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Eastern European Canadians in Canada

  • Profile

    Eastern Europeans made up the first large wave of immigration into Canada that was not of English or French origin. Tens of thousands of peasants arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lured by promises of cheap land in the western prairies. Ukrainians form the largest and most prominent Eastern European community in Canada, but smaller numbers from other countries also arrived. The 2001 Census puts the number of Ukrainian Canadians at 1,071,060, two-thirds of whom live in the three prairie provinces – Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

    According to the 2001 Census, Poles form the next largest group (817,085), followed by Russians (337,960), Hungarians (267,255), Romanians (131,830), Croatians (97,045), Czechs (79,915), those from other regions of the former Yugoslavia (65,505), Serbians (55,545) and Slovaks (50,860). The numbers of all these groups have risen since the 2001 Census due to the opening up of the Iron Curtain, the easing of Cold War era emigration restrictions and the war in the former Yugoslavia.

    Historical context

    The largest numbers of early Eastern European arrivals came from the western Ukrainian region of Halychyna, then occupied by the Austrian Empire. Conditions for the new arrivals in Canada were miserable, the climate and land harsher than expected and the reception was far from welcoming. Anti-Ukrainian sentiment was widespread. An 1897 editorial in Winnipeg’s Daily Nor-Wester stated:

    ‘The dumping down 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 in almost every consignment … and their dirty habits render the stamping out of infection among them a very difficult matter.’

    It was only with the passage of time, as Ukrainians proved to be expert farmers and hard workers, that public hostility eased.

    As the First World War engulfed Canada, anti-Ukrainian sentiment reached unprecedented and explosive proportions. Since most had arrived on passports from Austria, a country with which Canada was at war, they were indiscriminately declared enemy aliens and nearly 100,000 Canadian citizens of Ukrainian descent were stripped of all their rights as citizens, including their right to vote. The irony is that Ukrainians despised the Austrian occupation, a reason many had fled their homeland in the first place. But the Canadian government, facing ferocious anti-Ukrainian sentiment, refused to heed an official assurance from the British government that Ukrainian immigrants could be trusted. The Canadian authorities were motivated partly by political considerations: Ukrainians, many of them radicalized by the difficult conditions of peasant life under Austria, had developed strong community organizations and were taking a lead in forming trade unions and other organizations dedicated to improving their living conditions, including political parties.

    Thousands of Ukrainians who were politically active or simply unemployed were arrested, stripped of their belongings and interned in isolated forced labour camps for the duration of the war. In the camps, they were paid little or nothing for their work, kept under heavy guard and lived in abominable conditions. They had little to eat or wear and were often interned in worse facilities than German prisoners of war held in the same camp. Beatings and torture were commonly reported, and several Ukrainian internees committed suicide or were killed trying to escape. After the war, the government refused to return their belongings.

    Current issues

    In 2001, Mr Inky Mark, MP for Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette tabled Bill C-331, the Ukrainian Canadian Recognition and Restitution Act. The Bill aims to support efforts by the Ukrainian Canadian community to seek redress, apologies for the internments and the building of commemorative monuments at the site of each internment camp. The Bill was passed on 25 November 2005.

    In August 2005, the Government of Canada announced an agreement-in-principle that provides an initial payment of C$2.5 million to Canada’s Ukrainian community for the purpose of commemoration and education on the internment period.

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