Written by Matthew Cook, Archives Technician
Canada is a country of many cultures and lifestyles, and that reality represents one of our nation’s greatest strengths. People from all over the world have chosen to live here because they perceive Canada to be a prosperous safe haven to practice and promote their culture without fear of persecution and ridicule. One of these groups of people include many Ukrainians, who, at the turn of the 20th century, chose to leave their motherland and make their home here in the Chilliwack area. Although they faced many trials and tribulations, the early Ukrainian immigrants left a lasting legacy that continues to benefit the community of Chilliwack today, and even helped enrich and shape Canada into the tolerant and multicultural nation it is today.
There were a number of reasons why many Ukrainians chose to come to Canada in the early 1900s, and Chilliwack specifically. At the time, the Ukrainians were considered a hardy people shaped by the adversities they faced from alien authorities of the Russian Empire. Therefore, there was always an underlying need to protect and preserve their culture, and many Ukrainians saw Canada as a place where they could do just that and “free themselves from their subordinate status” (AM 257 File 2). The possibility of economic stability was also a highly motivating factor. According to Mrs. Wilma Bobyn, her grandparents came from Okno, Ukraine and originally settled in Manitoba to escape from poverty, as Ukrainians had heard that Canada had roads “that were paved with gold” (AM 257 File 2). Of course, when they did arrive, they found no roads of gold waiting for them, and instead they had to plough and clear their own land. Life was hard, but they stayed and persevered.
As Ukrainian families immigrated to Chilliwack, they found new avenues of opportunities to preserve and promote their culture, especially when it came to holidays and food. For example, during an interview, Mrs. Wilma Bobyn elaborates that “Ukrainians painted Easter eggs on Easter. They also had ‘Paska’ and ‘Babka’ – one is a braided bread, the other is a light fruit loaf”. On Christmas Eve, she notes “the whole family gets together. At this time, 12 meatless dishes are served, to represent the 12 apostles. Wheat and poppies are set in the corner to represent the old man, and the best cloth covers the table. In the center of the table is placed the ‘Kolach’, which is 3 rounded braided loaves, set one on top of the other; these loaves represent the Trinity. The main dish Christmas Eve is ‘Kutia’, which consists of wheat, ground poppy seed, and honey – cooked” (AM 257 File 2).
The Ukrainians in Chilliwack also brought with them their beliefs and religion, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. However, it wasn’t until 1947 when a church committee was first organized. Soon after in 1948, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church St. Demetrius was constructed with Father Stephen Symchuk officiating. Congregations continued to grow over the years and in 1970 the Church moved to its present location on Victor Street, which was purchased by the Lutherian congregation (2020.049).
Along with the church, the committee also helped establish a Ukrainian Community Hall, which opened on Williams Road, Fairfield Island in 1948. The opening speeches for the Hall were made by Reverend Symchuk, who reiterated that the Ukrainians had been persecuted by Russian invaders for the last century. After the speech, a concert took place, which included the singing and dancing of youths with traditional Ukrainian clothes and instruments. Meals were also served over the course of the day, consisting of traditional Ukrainian dishes along with local Canadian cuisine. In the afternoon, Speaker Joseph Yasenchuk, editor of the Ukrainian Voice magazine made a speech stating that “Ukrainian immigrants who came to Canada 50 years ago came as people without a country.” He commended these immigrants, pointing out the advancements they made in every walk of life, and their loyalty to both Ukraine and Canada. He ended his speech by quoting Lord Tweedsmuir: “to be good Canadians you must be good Ukrainians”. The Community Hall continued to play an integral part of the Ukrainian community in Chilliwack for many years, and the members even organized for a float during the annual Cherry Festival in 1949. Sadly, it was moved in the early 1970s to a hall in 45941 Railway Avenue, which as of 2022, sits empty.
The legacy of the Ukrainian immigrants can still be felt today in Chilliwack. As of March 2022, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church St. Demetrius still stands on Victor Street, and there are a variety of restaurants that sell delicious Ukrainian food, such as Sherry’s Ukrainian Kitchen on Airport Road. In total, over 26,000 people living in the Fraser Valley claim Ukrainian descent, with about 5,500 of those descendants living in Chilliwack. This is especially relevant in 2022, as having a healthy community of Ukrainian-Canadians means that the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War (as of 22 March 2022) has affected Chilliwack deeply. For example, Katia Zavgorodnia, a Chilliwack resident who lived in Ukraine, lives in fear for her family’s safety in the besieged city Kharkiv. ‘My hope is that my family is safe. They can keep living their life, being an independent country, building their wealth, and just living their life.” She told the Fraser Valley Current. Another Chilliwack resident with Ukrainian roots, Al Rempel, has taken it upon himself to raise money to help his cousins buy food, medicine and fuel in Zaporizhzhia, a region that is undergoing immense destruction as the war rages on.
At the end of the day, war affects us all, but being part of a multicultural society enables us to find innovative ways to help each other in times of such hardship. In recent days, Canada has agreed to welcome an ‘unlimited number’ of Ukrainians fleeing the war while waiving most of the visa requirements, and this unprecedented humanitarian effort could only be possible due to Canada’s overall openness and tolerance of other cultures. Hopefully the war will end soon, but regardless of the outcome, Ukrainians will always find a home where they can freely express themselves and live in relative peace here in Chilliwack and the rest of Canada.
Chilliwack Museum and Archives, AM 257.
Chilliwack Museum and Archives, Diane Haag fonds, 2020.049
Henderson, Paul. 2022. ‘Chilliwack man raises thousands to help cousins in Ukraine buy food, medicine, fuel’. Chilliwack Progress: https://www.theprogress.com/news/video-chilliwack-man-raises-thousands-to-help-cousins-in-ukraine-buy-food-medicine-fuel/
Kennedy, Grace. 2022. ‘From Харків to Chilliwack: the connections, history, and people tying Canada to Ukraine’. Fraser Valley Current: https://fvcurrent.com/article/war-ukraine-2022/
Chilliwack Progress 1948. ‘Two Hundred Ukrainians At Sunday Gathering’: https://theprogress.newspapers.com/image/77097775/?terms=ukrainians%20sunday%20gathering&mmatc=1
Tasker, John Paul. 2022. ‘Canada prepared to welcome an ’unlimited number’ of Ukrainians feeing war, minister says’. CBC News: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-unlimited-number-ukrainians-1.6371288