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Despite being known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and claiming large deposits of coal and iron, Ukraine is a nation whose history has been dominated by poverty. Foreign rulers, whether Mongols, Latvians, Poles, or Russians, have controlled or divided Ukraine among themselves for the past 100 years. These rulers have ensured that many Ukrainians remain poverty-stricken peasants. In 1891, having learned of Canada’s untapped potential, the first Ukrainian immigrants sold their meagre landholdings and headed west.
Ukraine’s immigration history to Canada can be broken into four waves, each growing progressively smaller and less important to Ukrainian-Canadian society.
The first wave began in 1891 when two peasants, Ivan Pylypiw and Wasyl Eleniak, established the community of Edna-Star east of Edmonton. Soon after, other immigrants followed in their footsteps. These pioneers came from two major regions: Galicia, part of Poland, and Bukovyna, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their reasons for leaving were many and included a growing population’ quickly running out of land, malnutrition which resulted not only from overpopulation but also from the primitive farming techniques applied at the time, and social problems such as illiteracy, drunkenness, and heavy debt loads.
These immigrants were encouraged by Canada and then-Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton. At the time, Canada was eager to settle the untamed wilds of the prairie provinces and in exchange for only a $10 registration fee, was offering 160 acres of land each to willing farmers. For many Ukrainians who owned only a couple of acres in Europe, this was an enticing offer. In all, 170,000 Ukrainians arrived in Canada between 1891 and 1914. The majority of these immigrants were farmers who established small farming communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
Although their immigration was encouraged by the Canadian government, many of the existing Anglo-Saxon elite held mixed opinions about the new arrivals. Some worried that the concentrated settlement in the area east of Edmonton would lead to a stretch of Ukrainian land that would resist the adoption of Canadian values and ideals. As such, in 1896, the Canadian government helped to establish several, smaller Ukrainian settlements across the prairies.
Ukrainians, along with other Eastern Europeans, faced increased discrimination after the start of World War I. The war not only brought a halt to immigration, but it also placed restrictions on Ukrainians living in Canada. Since Ukraine was partly under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with which Canada was at war, Ukrainians were designated as foreign aliens. They were told to register and report often to the nearest government office, and as a result of the Wartime Elections Act, those who entered Canada after 1902 were disenfranchised. Those who did not follow the new restrictions and some unemployed men were placed in wartime internment camps.
One positive outcome of the war was that the increase in the price of wheat allowed many Ukrainian-Albertan farmers to enjoy new-found prosperity. Some were even able to increase the size of their farms as a result.
Ukrain's independence following World War I was shortlived; the nation was soon carved up between Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and Russia. Immigration resumed shortly after the war’s end. Most Ukrainians continued to arrive from the regions of Galicia and Bukovyna. Although they encountered some political oppression on the part of the Polish government, most Ukrainians chose to emigrate for economic reasons similar to those that existed before the war. In all, 68,000 Ukrainians came to Canada in the period betwen the World Wars. They were welcomed by the existing Ukrainian population, although many settled in new areas because land was scarce where communities already existed. Alberta’s Ukrainian population rose to 71,868, still less than the totals for Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
For its part, the Canadian government was no longer as eager to support Ukrainian immigration. In 1923, the government, concerned over the rising numbers of non-British immigrants, classified different nationalities as being either “preferred” or “non-preferred.” Ukrainians fell into the latter group and as such, they could only gain entrance to Canada if they had family members already living in the country or as farmers, farm labourers, or domestic help.
During the Great Depression, immigration all but stopped. Only those who could prove they had enough money to start a farm were allowed to immigrate: Canada had closed its borders in an attempt to reverse the economic slide. By the late 1930s, immigration had, to some degree at last, resumed. Many Ukrainians left their homelands fearing another war.
Just as World War I had done, World War II cut off immigration. The third wave of Ukrainian immigration resumed after the end of the conflict and consisted of displaced persons (DPs) left homeless by the war. While some Ukrainians were repatriated back to their homelands, others did not return, not wanting to move to the now Soviet-controlled Ukraine.
Between 1947 and 1953, more than 34,000 displaced persons of Ukrainian descent came to Canada. These newcomers differed from earlier immigrants in several ways: first, they tended to be better educated or have more extensive training. An inabiltiy to communicate in English, however, led to problems finding work. What's more, they came from all across Ukraine and not just from a couple of regions. Finally, they chose Ontario and Toronto in particular over Western Canada.
The fourth and final wave of Ukrainian immigration took place in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a small trickle of 10,000 or so who managed to escape communist Poland and the Soviet Union. During this time, Alberta’s Ukrainian population was bolstered not only by immigrants but also by Ukrainians’ moving from Saskatchewan and Manitoba. By 1981, Alberta, with 136,710 claiming Ukrainian heritage, boasted the highest Ukrainian population of any Canadian province. This population was mostly Canadian-born, urban, and assimilated.
In 2001, Ontario was home to Canada’s largest Ukrainian population: Ontario boasted 290,925 Ukrainians compared to Alberta’s 285,725. However, while this only accounted for 2.6 per cent of Ontario’ population, it accounted for almost 10 percent of Alberta’s. Edmonton retains the largest Ukrainain population of any Canadian city with 125,720 while Ukrainians and their descendants make up the eighth largest ethnic group in Canada with a little over a million people.