Although the first officially recorded arrival of Ukrainian immigrants (Ivan Pylypiw and Wasyl Eleniak) in Canada has been documented as September 7, 1891, there is evidence of an earlier Ukrainian presence on the North American continent. It is probable that as early as 1784 there were Ukrainians among the first white traders in Russian Alaska. Several Ukrainian names, such as Ivan Ruchkowsky from Shchuriv and Andrew Yankowsky from Ternopil in Western Ukraine, may be found among the soldiers of the De Watteville and De Meuron Swiss mercenary regiments brought from Europe to defend Canada from an American invasion in the War of 1812. Later, in 1817, two of the soldiers, Andrew Yankowsky and Petro Komdrovsky, accompanied Lord Selkirk when he went west to defend his Red River settlement in what is now Manitoba. It is also recorded that on September 2nd of that same yea, Lord Selkirk granted 100 acres of land at Fort Douglas (Winnipeg) to Andriy Sankowsky (Yankowsky).

In 1874 Ukrainian-speaking Mennonites arrived from south-central Ukraine and settled in southern Manitoba. Although these Mennonites were Protestants of Dutch-German origin who settled in Ukraine about 1790 to escape religious persecution, there were many Ukrainian converts among them. It is interesting to note that immigrant Mennonite families brought with them a hard winter wheat called Kharkov, which came to be known as the frost-resistant Alberta Red Winter Wheat. One of the first Mennonite settlements in Manitoba is called Chortitz. It was named after the island of Khortytsia located on the Dnieper River near the city of Zaporizhia.

In 1883 American settlers took advantage of the free homesteads offered by the Canadian government and began to settle in the Canadian West. Among these Americans were Ukrainians, as evidenced by the birth records of the time. The birth records of the Immaculate Conception Church in Winnipeg list persons with such Ukrainian names as Mykhailo Koleshar (1884), Maria Bubnyk (1886), Anna Chapets (1887) and many others.

However, as stated earlier, the first officially recorded Ukrainian immigrants to arrive in Canada were WasyI Eleniak and Ivan Pylypivsky (Pylypiw) from the Carpathian village of Nebyliw in Western Ukraine. They arrived in Montreal on the steamship S.S. Oregon on September 7, 1891, and took the train to Winnipeg. Eleniak later recalled meeting Ukrainian-speaking people while working on the harvest among the Mennonites in southern Manitoba. This was the beginning of what has come to be known as the first wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada. By 1914 approximately 200,000 would settle in this country.

At that time Ukraine was divided between and occupied by the two great imperial Powers of east-central Europe. Greater or Eastern Ukraine, which accounted for approximately 80 percent of Ukraine's ethnographical territory, had been part of the Russian Empire since 1654. At that time Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the hetman of the Zaporizhian Cossacks, had forced a military alliance with Muscovy to ward off the Catholic Poles from the west and the Muslim Turks and Tartars from the Black Sea coast. The Eastern Ukrainians were an agricultural people living in small self-sufficient villages. They were of the Greek Orthodox faith and over 90 percent were illiterate. The cities and towns of Eastern Ukraine were largely dominated by foreigners who often viewed the down-trodden and illiterate Ukrainian peasant with overt contempt.

There was at the time a strong and well-defined class structure in Ukraine. The Russians made up the government administration and later, when Ukraine began to be industrialized, thousands of Russian workers settled in the factory and mining towns of Eastern Ukraine. The landowners were mainly Poles who had remained from an earlier era of Polish occupation. The skilled tradesmen and craftsmen were often Germans who had immigrated to Ukraine during the reign of Catharine II. The exploited Ukrainian peasants were at the bottom of the social ladder.

By the mid-19th century, Ukraine experienced a population explosion and many thousands of Ukrainians emigrated from Eastern Ukraine to the Kuban in the Caucasus, to Siberia and to Central Asia. This was in addition to the large number of political exiles sent to remote areas of the empire. Western Ukraine, which made up only 20 percent of Ukraine's ethnographical territory, became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the partition of Poland in 1791-93 and the defeat of Ottoman Turks along the Black Sea coast. This area became the backwater of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although it was referred to as Galicia or Halychyna, the indigenous Ukrainian population had an identity crisis.

Western Ukraine could be divided ethnographically into several regions, each speaking a distinct dialect and following different customs and traditions. A person from a particular region could be identified easily by the particularities of his speech and the embroidery patterns on his shirt or blouse. Thus Western Ukrainians, until 1918, identified themselves as Galicians, Bukovynians, Hutsuls, Boykos. Rusyns, Volyniaks or Lemkos. The intense rivalry among the groups was often compounded by religious differences. The Bukovynians and Volyniaks were Greek Orthodox while the rest were Ukrainian Greek Catholics.

Upon arrival in Canada, they were labelled by immigration authorities according to the citizenship marked in their passports. They now became Austrians, Poles, Russians, Romanians or even Hungarians. Later the Latin name for Western Ukraine, Ruthenia, was used to identify Ukrainians as a separate ethnic group. Emigrants began leaving Western Ukraine even before 1891. Industrial laborers and miners were needed in Prussia, Germany and France. In 1888, slavery was abolished in Brazil and agricultural laborers were in great demand. Thousands of landless peasants accepted the Brazilian government's offer of free passage to Brazil and free land in the jungles of Parana and Santa Catarina provinces. Emigration from Western Ukraine and immigration to Canada coincided with specific social, economic and political conditions in the two countries.

Ukrainians in Western Ukraine were forced to emigrate in large numbers for a variety of reasons. Toward the end of the 19th century the relatively high birth rate created a population explosion. The small farms owned by the peasants could not be subdivided any further, while the ownership of a piece of land was the sole means of existence. Agricultural activity on the small farms was primitive, inefficient and labour-intensive. In addition, productivity was low and the land could not support a large population beyond the subsistance level. Furthermore, large tracts of the best agricultural land were owned by absentee landlords or belonged to the church.

The cities and towns of Western Ukraine were essentially administrative and commercial centres lacking any established industry or manufacturing base which could employ large numbers of workers. What manufacturing did exist took the form of groups of craftsmen producing small items required to meet the immediate needs of the local population. Employment was seasonal, wages were low and unemployment was high. Large numbers of landless peasants were forced to work as laborers on the landed estates for little more than board and room. The languages spoken in the cities and towns were German, Polish and Yiddish. The Ukrainian peasant, who formed the bulk of the rural population, felt like a foreigner in his own country.

Another sore point among young Ukrainian males was compulsory service in the Austrian army. Illiterate and unable to understand the German language, young recruits were often abused by brutal foreign-speaking officers. Emigration was often the only means of escape for desperate young army deserters.

Toward the end of the 19th century, following Confederation, Canada experienced an intense period of economic expansion and growth. Large numbers of unskilled workers were needed in labour-intensive industries such as railroad building, mining, lumbering and especially agriculture. The completion of the trans-continental railway in 1885 opened the Canadian West for settlement and provided transportation for shipping wheat and other agricultural products to eastern markets and port cities. The world-wide demand for Canadian wheat created a wheat boom in Western Canada.

The Canadian government embarked on an intensive program of immigration aimed at quickly settling the western prairies with productive farmers. The settlement of large numbers of American immigrants in Western Canada raised the fear of American annexation among the British. At this time, however, large numbers of prospective immigrants from industrialized Western Europe were not attracted to, or were unsuited for, the harsh conditions of life on the Canadian Prairies. In 1895, Dr. Joseph Oleskiw, a geography professor from Lviv, visited Canada and wrote two books. Pro vilni zemli and O emigratsii, which had a great impact in directing Ukrainian immigrants to Canada.

Sir Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior from 1897 to 1905, turned to Eastern Europe for prospective immigrants. The bait for attracting land-hungry peasants from Eastern Europe to Canada was the offer of 160 acres or 64 hectares of free land as a homestead for a nominal registration fee of $10.00. This dream of owning land and access to forest products attracted thousands of Western Ukrainians who could raise the $150.00 needed to pay train and boat passage. Whole families and the greater part of many villages joined this emigration. It is estimated that between 1891 and 1914 up to 200.000 Ukrainians settled in Canada. Many thousands of others left for the United States, Brazil and Argentina.

The misconception of the Canadian immigration authorities was the belief that the Ukrainians were from the steppelands of Central Ukraine which are similar to the prairies of Western Canada. However, the rolling wooded countryside of Western Ukraine is similar to Southern Ontario in relief and climate. The first Ukrainian settlers in Western Canada suffered greatly from the hot summers and cold, harsh winters, and the loneliness of life on the prairies. Furthermore, they were unprepared for the large scale, mechanized grain farming that had become profitable in western Canada. Many received their homesteads on marginal or heavily wooded land on the northern edge of the prairies. The belt of Ukrainian settlement stretched from south-eastern Manitoba through Winnipeg, Yorkton, Saskatoon and Vegreville to Edmonton. Ukrainian settlements followed the second trans-continental railway - the CN line. Establishing small-scale mixed farming on their newly acquired homesteads, many recently arrived Ukrainian immigrants lived at the subsistance level. They faced the back-breaking task of clearing acres of bushland and gathering tons of rocks before a portion of their homestead could be brought under cultivation. In the winter time, men worked in the lumber camps and coal mines to supplement their income or earn surplus cash needed to purchase cattle and agricultural machinery. In the summer time, once the spring seeding was over, the men and boys signed up for the railway gangs hired to build the branch-line railways which extended to all parts of Western Canada. The hours of labour were long (10-12 hours a day) and the wages were low (10-25 cents an hour).

Nevertheless, there was no going back: thousands of acres of bushland were cleared and prosperous farm communities were established. The faith and confidence of the Canadian government in the capability and endurance of the Ukrainian settlers were vindicated. The Ukrainians took their rightful place among the early pioneers that helped settle and develop a large part of Western Canada.

The problems of the Ukrainians did not end upon arrival in this country. Their immediate reaction was culture shock. Coming from a rural village in one of the most underdeveloped areas of Europe, they exhibited traits and modes of behaviour that appeared to the Anglo-Saxon Canadians as primitive and unsophisticated. They disembarked from hastily converted cargo ships in Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal looking exhausted and dishevelled. Many of them still wore the native costumes of their region and some were even barefoot. Their strange clothes, incomprehensible language, lack of personal hygiene and the practice of eating garlic did not endear them to their Canadian hosts. Anglo-Saxon chauvinism reared its ugly head and English newspapers in eastern Canada printed uncomplimentary and abusive articles about the unsuitability of these "Galicians in sheepskin coats". When Sir Clifford Sifton himself was attacked and castigated for encouraging Ukrainian immigration to Canada, he rose in the House of Commons and made his now famous statement. "I think a stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers had been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half dozen children is good quality."

It was the contention of the Anglo-Saxon authorities that the Ukrainian immigrants would be assimilated within one or two generations into the dominant Anglo-Saxon milieu of Canadian society.

The Ukrainian immigrants, however, did not immediately assimilate. They established block settlements across the three prairie provinces in which they maintained their language, customs and religious traditions. Because of their large numbers, they even assimilated other less numerous Slavs, such as the Poles and Russians. Until 1939, the Ukrainian census recorded more people in Canada speaking Ukrainian than there were Ukrainians residing in the country.

The first forms of organized Ukrainian community life in Canada were based on the institutions and organizations already established in Ukraine and transplanted to Canada. In 1897, the first Ukrainian Orthodox church in Canada, St. Michael's, was built in Gardenton, Manitoba. (The Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada was not officially organized until 1918.) These first Ukrainian Orthodox churches were built in western Canada by emigrants from Bukovyna. The following year, in 1898, the first Ukrainian Greek Catholic church was built at Star, Alberta. These two official churches were more than religious institutions satisfying the spiritual needs of a people transplanted into an alien land. They were social, cultural and educational institutions as well. The churches, in addition to providing spiritual comfort and performing religious rites such as weddings, christenings and funerals, were the mainstay of the Ukrainian language and culture in Canada. Attempts by the established Canadian Protestant churches such as the Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians to attract large numbers of Ukrainians were unsuccessful.

Among the early immigrants, there was a third group, some of whom had belonged to or supported the Ukrainian Radical Party founded in 1890 by Ivan Franko and Mykhailo Pawlyk. By the 1900's they set up reading rooms in various parts of Canada with names like Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko and Mykhailo Drahomanov.

Some of the immigrants subscribed to old country newspapers or to Svoboda (Liberty), a Ukrainian daily newspaper which began publishing in Jersey City, USA, on September 15, 1893. When the need arose for a Canadian Ukrainian newspaper, the Liberal Party, which was then in power, helped financially in establishing Kanadiyski farmer (Canadian Farmer). It began publishing in Winnipeg on November 5, 1903, and is still published today, now in its 85th year. (Some years ago, Canadian Farmer amalgamated with Ukrainian Voice to form one paper. - Ed.)

In 1906, the Shevchenko Society was formed in Winnipeg. It maintained a library and reading room, and carried on cultural, educational and social activities. Its membership included former Radical Party members from Ukraine, socialists and so-called Narodnyks or Populists. Its political orientation was socialist and anti-clerical. The Shevchenko Society continued its stormy existence until 1909.

In 1905, the Socialist Party of Canada, which included many Ukrainian members, was formed. By 1907 there were three Ukrainian branches of the Socialist Party of Canada - in Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, and in Nanaimo, B.C. That year the Ukrainian socialists led by Pavlo Krat, VasyI Holovatsky and Myroslav Stechyshyn decided to publish the first Ukrainian socialist paper on the North American continent. Chervony prapor (Red Banner) appeared on November 15, 1907, and continued publishing until August 8, 1908.

It is interesting to note that the Ukrainian socialists were the first to use the name Ukrainian when all other groups were using the name Ruthenian or Rusyn.

Two other cultural and educational institutions were transplanted from Ukraine to Canada. The first was the Prosvita Reading Hall established at Ladywood, Manitoba, in 1908. Soon there were Prosvita Reading Halls across Canada.

In 1913, the Ukrainian National Home Association (Narodny Dim) was incorporated in Winnipeg. It also became one of the leading Ukrainian cultural and educational institutions in Canada.

Although both organizations sought to be non-denominational, Prosvita attracted the Ukrainian Catholics or Uniates while the National Homes attracted the Greek Orthodox. Both institutions still survive in many urban and rural centres in Western Canada.

In 1912 the first Ukrainian Catholic diocese in Canada was established in Winnipeg by the Pope with the appointment of Bishop Nicetas Budka on July 5. In 1913 the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church was incorporated by Bishop Budka in the various provinces.

A high degree of illiteracy among the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants created a need for teachers in the Ukrainian communities across Western Canada. In 1905 the Ruthenian Training School for Ukrainian Teachers was opened in Winnipeg by the Manitoba government. In 1907 it moved to Brandon where it was located until 1916, when the bilingual school system was abolished. In 1906 the first Shevchenko concert in Canada was staged by the students of the Ruthenian Training School. In 1907, the first convention of Ukrainian Canadian public school teachers was held in Winnipeg. In 1910, at the initiative of the Ukrainian teachers, the newspaper Ukrainski holos (Ukrainian Voice) began publishing in Winnipeg on March 16.

In July, 1913, the Manitoba Department of Education published a bilingual (Ukrainian and English) school text: Manitoba Ruthenian-English Reader. School children in Ukrainian districts attended bilingual schools where instruction was in both English and Ukrainian.

In the early days of Ukrainian settlement in Canada, two individuals provided leadership and direction in the community. These were the local school teacher and the district priest. Both had some formal education and a knowledge of the English language, which earned them respect and a certain amount of prestige, and allowed them to act as the liaison between the immigrant Ukrainian- speaking community and the English-speaking world outside. The First World War broke out on July 28, 1914. This cataclysmic event was to have a profound effect on the lives of Ukrainians both in Canada and in Ukraine, changing the course of their lives as no other event in their previous history had done.

George Duravetz, "The Ukrainian Canadian" magazine, September 1988, pp. 24-29
Kobzar Publishing


Ivan Pylypiw and Vasyl Eleniak, the first two Ukrainian immigrants to Canada


Vera Lysenko, Men in Sheepskin Coats, Toronto Ryerson Press
National Archives of Canada


A publicity flyer encouraging immigration to Canada


A publicity flyer in Ukrainian produced by the Canadian government at the turn of the century. It says that there are 200 million acres (80 million hectares) in western Canada - 160 acres or 130 Austrian morgens free for every settler.


Ukrainian woman raking hay
Poley, Manitoba, Canada

Manitoba Archives
Kobzar Publishing


Immigrant women, wheather their husbands were at home or at work hundreds of miles away, worked hard clearing and farming the land. Ukrainian women were the mainstay of agricultural development. Their toil made it possible for the men to take paying jobs in other industries.


A homestead of a Ukrainian immigrant family
Early 1900s
Stewartburn, Manitoba

National Archives of Canada


Many early Ukrainian settlers emigrated to Canada with their whole families, seeking a better life for themselves and their children.


A group of Ukrainian lumber workers
Northern Ontario, Canada

Ontario Archives


Even in those first years of immigration a considerable number of immigrants remained in the cities, many working in the forests and lumber mills of Northern Ontario.


Students and a teacher of a Ukrainian school
Inter-Lake District in Manitoba, Canada


Many of the early schools in the western provinces taught Ukrainian.


Plastered house belonging to Ukrainian immigrant Rodowsky
Poley, Manitoba, Canada

Manitoba Archives


Plastered house belonging to Ukrainian immigrant Rodowsky