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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.