Art exhibition explores Ukrainian history in Canada

Drawing together works from three artists, Ayla Dmyterko, Sonya Iwasiuk and Darlene Kalynka, the ACT art gallery is presenting a Ukrainian themed art exhibition from Sept. 10 to Oct. 29.

Titled Labour and Memory – Ukrainian-Canadian Contexts, it is a timely exhibition that explores the different facets of Ukrainian immigration through multiple mediums such as sculpture, installation, printmaking, books and moving images.

An intertwined history

Resilience and The Moon by Sonya Iwasiuk. | Photo courtesy of Sonya Iwasiuk

Canada is home to 1.4 million people of Ukrainian descent, giving it the world’s third largest Ukrainian population after Ukraine itself and Russia. Ukrainian and Canadian history are deeply intertwined, with waves of Ukrainians settling in Canada since the 19th century. With the current Ukrainian war in the spotlight, Canada is expecting another wave of Ukrainian immigrants fleeing from their homeland.

“My great-great-grandparents came to Canada during the first wave [of migration]. There are actually four waves and we are now in the fifth wave,” says artist Sonya Iwasiuk.

According to historical records, approximately 170,000 Ukrainians from the Austro-Hungarian Empire arrived in Canada from September 1891 to August 1914 and they settled mostly in the prairie provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

“Especially where I grew up, in the small town in Alberta, it was almost like 30 per cent Ukrainian, 30 per cent First Nations, 30 per cent French and just a smattering of others,” adds Iwasiuk.

A resilient people

The Ukrainians didn’t have it easy in Canada when they first arrived, according to Iwasiuk’s research. She cites a 1897 Winnipeg editorial where the Ukrainian arrival is described as such: “The dumping of these filthy, penniless and ignorant foreigners into progressive and intelligent communities is a serious hardship to such a community. These people bring with them disease and almost everything.” – credit Minority Rights Group International.

She adds that over 5,000 Ukrainians were also interned during World War I, and they were disenfranchised and forced to register like criminals. Official reconciliation only occurred when Bill C-331 was passed in 2005.

The harsh history inspired Iwasiuk’s work. One of her series is named A New Resilience, part of which will be exhibited in the upcoming show.

She says one of her favourite pieces is a mixed-media artwork made with acrylic on cheesecloth with wire. It incorporates a historical photograph of a stoic little girl who just disembarked the ship and arrived on shore. It is a story not only of immigration but also of survival. The journey on the ships was long and strenuous but the strong little girl and her family somehow made it through.

Iwasiuk says part of the Ukrainian cultural character is that they are tough and she is proud of that. She says Ukrainians also work very hard, and they are very helpful to others. This is the heritage that she carries forward with herself.

The artist’s statement

Sonya Iwasiuk. | Photo courtesy of Sonya Iwasiuk

Growing up in the prairies, Iwasiuk says she had a happy childhood roaming around the lands and playing with animals. Her childhood memories made a deep impression on her work as some of her series depict dreamy abandoned farm barns and idyllic sceneries.

A total of six pieces of her artwork will be showcased, and, as Iwasiuk explains, she initially put together the installation with immigration in mind.

“I just can’t imagine how hard it must be to leave your home and your culture and everything you know and just start a new life completely from scratch, so I did that by using my own story,” she says.

With this upcoming exhibition, and with regards to her work in general, she says, as an artist, she would love it if people could be more accepting of new immigrants, helping them to be their friends and neighbours.

“I just hate to see racism and prejudiced remarks. You know, nobody was here first, except for the First Nations,” says Iwasiuk.

To learn more about the exhibition, please go to: