“First Wave of Ukrainian Immigration to Canada, 1891 – 1914”
Taras Shevchenko Museum’s Project on virtualmuseum.ca
Over one hundred years ago, on September 7, 1891, Ivan Pylypiw and Vasyl Eleniak, two 33-year old peasants from the village of Nebyliw in Eastern Galicia, stepped off the steamship Oregon in Montreal. Their arrival signaled the beginning of four waves of Ukrainian immigration to Canada and mark the origins in this country of what has been estimated to be over 1,000,000 Canadians of Ukrainian descent.
The main room of the Museum, Immigration section
Ukrainians came to Canada for many reasons, including national and social discrimination at home and economic hardships, which offered no future for the immigrants and their families. In the late 19th Century Canada, on the other hand, was encouraging immigration to open and settle its vast prairies, to build its railways, to develop its industries and urban infrastructure, and to work its mines and forests. Ukrainian peasants, predominantly from the Western Ukraine filled a need for hardy settlers and cheap labour.
The immigrants, driven by hardship at home and the lure of a brighter future in the new world, abandoned family, friends and their native soil for the perilous voyage abroad. Most brought little material with them — a few tools and other supplies, a bit of money to help establish themselves. But they also brought with them a willingness to work hard and a love of their culture and traditions, which flourish even to this day.
They also brought a deep love and reverence for Taras Hryhorovich Shevchenko — a poor peasant orphan who, bought out of serfdom, came to embody the finest of Ukrainian tradition. An artist, a poet, a writer, a fighter for the rights and dignity of his people and, at the same time, a champion of the common humanity of all, Taras Shevchenko has twice been recognized and celebrated by UNESCO as an intellect of world stature. His legacy is today celebrated throughout the world.
The early Ukrainian immigrants knew Shevchenko well and many brought his poetic works with them to the new world in the form of brochures and the immortal Kobzar. Shevchenko’s love of common humanity, his courage in the face of adversity, served the immigrants well in their daily struggles to establish themselves and build a better future for their children. Shevchenko was their inspiration.
Organized community and cultural-educational life established themselves early amongst the first immigrants. While much of the focus of community life was centered around the various churches, a network of reading rooms to educate the immigrants and their families was well established already during the second decade of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. For example, a T. H. Shevchenko Reading Room was operating in Winnipeg by 1903 and the first recorded Shevchenko Concert took place on May 1, 1904. Celebration of Shevchenko’s heritage continue to this day. Monuments to the Bard of Ukraine can be found in Oakville (the first in the Americas) near the original Taras Shevchenko Museum and in Winnipeg.
One should note that from the beginnings of community life in Canada, the Ukrainian immigrants and their descendants have never been a homogeneous body in terms of religion, politics or social status. However, respect for Shevchenko and acknowledgement of his place in the traditions of the Ukrainian people is perhaps the one issue around which all Ukrainians will agree. There have been many changes since the first Kobzar was brought to Canada by early immigrants from Ukraine. Their descendants can be found in all walks of life. But the humanity and pride in our Ukrainian traditions which can be found throughout the works of Taras Shevchenko continue to inspire us and give direction to our cultural life.
For many Canadians, both of Ukrainian and other backgrounds, knowledge of Shevchenko, his life and work, is now learned in the English language. This in no way diminishes his importance in our lives and upbringing. This does not in any way diminish our homage to Shevchenko, for Taras Shevchenko is integral to our sense of identity, to our very Canadianism.