The Ukrainian side of Canada

Libby Griffin has a story to tell about her Ukrainian heritage, and she hopes all Canadians will listen.

Ukrainian settlers helped make Canada the place we know today, says Griffin, who has long been involved with Ukrainian communities in Vancouver and in her small hometown of Voland, near Peace River, Alberta. But little is known about what the Ukrainians did.

“They opened up the West,” says Griffin, a longtime member of Vancouver’s Ukrainian Culture Centre.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the immigration of the first Ukrainians.

“Canada was offering free land,” she says. “The railway had just gone through and the government needed people in the West.”

Griffin will discuss the historical, political and economic situations in the Ukraine and Canada that led to Ukrainian immigration to Canada in the early part of the twentieth century. On March 11, at the Ukrainian Culture Centre, her talk, A Time of Celebration, A Time of Reflection, will focus both on the overall conditions and on her own family story.

Muskeg and mosquitoes

My talk is general but it also focuses on my experiences as a first generation Ukrainian-Canadian growing up in Northern Alberta,” says Griffin, explaining that her grandparents were members of both the first and second waves of Ukrainian immigration. “Ukraine was always under someone or other. My paternal grandparents’ passport said Austria, and my maternal grandparents’ passport said Poland, and they were Ukrainian.”

Driven by occupation and impelled by promises of a new land, Ukrainians came to Canada.

Libby Griffin, a first generation Ukrainian-Canadian whose grandparents came from the Ukraine to settle Canada.| Photo courtesy of Libby Griffin

“There was nothing. There was muskeg and mosquitoes and swamp and bush. They literally cleared the land with their hands. It wasn’t an easy life,” she says.

Griffin also points out that many of these early settlers were unprepared.

“The women always brought their seeds to plant their gardens,” she says. “[Otherwise] they came with maybe an axe. Many of them would have perished if it weren’t for the First Nations people who helped many of them, brought them food. Some First Nations even stayed with the Ukrainians.”

Settling in towns was difficult for the Ukrainians as well.

“The women were, for the most part, illiterate. There was huge discrimination against the Ukrainians. Many Ukrainians changed their name to enable them to get jobs. There are so many examples of Ukrainians who couldn’t get jobs,” Griffin says.

But the Ukrainians survived, and many prospered. Griffin points out that the language developed in her home town, populated mostly by Ukrainians, was their own, a true immigrant language.

“You took English words and put Ukrainian endings on them. The Ukrainians thought we were speaking English, and we thought we were speaking Ukrainian. It was language we made up,” she says, laughing.

A better country

Nowadays, Griffin is a retired elementary school teacher.

“I taught music and Grades 2 and 3. You put music anywhere on your resume and that’s what you’re going to end up doing,” she laughs.

Griffin is now a key figure at the Ukrainian Culture Centre where she sings in the choir.

“It’s such an interesting mix of people,” she comments. “We have older Ukrainian ladies who’ve come to join their families, those of us who speak the language and were born here, and then we have people from the community who aren’t Ukrainian at all, and they sing the Ukrainian songs phonetically.”

Music and her Ukrainian culture are the highlights of her life.

“Everything adds to the mosaic of this country. If you appreciate your culture and you share it, it makes for a better country, a better world,” says Griffin.

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