Thousands of miles from war in Ukraine, Canadian students study the language, culture and religion of their ancestors in Eastern Europe.

Canadians nurture ties to their former home Ukraine

Protesters demonstrate against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 27 February 2022. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Five days after Russia invaded Ukraine, more than 7,000 students in western Canada were asked to wear blue and yellow to show their support for the besieged Eastern European country, thousands of miles away.

Peter Rachmistruk, principal of a St. Nicholas Catholic School in Canada’s Alberta province, said a prayer on the intercom before asking for a moment of silence.

Some of the students at St. Nicholas had a special reason to heed Mr. Rachmistruk’s instruction. As at numerous other schools on the Canadian prairies, many of them are of Ukrainian descent and spend several hours a day studying in Ukrainian.

At St. Nicholas, located on the outskirts of Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, roughly half of the kindergarten to Grade 4 students are enrolled in the Ukrainian bilingual program. They take English language, Math and Science in English, but all other subjects — Social Studies, Religion, Ukrainian language, Art, Music and Physical Education — in Ukrainian.

Immigrants started coming from Ukraine to Canada in the late 1800s.

Canada is home to more than 1.3 million people of Ukrainian descent, the largest diaspora outside Russia before the war started on February 24. Concentrated in the western Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Ukrainian Canadians have considerable political influence, and the current deputy prime minister and finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, is of Ukrainian descent.

Ukrainians started immigrating to Canada in the late 1800s, mostly from parts of present-day Poland and western Ukraine. That was before Ukraine existed as a nation. Its present-day territory was then divided between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires.

Most of the settlers ended up in western Canada because the government in Ottawa was keen on populating the vast prairie hinterland, and the Ukrainians who arrived were mostly peasants who knew how to work the land.

A subsequent wave of immigrants was forced out of Ukraine during World War Two, and yet more joined them to seek a better life after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Publicly-funded Ukrainian school programs were launched in the 1970s to keep the language and traditions alive. The program in the Sherwood Park hamlet where St. Nicholas Catholic School is located recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Rachmistruk’s wife was in the first class, and her parents were involved in its founding.

Until the war, Canadian students’ links to Ukraine had been weakening.

Lesia Pohoreski has been involved in the Sherwood Park program for 27 of those 40 years, first as a parent and now as a middle school (Grades 5 to 8) teacher at St. Theresa Catholic School. Her parents met in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany and came to Canada in 1948. They kept Ukrainian culture alive for her.

“What’s the first thing that Ukrainian immigrants built? It was churches. Probably the first thing my father did when he could afford it was to become a Ukrainian Orthodox church member. That became our cultural home,” Pohoreski said.

“I was at church on a Tuesday for dancing, on a Wednesday to sing, on a Thursday for youth group, on a Saturday morning for Ukrainian school. Sunday, I was in church for church, and sometimes our youth choir also rehearsed Sunday night.”

Until recently, the Canadian students’ links to Ukraine were weakening.

“Twenty-seven years ago, a lot of the parents spoke or at least understood Ukrainian,” Pohoreski said. “Perhaps they danced or sang in a choir, or they knew a couple of the carols.” Back then, most of her students would have known how to celebrate a traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve, but that’s often not the case today.

The language that Ukrainian-Canadian students might hear at home is no longer the same language spoken in Ukraine. The two have inexorably gone their own ways over the last century, as is the case with other language diasporas.

Older students are more aware of the war.

Vlodko Boychuk teaches his Grades 9 to 12 students at Sherwood Park’s Archbishop Jordan Catholic High School both forms of Ukrainian. Unlike Rachmistruk and Pohoreski, Boychuk was born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, and his first language is Ukrainian. He taught himself the Ukrainian spoken by the older generation of Ukrainian Canadians after he moved to Canada.

Boychuk tells his students that it’s important for them to know which words are used in each form of Ukrainian, because if they use the wrong words with their cousins in Ukraine, their relatives might laugh and say, “My great-grandma used to talk like this!”

The war is encouraging many Ukrainian families to reach out to those cousins and other relatives in Ukraine, Rachmistruk said.

“We have students who may come to school not knowing what’s going on, and students who come to school to try to get away from what’s happening at home because they’re inundated with stress from their parents and conversations with people in Ukraine all evening,” he said.

Teachers at St. Nicholas try to spark a conversation with their young students. “We’re trying to raise awareness without going down to the harshness of war — just about praying for Ukraine and standing for Ukraine, and being positive and encouraging,” Rachmistruk said.

Older students are more aware of the war and understand death better. Boychuk’s Grades 11 and 12 students have recorded and posted short online video messages to the people of Ukraine to show their support, and the school board is trying to figure out how they can help St. Theresa’s sister school in Lviv in western Ukraine. They are planning a fundraiser to help refugees arriving in Alberta.

‘Do you think teens in Ukraine talk about folk songs? Absolutely not.’

Although passionate about the Ukrainian bilingual program, Pohoreski sometimes wonders why her students are in the program.

“I am now getting a generation of kids whose parents were in the program, and their answer is: ‘Well, my parents were in it, so they said I have to be in it,’” she said.

“And I have students who ask, ‘Pani (the Ukrainian word for “Mrs.”), where am I going to use this afterwards?’ And I can’t answer because I don’t know where their lives are going.”

But Pohoreski has realized that while spelling and grammar are important, what she cares most about is functional language, or the ability to get one’s meaning across. So she asks her students what they talk about with their friends. They tell her they talk about what they do over the weekend, what they watch on TV, the sports and games they play, and so on.

“Do you think teens in Ukraine don’t talk about the same kinds of things?” Pohoreski asks them. “Do you think they talk about folk songs? Absolutely not.”

With a fresh wave of Ukrainian refugees, including many school-aged children, set to arrive in Canada soon, Pohoreski’s students are probably about to find out for themselves.

(Corrected to make clear in paragraph 22 that Lesia Pohoreski sometimes wonders why her students are in the bilingual program, not that she sometimes wonders whether the program is useful.)

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why are so many Ukrainian Canadians in the western part of Canada?
  2. Why might a Ukrainian Canadian not be understood by someone living in Ukraine?
  3. Did your ancestors speak a different language than you do, and if so, do you speak it, too?
Headshot Jeffrey Mo

Jeffrey Mo is a Global Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Before entering journalism, he studied chemistry, chemical engineering and econometrics and was an economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris for six years, working on migration, education, financial affairs and the environment.

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CultureCORRECTED-Canadians nurture ties to their former home, Ukraine