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Manitoba History: Book Review: Rhonda L. Hinther, Perogies and Politics: Canada’s Ukrainian Left

by Peter Melnycky
Alberta Culture and Tourism, Heritage Division

Number 88, Winter 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Rhonda L. Hinther, Perogies and Politics: Canada’s Ukrainian Left, 1891–1991. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 292 pages. ISBN 978-1-4875-0049-8, $65.00 (hardcover)

On 9 July 1942, the Winnipeg Free Press published a notice regarding the death of 22-year-old RCAF Flight Sergeant Michael William Fedirchyk in Europe. An Elmwood native, Fedirchyk attended Lord Selkirk and St John’s High Schools and studied at the University of Manitoba, before taking a job with the People’s Co-operative in North Winnipeg. The article noted that, before his enlistment, Fedirchyk was well known in Ukrainian circles as an interpreter of folk songs and dance, and that during his six months overseas he had taken part in raids over Bremen, Cologne, and Essen. What wasn’t noted was that Michael and brother John, also serving with the RCAF, were members of the Ukrainian Labour Farmer Temple Association [ULFTA], a popular left-oriented political and cultural organization which, until the 1941 entry of the USSR into the war with Nazi Germany, had opposed Canada’s participation in that conflict.

It is the history of this movement within Canada’s multifaceted Ukrainian community that is the focus of historian Rhonda Hinther’s monograph. Based on her PhD thesis from McMaster University, the book provides an overlapping intersectional analysis with a particular emphasis on gender, class, ethnic, and generational dynamics which characterized interactions both within the organization and between broader societal and left wing political relations.

Established in Winnipeg in 1918 on the foundations of the existent left wing social democratic network within Canada’s Ukrainian community, the ULFTA during the interwar years combined a commitment to economic and social justice issues while at the same time fostering a broad spectrum of Ukrainian cultural activism through theatre, dance, culinary skills, folk art, and educational initiatives. This era became a “golden age” for the ULFTA’s blend of Ukrainian cultural and political radicalism: “Enormously successful, its array of cultural, social, and political activities served to establish the Ukrainian labour temple as one of the most popular and important working-class institutions in interwar Canada, encompassing impressive numbers of members and supporters, female and male, children and adult.” Some fifteen thousand members attended eighty-seven temples across the country, while the association’s Ukrainian-language newspapers reached more than twenty thousand subscribers. Hinther argues that the association’s devotion to Ukrainian cultural and working class identity, and its creation of separate gender and age specific activities, meant that Ukrainian radicalism contained divergent and even conflicting elements. The study intentionally pays as much attention to the women, youth, and children as it does to the men in the movement, and it explores how Ukrainian language skills influenced engagement, shaped intergenerational relations, and played a key role in community restructuring.

Hinther gives a powerful retelling of the banning of the association during the war years and the internment of ULFTA activists. During the early course of the war, a third of the one hundred communist or pro-communist prisoners detained for their political views originated within the Ukrainian community. Exclusively male leadership cadres were interned, bringing the organization’s activities to an abrupt halt, but also facilitating the entry of women into leadership roles. Both the ULFTA male leaders and the RCMP failed to value women’s essential wartime leadership, letting them assume activist responsibilities previously inaccessible to them.

The author outlines the atrophy which eventually beset the association, as Canadian-born members during and after World War II began to challenge understandings and expressions of ‘Ukrainianness’ and developed a distinct leftist ‘Ukrainian Canadianness,’ in which the common language of expression was English. These shifts, combined with the realities of post-war prosperity, the cold-war political climate, patterns of assimilation, and changes toradical activist culture, would have profound consequences. The transition to a primarily English-language movement was marked by deeply gendered intergenerational divisions that often promoted conflict and disunity, contributing to the movement’s fragmentation and eventual decline. Fewer Canadian-born members remained politically active during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and increasingly labour temples transformed themselves into centers of Ukrainian cultural engagement rather than political activism. Even though the movement was opposed to Multiculturalism as state policy, it nevertheless benefited from changing social perceptions towards the acceptance of minority cultures within Canada. Due to external circumstances and changing internal demographics, between 1918 and the present the organization’s formal name changed from the Ukrainian Labour Temple Association to the Ukrainian Labour Farmer Temple Association, the Ukrainian Association to Aid the Fatherland, the Association of Canadian Ukrainians, and, finally, to the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians.

Post war industrialization and urbanization ultimately saw the centre of organizational control and influence shift from Winnipeg to Toronto. While post war Ukrainian immigrants took labour jobs, few identified politically with their class position, most rejecting and challenging any support for socialist ideology or Soviet models, further weakening the movement’s viability. The death of Stalin, Khrushchev’s admission of Soviet crimes, subsequent Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as well as continued evidence of Russification in Ukraine all had the effect of alienating younger members and brought the association leadership itself to question Communist Party of Canada policies.

This is an organizational social history, which pushes back against simplistic labels of “communist” or “pro-communist” being applied to the association, while ascribing the equally simplistic “nationalist” label to the broader Ukrainian community. The author’s stated scope of study excludes extensive discussion of the ULFTA’s relations with the wider Ukrainian community, with only limited highlighting of key episodes of divergent opinion and conflict. This leads to the obscuring of several difficult issues where the association was accused of being an apologist for Stalinist crimes and neglecting the interests of the Ukrainian people in favor of political ideology.

There is only passing mention of the ULFTA’s silence during, and complicity in, the denial of Stalin’s genocidal 1932-1933 famine and war against the Ukrainian peasantry, cultural intelligentsia, and indigenous churches. Extensive literature on the topic of the Holodomor is omitted, except for a single reference to the seminal but dated Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest. Similarly undeveloped is the story of the ULFTA sanctioning the fate of its own activist members who returned to Europe to take part in the building of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, either voluntarily, as in the case of Myroslav Irchan, or involuntarily through deportation by the Canadian government, as in the case of Ivan Sembay. Tragically, both of these men were exiled from Ukraine and executed during the purges of the 1930s. Also absent is any discussion of the ULFTA’s acceptance of Hitler’s dismemberment, in concert with Stalin, of the interwar Polish Republic through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact. Only with the 22 June 1941, Nazi German invasion of the USSR did the association come in step with Canada’s war agenda.

There is some allusion to the movement’s role as a conduit for Communist Party of Canada activism but no mention of infamous defector, John Hladun. Born to a family of Ukrainian Catholic farmers at Ladywood, Manitoba, Hladun became a front line ULFTA community worker and operative of the Young Communist League and the Communist Party of Canada. During 1931, he attended the International Lenin School in Moscow, operated by the Communist International, with the intent of developing communist cadres across the globe through the study of economics and history and Marxist theory. In light of what he saw in Russia and Ukraine, Hladun abandoned the ULFTA. During the Cold War period, he became something of a media sensation, crossing the country touting his personal revelation, “They Taught Me Treason: The First-hand Story of a Canadian Farm Boy Trained by Moscow as a Storm Trooper of World Revolution.”

Although Hinther promises to address the effect of Ukraine’s 1991 declaration of independence on the Ukrainian Left in Canada, she merely notes that: “Gone was its privileged connection to the old country, along with many personal and political ties.” Unanswered is whether the history at the core of its previous Sovietophile existence can be reconciled with a newly independent state eager to erase the legacy of Soviet rule from its physical and psychological landscape.

The selected bibliography—while rich in its references to scholarship on Ukrainian Canadian, North American leftist, immigrant, and gender issues—does not include a single citation devoted to the history of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917–1921, Ukrainian Communism, or post-independence Ukraine. Editorial lapses include some typographical errors, including a series of footnotes that have not migrated seamlessly from the author’s thesis to the published monograph. Content originally cited to Fedir Hordienko’s “Pages from a Life in Canada,” are instead attributed to an interview with Mike Skrynyk, Canadian Security Intelligence Service files and Dmytro Slobodian’s “From a Life’s Experiences.” While the etymologically correct Ukrainian terms “varenyky,” “pyrohy,” and “holubtsi” were used throughout the text, the Anglo-Canadianism “Perogies” appears in the title, perhaps to enhance its popular appeal. The author’s use of the Left’s Ukrainian-language press is not comprehensive, with many attributed citations coming via secondary English-language sources and translations contained in RCMP surveillance reports.

Through her use of dozens of original oral history interviews, a selective survey of associated Ukrainian-language publications, organizational records, and other relevant archival sources including extensive RCMP monitoring files, Hinther has produced a portrait of more than a century of the Ukrainian Left’s organizational history, offering valuable insights into gender and generational issues all too often overlooked in other studies. She has fashioned a reflective and insightful study of a major component of Canada’s Ukrainian community and of the country’s diverse political spectrum.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 April 2021

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