How the Ukrainians won the West

We didn’t have to travel to Alberta to meet up with Ukrainians – we have dear friends in Nanaimo who have proudly brought us into the Ukrainian fold. In fact, Stephen’s background is a mix of Polish/Ukrainian, although he didn’t grow up with any of the food/music/dance accoutrements that define “being Ukrainian.”

We knew so little about early Ukrainian settlement in the prairies  but were curious to find out more. The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, located a half hour outside of Edmonton, was our chance to find out. Billed as a “living history” open air museum, the village is made up of over 40 buildings that have been brought to this site from nearby settlements. The buildings are original, but the village has been constructed to represent how a typical early Ukrainian settlement between 1892- 1930 might have looked.

We picked up our site map and wandered through the excellent Visitor Centre for an overview before wandering the village. Currently on display is an exhibition of paintings by Peter Shostak, called “Painting to Remember” – about the experiences of the early settlers.  They portrayed the absolute starkness of the landscape contrasted with the hopefulness of new immigrants keen to begin a better life.

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The Village has been faithfully constructed, with an emphasis on historical authenticity.  Most of the buildings are open to the public and populated by costumed role-players who remain firmly in character as they discuss their lives and the issues of 1930. Our first stop was at the Morecambe School, where we spoke with “Miss Borovsky”. She was responsible for teaching Grades 1-5, and her male counterpart taught the older grades. As was the way back then, children walked to school; six miles uphill – both ways. Miss Borovsky roomed with a nearby family. The young blonde blue-eyed actor played her part so well that I was curious to know more about her (in real life.) Was she an actor, a student, Ukrainian? (It is not necessary to be Ukrainian to work at the Village.)

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We found out that the earliest settlers were from Galicia and Bukovina, and much to our surprise, we discovered that although the territory of present-day Ukraine has been in existence for hundreds of years, it has only been independent from Russia since 1991. Further to that, it is not politically or grammatically correct to refer to the country as “The Ukraine”, but simply as “Ukraine.”

We’ve been to a number of historical forts and villages and reenactments over the years, but this was one of the best. The characters never falter from their roles and in some cases, the accents would give Meryl Streep a run for her money. This woman spoke so convincingly, she could have just arrived from the old country. I wanted to ask her if it was hard to practice the accent, but then thought better of it, in case she was in fact a recent immigrant and I insulted her.

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The railway station, an essential tie to the outside world, and the grain elevator – one of the economic engines of small-town Alberta. Inside, we found a sassy young woman who didn’t seem that interested in working, but wanted to gossip with us. She bemoaned the fact she hadn’t found a suitable suitor yet – at age 18. She sold us two tickets to Vancouver – for $1 each, and warned us about hard seats and “many stops.”

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Churches were the heart of the community and since Ukrainians worshipped at Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Greek Catholic, there were churches for all parishioners.

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Homes were simple structures, often just a couple of rooms. Since the settlers had to be mainly self-sufficient, most homes had massive gardens, heavy log barns and pig sties.

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Not everything in the village came out of the settlers homes. By this time, they had access to the Eaton’s catalogue. We visited the general store, and had an entertaining visit with the young shopkeeper.

When a family with a little boy came into the store, the shopkeeper told the little kid he could have a candy but he’d have to work for it. He handed him a broom and told him to sweep off the walk. Sure enough, that walk was swept in record time and the boy had his choice of Scotch mints or black licorice.

We were hot and footsore after a couple of hours of walking, and were more than happy to accept a ride with Nathan and his team of Percherons.

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He regaled us with stories of village life, then stopped to pick up two woman and four children. As the kids scooted in beside us, Stephen could not resist telling the little boy beside me to be careful. “She hits,” he warned, and Nathan turned around and agreed. “Yes, she looks pretty vicious.” The poor little boy hopped over to sit beside his mother and kept giving me sideways glances for the rest of the ride. Perhaps all the role-playing was a bit much for him.

This Village is as much about the universal immigrant story as it is about the hardships of Ukrainians settling into a cold and inhospitable land and trying to make it home. I tried to imagine what it would be like to flee your home because of famine, war, or racially-motivated massacres and I don’t believe I have the slightest idea of the challenges so many people have faced and continue to face. Historical sites like this one are so valuable for beginning to understand what it means to be an immigrant.

A thoroughly engrossing and informative day, and a great way to end our time in Edmonton.

 

 

“A fine city with too many socialists and mosquitoes.”

This pithy summary of Edmonton comes to you from former premier Ralph Klein; one which damns the city with faint praise and doesn’t begin to do it justice. Klein wasn’t lying about the mosquitoes.  As for the socialists – yes, it would seem they are here, armed with their bicycles and hemp shopping bags and liberal views. They help to strike a balance in an oil-defined province.

Edmonton’s skyline is dominated by building cranes, a good mix of old and new buildings and plenty of greenspace. The city is bustling with upgrades and new builds and road construction. There is a robust feeling of growth and prosperity here, without the punishing housing costs – a Canadian city that is still affordable.

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We arrived in Edmonton with few preconceived ideas, other than it has brutally cold winters and was once the home of Wayne Gretzky.   Since The Great One has not been in Edmonton for 30 years, we were obviously in need of an update.

We stayed at an Airbnb in the Whyte Avenue area – known for its leafy residential streets, and cluster of shops, cafes, cinemas and street art. Our host was Janice, a New Zealander who has lived in Edmonton for 20 years. We were very warmly welcomed, and invited to borrow their bikes, pick from their raspberry patch and we even shared a dinner with them one night.

Our host Janice, with her brother Ross on the left and partner Edwin on the right.

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Their backyard, where we spent many an enjoyable hour reading and relaxing in the shade. We stayed in the basement suite, but their garage suite gave us some interesting ideas for a future home.

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Edmonton has many neighbourhoods; each of them with a distinctive flavour and look. We really enjoy the older areas, where there are lots of trees, lush wild gardens and a mix of homes.

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The North Saskatchewan River snakes through the city and a series of trails were constructed on either side of the river that run for miles and miles. Lucky Edmontonians – they can bike, run, walk their dogs (generous off-leash areas are also provided) or go for a leisurely stroll – sheltered from cars and surrounded in most areas by trees. We took out bikes a couple of times, and just zoomed along on trails and over bridges like this one.

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Edmonton has a really strong food scene and as it happened,  Taste of Edmonton was on while we were there. This celebration of local restaurant, food truck and beverage culture was enhanced by nightly bands and attractions. I have no food photos for you – our bite-sized servings of Braised Short Rib & Mash and Almond Satay Thai Noodle Salad were un- photogenically brown and beige.

People-watching was the usual entertaining thing – three young brothers daring each other to jump off a concrete ledge; oblivious to the young couple enthusiastically making out right in front them.  The setting was just behind the stately Alberta Legislature, where we were quite tickled to see the Reflecting Pool, just beyond the fountain,  being enjoyed as a swimming pool, with nary a guard in sight to chase them away.

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An interesting diversion was a 20-minute trip along former CPR tracks over the High Level Bridge from the old Strathcona neighbourhood to downtown. We boarded a heritage electric streetcar and listened to a brief history of the streetcars while we slowly made our way  along.  This service is run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, entirely on a volunteer basis by society members.

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A view from the bridge:

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We took a self-guided Art Tour through downtown where dozens of art installations, sculptures, murals and paintings are located.

A clever installation, called Recycles 2001. Made of found materials, it is a testament to Edmontonian’s love of the bicycle.

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The Aboriginal Walk of Honour is a tribute to indigenous artists in the arts and film industry.  Among the notables:

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The Neon Sign Museum is a captivating collection of Edmonton’s old commercial neon signs, gathered from all over the city and mounted outside on a long brick wall.

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Right around the corner, we stumbled upon Rogers Place. A statue, entitled Wayne Gretzky 1989, stands outside, commemorating the Oilers past glories.

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Edmonton’s downtown is particularly charming because it is such a mix of old and new. The arena, flanked by new skyscrapers and the historic Mercer building.

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Around the corner from Rogers Place, an installation called Pillars of the Community 2016. Each side depicted “unsung heroes, daily faces and less-heard people.” I was struck by the profoundly moving expression of this man – neither defiant nor defeated.

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A trip to Edmonton is probably not complete without a visit to the West Edmonton Mall – the largest mall in North America. What does the largest mall look like, you ask? Well, it houses two hotels, nine attractions, including a waterpark, golf course and ice skating rink. There are over 100 dining venues, and over 800 stores. We were looking for shoes for Stephen and had 64 shoe stores from which to choose.  We both suffer from mall anxiety, but strangely the WEM elicits nothing more than a strangely floating sensation and frank curiosity.  How does one make a purchasing decision here? We tried to get a couple of crowd shots, but the mall is not crowded. The parking lots are jammed, and then the 90,000-200,000 people who visit daily simply … disperse.

Watching this young skater was calming and a bit surreal – why not go for a skate while everyone around you shops for bed linens or eats ice cream?

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A commercial scene a little closer to our hearts is Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue. We could walk there from our Airbnb – to find dinner among Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, British pub, Mexican and bistro offerings. We could shop for organic produce, vintage dresses, or Fluevog shoes. We could also dig around and discover the street art.

This grabbed us – ET or the hand of God? Painted by BIP (Believe in People), an anonymous artist who paints all over the world.

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This six-storey mural,  by definitely-not-anonymous artist Okuda San Miguel, was commissioned by local restaurateur and filmmaker Michael Maxxis, and was completed  in mid-July of this year.

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Whyte Avenue is home to the Old Strathcona Farmers Market. You won’t find lemons or pineapples here – everything sold must be locally grown, baked or hand-made. It was a bit of a mob scene, but that’s what we got for arriving at 10:30 on a Saturday morning.

I liked the donut lady – her offerings presented like the precious delectables that they are.

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The usual market line-up – blueberries, bison and beets, peonies, pesto, and pillowy perogies. If someone can tell me why these cabbages are shaped like rolled cones, I would appreciate it.

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There are so many things to see and do in and around Edmonton and we just scratched the surface. We missed the magnificent Art Gallery, Fort Edmonton and Elk Island. We didn’t stop by for a drink at CP Hotel Macdonald. We did get to Muttart Conservatory. This is a  landmark in Edmonton made distinctive by four glass pyramids that house over 700 species in four biomes – Arid, Tropical, Temperate and a Feature biome that changes several times a year.

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The Feature biome, Museum of the Moon, featured a massive Moon model by UK artist Luke Jerram that has travelled the world and is currently showing in Edmonton. It was accompanied by space-appropriate music and space-imagined plantings.

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And finally – our Edmonton friends and family.  Three years ago, we didn’t know a soul in Edmonton. Now, we have six lovely connections ( eight, if you count our new Airbnb friends).

Our daughter-in-law Alanna grew up in Edmonton. Her parents (divorced and remarried) still live here and when we suggested getting together, both sets of parents invited us for dinner – all six of us. We enjoyed two wonderful dinners, long conversations about a variety of subjects and now we feel like part of Alanna’s clan. We tried to figure out how we might refer to them – are we in-laws? We decided in-laws is not quite right, so we’re pleased to consider ourselves friends.

From left: Stephen, Brenda, Mitch, Heather and Doug.

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My cousin Maureen and her husband John moved to Edmonton in December to be closer to their kids and grandkids. Luckily, we were able to connect and have a great dinner and good long visit. Maureen and I have our origins in Gaspe, then Montreal, then southern Ontario and now out west. This is one of the things we are discovering as we travel  – we all have interesting flight paths.
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That’s enough for now. We loved Edmonton, extended our planned time here by another three days and it still wasn’t enough. We’ll be back (although not in February).

We spent today at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village just outside Edmonton, and it merits a (much shorter) blog posting all of its own. Coming soon…