More than a century of immigration has shaped a tremendous Canadian community of Ukrainian immigrants. They came here in waves starting at the end of the 19th century, and their cultural contributions have helped shape the country they now call home.
According to Statistics Canada, there are now more than one million people of Ukrainian descent in Canada, making it the ninth-largest ethnic group in Canada. “[The Ukrainian community in Canada] has become very visible in the Canadian cultural fabric,” said Andriy Nahachewsky, a professor of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies and the Director of UAlberta’s Kule Folkore Centre. “I think that visibility is one of the reasons we have a centre for research of Canadian Ukrainian culture.”
Nahachewsky, who is also the Huculak Chair of Ukrainian Culture and Ethnography, studies and collects the stories of Ukrainians in Canada, the cultural artifacts they brought with them and the artistic forms they continue to practice and shape in Canada. His focus has been on the evolution of both Ukrainian dance — one of the areas people most often associate with Ukrainian culture — as well as wedding ceremonies of Ukrainian immigrants.
Traditional Ukrainian dance is incredibly popular on the Prairies and plays an important part in the Ukrainian Canadian experience. Approximately 100,000 people in the Edmonton area can trace their ancestry back to Ukraine, with 3,000 of them involved in a Ukrainian dance group. That means three per cent of Edmonton’s Ukrainian population is involved in dance, much higher than what it is in Ukraine.
“When Ukrainian Canadians go to a dance group in Ukraine, they are shocked that the kids there don’t want to dance. In Ukraine, dancing is not such a symbol,” said Nahachewsky. In Canada, it’s partially a way of showing off your heritage, obviously not as important for people living in Ukraine.”
Ukrainian dance has also become more dramatic in Canada. “In Canada, part of it is souped-up theatrical dance. Gender stereotyping remains extremely strong. The girls are extremely cliché of the female image, the males are super macho.”
Wedding ceremonies have also changed. Early migrant groups maintained the simplistic ceremonies from Ukraine, wearing vibrant, hand-embroidered clothing. By the 1920s, Ukrainian immigrants were wearing white dresses of Victorian English aesthetic.
Much of Nahachewsky’s research is a result of the Bohdan Medwidsky Ukrainian Folklore Archives, which he curates. The Medwidsky Archives is a repository of traditional songs, folk arts and performance traditions from Ukrainian immigrants on the Prairies.
More than 40 graduate students have provided the Archives with a wealth of first-hand knowledge of the Ukrainian Canadian community. Donations have also played a large part in the growth of the collection; as members of the Ukrainian Canadian community pass away, their relatives seek out the Archives to donate their effects.
Nahachewsky was recently recognized for his work as a curator on campus, as he was inducted into UAlberta’s Curator Hall of Fame in March.
“It’s a pretty nice recognition in that it’s a fairly limited number of people that get this kind of thing. It’s nice to be recognized among peers,” said Nahachewsky.