated with the promise of title to a quarter section if they could farm it, resentment and suspicion were the norm. The film quotes then Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell referring to the consternation felt by established Canadians as trainloads passed through Ontario on their way west, filled with “disgusting creatures… beings bearing human form” but having “sunk to such a bestial level.”
That was the climate in which Gowda tried to create a Ukrainian Canadian regiment as the threat of war grew in Europe. Canada was not interested. On the contrary, Ukrainians were suspected of sympathy for the enemy Austro-Hungarian empire, from where they came. Those who were not naturalized were forced to register as enemy aliens. Others were disenfranchised, and some were interned in forced labour camps.
There were exceptions, and the film describes how Filip Konowal, a Ukrainian Canadian from the allied Russian empire, became the only Eastern European- born person to win the Victoria Cross, for “most conspicuous bravery and leadership when in charge of a section in attack.”
The second wave of Ukrainian immigration in the 1920s was similarly met with broad racism and exclusion. By the end of the 1930s, the reasons for enlisting were similar to other Canadians — patriotism, duty, excitement, lack of other work — but with that added cultural sense that Gowda’s blood sacrifice had not yet been paid.
The film quotes veterans such as Joseph Romanow of Saskatoon, who described an awareness that Ukrainian Canadians mustn’t be seen as second-rate citizens, and one way to do that was to fight for their country.
John Yuzyk of Rhein, Sask., said the economic climate was also so bad that “guys joined up because it paid and you could get three square meals a day.”
Ann Crapleve of Ladywood, Man., who would later participate in reconstruction efforts after the war, said: “I was a Canadian and wanted to do my bit for the country.”
The film ends with a description of Ukrainian Canadians assisting in this effort to rebuild
Europe, and sometimes finding Ukrainians in camps for displaced persons, and facilitating their immigration to Canada rather than repatriation to the Soviet Union.
You can watch the film at www.canadianwarstory.com