Ukrainians, Svans and Many More in Cosmopolitan Canada

How do I remember when Canada officially became a nation-state in the modern sense of the word? For me, it’s easy: my birth year minus a century, 1867. July 1st. Canada and I are less than two years from turning 150 and 50, respectively

There have been many waves of settlers here for thousands of years, beginning (it seems) with those crossing the Bering Strait from Asia and working their way all the way down to Patagonia, at South America’s southern-most tip, or staying put somewhere along the way, be it Alaska or anywhere from there on south. It’s a big place, the Americas.

Toronto can claim feasibly to be one of the most international cities of the world; there are even Svans there! And after Canada’s official languages, English and French, two more are vying for third place numbers-wise: Chinese and Hindi. We have the oldest Chinatown (outside China!) in the world, in Victoria, and the largest Sikh community outside India, in Vancouver, both in British Columbia.

Alberta, my “home” province in Canada, has, among others, Ukrainians. Lots of them. There’s a Ukrainian cathedral in Edmonton, the provincial capital. And, east of the city, the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, established in 1974.

Here were brought houses and other buildings from all over Alberta, mostly dating from the 1890s to 1930s, when it was realized that many Ukrainian structures were being replaced by more modern structures and risked being lost altogether. This place became a home for them, and much more. My wife and I visited it before she returned to Georgia.

Your $10 entry fee allows you in and gives you a guided tour, usually by a young lady in period costume walking backwards, leading her small group around the buildings, which have been assembled into a whole village. There are a school, shops, several functioning churches, lumber, farm and railway buildings, a grain elevator, a hotel, and quite a few houses from a very humble soddy to something a merchant family would be proud of. All filled with original furniture and accessories to fit their ages.

And peopled with “first-person interpreters” too. These people, also in period national costume, do their best to live out the ages which they represent, in what they do and say. They’ll talk about their daily lives here, their family backgrounds in the “old country”, and anything else related to who they are acting as. You can’t get them to step outside these roles, because this is how they work. Some of them are actually Ukrainians, speaking that language or Russian, as we found out to our delight. Ask them about modern Ukraine, though, and they’ll firmly assume you mean their representative periods, not the 21st century.

Winters were quite harsh for the newcomers. Usually the man of a family would come over first, by ship, check things out, see the 160 acres he was being offered for free to settle and farm, and then return to Ukraine to bring his family, if conditions were suitable. Nonetheless, it must have been very hard at first. And despite this, they made a go of it, and their success is echoed in the many Ukrainian names still found in this province and elsewhere in Canada.

New language, climate, land, unfamiliar ways. But they found and helped each other, found lives for themselves, and got to work. Their past, preserved lovingly as if it were a version of a Little House on the Prairie TV village set, is here for all to see and experience firsthand. This country as a nation-state might be young compared to many others, but even a century of its immigrants’ progress has much to show and remind us. Even up in Svaneti, where my wife and I have one foot in the 19th century, one in the 21st. Wood heating and the internet, chickens and luxurious indoor plumbing, our own garden and the latest electronics. We can certainly relate.

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1000 members, at .

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

Tony Hanmer

13 August 2015 23:05