Making Ukrainian Canadians: A Reflection on Identity and Power

Kassandra Luciuk, University of Toronto

It will surprise no one that my dissertation explores the history of Ukrainians in Canada. Enthusiastically raised in the organized Ukrainian Canadian community, my fate was sealed long before I was ever even interested in history.

In fact, without knowing it at the time, the seeds of my doctoral research were planted when I was a teenager. Although there are many stories I could tell, one particular incident stands out. When I was fifteen, my dance group toured Manitoba. After performing at the National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, we headed to Winnipeg to participate in Folklorama, Canada’s longest-running multicultural festival. Folklorama is two weeks long, giving larger communities, like the Ukrainians, an opportunity to let multiple organizations host the pavilion. On the week we happened to arrive, the pavilion was held at the Ukrainian Labour Temple at the corner of Pritchard Ave and McGregor St. The possibility of performing here was controversial. After all, the Labour Temple was for communists. Following much deliberation, it was decided that we would take our talents to the Greek pavilion across town instead.

It would be dishonest to suggest that I emerged from this experience with a full-fledged

Who were the constituents of the Ukrainian Labour Temple? Source: Stavroff-Krawchuk Collection

dissertation topic. It did, however, trigger a series of questions for me. Who were the constituents of the Ukrainian Labour Temple? What did their Ukrainian identity look like? And, perhaps most importantly, why had I never heard of them before?

My interest in the Ukrainian Canadian community, and especially its political left, grew as I pursued my undergraduate degree. I was astonished to learn of the movement’s notable accomplishments, including cradle-to-grave insurance long before the rise of the welfare state, free educational courses for the illiterate and unemployed, and zealous advocacy on behalf of all Canadian workers. I also learned of its various mistakes and outright failures, such as uncritical support for Soviet foreign policy, periods of slavish adherence to the Comintern, and the exile of heretical voices. The point here was that I had discovered a new, alternative history of Ukrainians in Canada and, over time, was developing a more wholesale picture of their lived realities – warts and all.

My undergraduate career had proven that the Ukrainian Canadian left was not missing from the historical record but rather the community record. I realized that the fixed and authoritative account of community life that I had grown up with was, at one time, but a single interpretation amongst many. While I was still curious as to why the left was missing from community narratives, this was now complicated by something else: What happened to the different articulations of Ukrainian-ness that no longer occupied a place within the communal consciousness?

Part of the communal landscape no more                                                           Source: Stavroff-Krawchuk Collection

These are the questions that guide my current research. My dissertation is interested in exploring the process by which a singular Ukrainian Canadian identity was constructed and entrenched. I identify 1940 as the start of this project, when the government simultaneously outlawed the Ukrainian Labour Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA) and established the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), an umbrella organization for nationalist, religious, and populist Ukrainians. The UCC became a monitor for the state and its long-standing preferences, ensuring it significant control over a large, “foreign” population. My dissertation then outlines the vigorous struggle for control that emerged between the UCC and the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians (AUUC), which replaced the ULFTA in 1942. I assess how each organization attempted to secure legitimacy in the eyes of the Canadian public and state and, in turn, solidify monopolistic control over the community. Given the Cold War context, this inherently uneven contest neutralized the AUUC and secured the UCC as the officially-sanctioned representative of Ukrainians in Canada. Lastly, I show how once the UCC’s ideological opponents were subdued, they, in collaboration with state actors, began to publicly instill the values and rhetoric of liberal democracy in its constituents, internally police community narratives, and institute “correct” forms of ethno-religious nationalism.

Each chapter of my dissertation surveys a specific theme in order to understand how hegemony is realized. I explore political policing, symbols and commemoration, education and pedagogy, folklore and culture, national debates, politics and protest, and physical violence. Beyond intra-communal strife, I emphasize the interventionist, and often antagonistic, role of state actors in crafting the community in its desired anti-communist image. In particular, I examine the influence of the RCMP and the Committee on Cooperation on Canadian Citizenship, as well as its various representatives like Watson Kirkconnell, Tracy Philipps, George Simpson, and Vladimir Kaye-Kysilewsky.

At the same time, I pay special attention to the socio-cultural sphere, looking beyond

Tracy Philipps addressing Canadian and American Ukrainians Source: Watson Kirkconnell Collection

formal exchanges and towards the liminal spaces of identity formation and nation building. Since the mercenary elements of the UCC were rarely articulated formally, and were usually directed through public hints and private backchannels, I apply a semiotic reading to reveal the directives of state actors and the way in which they were then executed or commandeered by community representatives. I argue that even the seemingly innocuous expressions of culture were, in fact, politicized attempts at establishing control over the community and a precise aesthetic to the Canadian public.

Despite the intrinsically political nature of this project, it is not interested in the ideological proclivities that marked the Cold War. Nor is it invested in assigning victory or victimhood in a teleological fashion. Instead, the primary drive of this work is to rigorously interrogate articulations of identity, hegemony, and power and the ways in which particular ideological positions can be transformed into normative, common sense truths. This was both top-down and bottom-up, as state actors and community brokers engaged one another to their own distinct ends.

Ten years after my first introduction to the Labour Temple, I found myself back at the corner of Pritchard Ave and McGregor St. I had been invited to give a paper on Ukrainian Canadian internees during World War One at a conference on civilian internment in Canada. The circuitous route back here contained a deep irony that was not lost on me. This proscribed space, that had spurred my interest in Ukrainian Canadian history, now offered me a lectern to share what I had learned over the last ten years. And this time, the Labour Temple did not manifest as a specter haunting the edges of my Ukrainian consciousness. Rather, it stood exactly as it was – a monument to the complex tapestry that constituted Ukrainian life in Canada.

Kassandra Luciuk is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. She currently holds the Corsini Fellowship in Canadian History at the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History. Her work is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

Cover Image: PM Diefenbaker bestowing legitimacy on the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Source: Shevchenko Foundation

2 thoughts on “Making Ukrainian Canadians: A Reflection on Identity and Power

  1. It’s the 100th anniversary of the ULFTA/AUUC this year and my 4-year old daughter is dancing and singing at the anniversary show next month. Meanwhile I have played music and sung in Orthodox and Banderist halls. The old divisions don’t matter so much to me, but they still leave scars in the community, and especially in history and memory politics. The AUUC is never represented at a Holodomor remembrance, for example, nor numerous other community gatherings.

    Also, I’m glad to see the ULFTA is still a major research interest to you, as I met you once and talked a little about it. Congrats on the dissertation.


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