Community Builders, Early Ukrainian Teachers

by John H. Syrnick

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1964-65 Season

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In searching for a subject that might be of some interest to this gathering, my thoughts turned to the community where I was born and spent a greater part of my boyhood.

It was a closely-knit community, situated some forty odd miles northwest of Dauphin and ten miles from the village of Ethelbert. It was inhabited entirely by people who in the last decade of the 19th century and at the turn of the 20th emigrated, as my parents did, from western Ukraine. Many of these settlers were inter-related and were of Ukrainian origin, although there were a few families who, because of their Roman Catholic faith, regarded themselves as Poles but did not know the language and conversed entirely in Ukrainian.

I suppose it was like any other pioneer Ukrainian community in Canada, with the characteristic whitewashed clay-plastered cottages and thatched roofs. Many of them had a bank of clay along the outside southern wall, where on summer evenings after the day’s toil was done the family would sit and discuss the tasks of the day or chat with the visiting neighbors.

There was a small log church in the centre of this community, for the settlers were deeply religious people. The priests were scarce in those days, but every Sunday and on other holy days the small church was filled to capacity by young and old who participated in common prayer and religious singing led by some lay members. Christmas and Easter were great festive occasions and because each of these holidays lasted three days, the congregation was able to secure for one of those days the services of a visiting clergyman. The religious traditions and customs of the former homeland were strictly observed.

The Easter festivities are still a vivid memory. Easter heralded the advent of spring, and particularly delighted the children. The brooks were running high and the ditches were full of water. The meadows were green and the air was filled with the singing of birds and the tinkling of cowbells, as well as with the fragrance of early spring flowers that dotted the meadows, such as marsh marigolds, ladies’ slippers, crocuses and others peculiar to a Canadian springtime.

After the Easter church service there was the blessing of Paska, the Easter bread, the coloured Easter eggs and other traditional food. The baskets were placed on the soft grass of the church green in circular order, and the food having been blessed and sprinkled with the holy water, the parishioners hurried home, some in wagons, others on foot, to partake of the Holy Family feast. Having done this and after attending to the mid-day chores, both old and young would return to the church green. There the older settlers would sit at the base of the belfry to discuss local events and exchange pleasantries, while the women-folk would form their own circle to discuss domestic problems, including the match-making of their growing daughters and sons.

One of the most delightful highlights of the Easter traditions were the Hahilky. These were sprightly folk-games accompanied by singing in which the growing boys and girls participated and were sometimes joined by young married couples. These Easter folk-games would continue until dusk, when it was time to break up in order to attend to the chores at home. Another custom was exchanging the Pysanky, the coloured Easter eggs.

Unfortunately, these Easter folk games are rarely practised now due partly to unfavorable climatic conditions and partly because the younger generations have lost the art.

One other reason why Easter was, and I believe still is so appealing to the young is an age-long tradition that on this great festive day every member of the family had to have something new to wear. For those more fortunate it might have been a new suit of clothes, for others a new pair of shoes, a shirt or blouse, a pair of socks or stockings, or even a handkerchief or a new pair of shoe laces for those whose parents could not afford something more expensive.

Having given you a glimpse of what our little world looked like in our community, as I remember it, it will be in order to sketch very briefly and in general terms the background of these people, who in the early period of their settlement baffled the older inhabitants of Canada, were called by a variety of names, were often misunderstood and even suspected.

Some called them “Sifton boys,” because it was during the time that Sir Clifford Sifton was Minister of the Interior that their mass migration to Canada began. Others called them “Men in sheepskin coats”, still others called them “bohunks”.

I recall one rather humorous incident that took place in 1961, when the Canadian Ukrainian community was commemorating the 60th anniversary of the arrival in Canada of the first two permanent Ukrainian settlers. I might add here that recent research has shown that Ukrainian settlers were in Canada before 1891.

But let us return to the incident. As a climax to the 60th anniversary celebrations a banquet was held at the Marlborough Hotel in Winnipeg. In introducing Prof. W. L. Morton, the guest speaker, Judge J. R. Solomon, in a jocular vein reminded the professor that our Anglo-Saxon neighbors used to call our people “bohunks.” In reply Prof. Morton said: “I am very sorry that my people called your people ’bohunks,’ but I wonder what your people called my people?”

Well, we called his people Barany, which literally means “rams,” masculine for sheep. However, I want to assure you, that Barany did not carry any contemptible meanings. It simply meant those who did not understand the Ukrainian language.

I also want to absolve all those older Canadians who called my people by different names, because it was not entirely their fault. The fault lies mainly with my people, and more precisely with the twists of history that almost obliterated their national consciousness. As a result of poverty and illiteracy, the two usually go together, the Ukrainian immigrants designated their national origin by the names of the regions from which they came. Those who came from Bukovina called themselves Bukovinians; those from Galacia called themselves Galicians, while many others called themselves Austrians because that part of their homeland was under Austrian domination. The more progressive ones called themselves Ruthenians, which is not to be confused with Russians, and those who possessed higher education called themselves Ukrainians.

There was a great revival of national consciousness among these settlers in the period roughly between 1908 and 1918, due to a variety of factors, which will be briefly dealt with later. Yet it was not until the census of 1921 that the Dominion Bureau of Statistics finally saw light and realized that the Bukovinians, Galicians, Ruthenians and Ukrainians were actually the same people.

The 1921 census showed 1,616 Bukovinians, 24,456 Galicians, 16,861 Ruthenians and 63,788 Ukrainians. The Dominion statisticians totalled all these figures and concluded that in 1921 Canada had within its borders 106,721 inhabitants of Ukrainian origin.

But even this total did not reflect the true picture, because in that same year the statistics showed 107,671 Austrians, although we know that there is no such ethnic origin. That there were still many Ukrainians who designated themselves as Austrians is borne out by the fact that between 1921 and 1931 the number of Austrians decreased from 107,671 to 48,639, a drop of 59,032. In the 1941 census there was a further drop of 21,317, leaving only 37,715 Austrians out of the original total of 107,671 that was their number in 1921.

Somewhat similar, though far less spectacular change, occurred in the Russian column, as can be seen from the following tables:

Census year

Number of Russians








88,147 - a drop of 11,916


83,708 - a drop of 4,440 making a total drop of 16,356

Although it cannot be established with any degree of certainty how many of those who originally designated themselves as Austrians, crossed over to the Ukrainian column in later censuses, there can be no doubt that very many did. Similarly, some of those who gave their ethnic origin as Russian joined the Ukrainians as their national consciousness re-emerged. It should be noted here that in western Ukraine from which the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians came to Canada, there was a Russophil movement aided by the Russian czars. After 1941 the Russian group in Canada attained numerical stability, which was reflected in a small rise in its numbers, due almost entirely to natural increase as there is practically no immigration from the Soviet Union.

What was the picture like in Manitoba? The 1921 census lists 192 Bukovinians, 10,288 Galicians, 7,987 Ruthenians and 25,662 Ukrainians, making a total of 44,129. [*]

This group of settlers, whom henceforth we shall call Ukrainians, their rightful name, formed the second largest group in Manitoba after the Anglo-Saxon group, exceeding as far as numbers go, both the French and German group, and this picture is still true today.

I have not been able to obtain official population statistics for earlier years in relation to the Ukrainian group in Manitoba. However, Dr. Vladimir Kaye in his recent book entitled Early Ukrainian Settlements in Canada - 1895-1900 published by the University of Toronto Press, states that the official figures for 1902, contained in the memorandum submitted to the Commissioner of Immigration in Ottawa by Cyril Genik, showed that in 1902 there were 17,058 “Ruthenians” in Manitoba. I am inclined to accept this figure as fairly accurate because Mr. Genik was in the employ of the Dominion Immigration Branch in Winnipeg, and was supposed to keep a close tab on the arrival of Ukrainian immigrants to this province and farther West.

These people settled in compact masses in such areas as Valley River, Sifton, Fork River, Ethelbert, Garland, Pine River, Sclater, Cowan, which lie north of Dauphin, also in the Gilbert Plains area, south of the Riding Mountains in Sandy Lake, Menzie, Rossburn, Oakburn, in the Interlake areas such as Teulon, Pleasant Home, Komarno, also south of Winnipeg in Stuartburn, Vita, Tolstoi, Caliento and Sundown.

These compact settlements, though a blessing in disguise, posed some very real problems for the government of the day. The most pressing one was that of education and the integration of the new settlers into the fabric of the Canadian society. It was no easy task. The language barrier made communication extremely difficult.

Fortunately for the settlers, as well as for Manitoba, these people were not altogether leaderless. Along with the mass of villagers with little or no education there came to Canada a number of young men, who were students in the old country, and possessed either partial or complete secondary education. There were also a few with some university training. These young men spearheaded a movement for the betterment and advancement of their kinsmen in a new land.

The establishment of schools in Ukrainian communities only partly solved the problem of education. The schools had to be staffed, and qualified teachers were hard to obtain. Moreover, the Anglo-Saxon teachers were very reluctant to teach in the backwoods, and for understandable reasons. Apart from the language barrier and strange customs, there was also lack of adequate lodgings and boarding places. I might add that this reluctance was mutual to a certain extent. The Ukrainian settlers preferred a teacher who could speak their language and feel a part of the community, who had a genuine stake in the progress of the community, who would be a counsellor, a guide and interpreter to the settlers, as they faced many problems of adaptation in a new land.

Consequently, the Ukrainians requested that the Laurier-Greenway agreement of 1897, known as Section 258 of the Public Schools Act be implemented. This section of the Act read that:

“Where ten of the pupils speak the French language, or any other language other than English, as their native language, the teaching for such pupils shall be conducted in French, or such other language, and English upon the bilingual system.” [1]

To implement this provision, the government of Manitoba established in 1905 a special school, known as Ruthenian Training School, for the training of bilingual Ukrainian teachers. This school was situated in Winnipeg on Minto Street and was under the principalship of Mr. J. T. Cressey, for whom the students had high regard. Besides the teachers who instructed in English, there were two, Jacob Makohin and D. D. Pyrch, who instructed the would-be teachers in Ukrainian language and literature.

In 1907 the Ruthenian Training School was moved to Brandon and the staff of Ukrainian instructors was increased to three, they being Taras Ferley, Prof. Peter Karmansky and Ivan Basarab. Before this unique institution closed its doors in 1916 with the abolition of the bilingual system in that year, some 150 Ukrainian students received their training in Winnipeg and Brandon. [2]

It was the graduates of the Ruthenian Training School that tutored us in a one-roomed school called Borschiw, named after a district in the Western Ukraine from which most of our neighbors emigrated to Canada.

In 1909 the Saskatchewan government followed Manitoba’s lead by opening in Regina a Training School for Teachers for Foreign-Speaking Communities.

I remember them with a deep feeling of affection and gratitude, especially the first three: Ivan Kocan (pronounced Kotzan), Thodore Marciniw (pronounced Mortziniw) and Onufrey Hykawy. They left an imprint of their personalities on many of us. They were dedicated men and went beyond the ordinary call of duty to make our introduction to education a challenging and stirring experience. They not only taught us the three R’s, but they moulded our characters and guided us along the path of righteous living. They introduced us to the exciting world of literature by reading to us daily from verse and prose and by encouraging us to read at home. They took care that the school library was well stocked with books in both languages and organized evening courses for the adults. An annual concert and a play or two by the children of the school was a part of their programme. It was a schooling in self expression.

I am not sure how they would have fared under the merit system. Their English was not the best, their academic training did not exceed grade ten, but they gave us something of the intangible and indefinable, a set of values that was our guiding light.

The graduates of the Ruthenian Training School, most of them, had a mission to perform. The object of that mission was the advancement of the Ukrainian people, their adaptation to the way of life of their adopted land, and their eventual participation in every phase of Canadian activity.

It was, therefore, a two-fold mission; the education of the children and the education of the adults. In the field of adult education these teachers were instrumental in founding Community Halls, called Narodni Domy, which for many years continued to be beehives of community activities. In these halls dramatics, folk arts and choral singing were fostered. Every hall had its own lending library. In many localities these teachers organized classes for those adults who never had an opportunity to attend school. They were taught to read. Some teachers organized adult classes in elementary English. They gave many lectures on public matters. They were recognized leaders in their respective communities, persons of authority and respect. The local school boards were often willing to reward such teachers by offering them higher salaries in order to retain their services. By providing wholesome community activities they saved many a young man from the kind of assimilation that is best illustrated by the following story. Two men, one of them an Anglo-Saxon, met in a local beer parlor and struck a conversation. Curious of his companion’s ethnic origin, the Anglo-Saxon asked: “Are you a Doukhobor?” To this the other replied: “Me, a Doukhobor? No sir-e-e-e. Me smoke, me drink, me play cards, me gamble, me swear. Me Canadian!”

Some of the older professional people of Ukrainian parentage owe their education to the early teachers, who spared no effort to convince their parents that their son or daughter, as the case may be, should have an opportunity to obtain a university education. This required many visits to the parents and exhaustive arguments to prevail upon the parents to give them that opportunity, because in many cases in those early pioneer days the financial burden entailed was beyond the capacity of a struggling pioneer family to shoulder.

The Ukrainian public school teachers had an active organization of their own. This may seem odd to us now, but in those early years their services were limited almost exclusively to Ukrainian communities, and for understandable reasons. With their inadequate English in many cases and with their strange names, foreign to many older Canadians, names like Woycichowsky, Basarabovrich, Dedeluk, Holowacky, Hawryliuk and Chaykowsky, they were not readily acceptable in non-Ukrainian districts. So they established their own teachers’ organization and held conventions in the city of Winnipeg to exchange experiences and to discuss problems pertinent to the communities in which they served.

Their first convention was held in 1907 with about 40 teachers in attendance. One of the problems under discussion was the need to establish a truly independent Ukrainian weekly, free of any political and denominational affiliations with which were weighed some of the periodicals that appeared earlier. At their third convention held in 1909 it was decided to form the Ukrainian Publishing Company of Canada and in March 1910 the first issue of Ukrainian Voice appeared. There was some division of opinion as to what name should be given to the new weekly. Some thought the name Ukrainian Voice was too bold, as many settlers still called themselves Ruthenians and Galicians, but the majority opinion prevailed. After several years of publication the name “Ukrainian” was universally accepted by the more progressive Ukrainian element. Under the impact of this enlightened movement one Ukrainian weekly which began publishing in 1911 under the name of Kanadiysky Rusin (Canadian Ruthenian) found its position untenable and in 1919 changed its name to Kanadiysky Ukrainetz (Canadian Ukrainian).

The steady advancement of the Ukrainian settlers, their entry into municipal and provincial politics, the entry of their children into institutions of higher learning, coupled with their determination to preserve their cultural values and traditions, was not looked upon with favor in some quarters. Some even regarded them as a menace and a disruptive element in Canadian society.

The Missionary Messenger in its issue for May 1916, carried an article on the ’Ruthenians in Saskatchewan’ and here are some quotes from this article:

“Ruthenians are now serving as school teachers, not always with distinction. They are Councillors of Rural Municipalities. They have special supervisors and organizers for their schools. One of their number was recently elected a member of the Manitoba Legislature. They are intensely interested in politics. Their newspapers are strongly nationalistic Ukrainian in tone. For the moment, owing to the war, the Ukrainian movement hides is head. But it is here, and must be grappled with.

... the Ruthenians have become a force not in this Province alone but throughout the prairies. They have control of school districts, they dictate the policy in more than one Rural Municipality, they have entered the Legislature of Manitoba, and are knocking at the doors of the Legislative Assemblies of other provinces.”

The Saskatoon Daily Star in its issue of 19 September 1916, carried an editorial under the heading “A Separatist Movement”, accusing the Ukrainians of conspiring to organize themselves into a separate party. I quote:

“That there is a movement among the Ruthenians or at least among a certain section to organize themselves into a separate party, whose aims and ideals are wholly separatist is beyond question.”

And then again, speaking at the convention of the Provincial Educational Association at Regina, as reported by the Toronto Sentinel, 3 May 1917, Mr. James F. Bryant said as follows:

“There is one other matter to which I wish to refer, and that is the provincial trustees’ convention, held in Regina in February last. That convention was packed by the non-English element in the province. The English speaking trustees were asleep at the switch. While a great many English school districts were not represented, or if represented had only one delegate, the foreign districts were represented by two and three, and perhaps more, delegates. As a result, out of an executive of nine, six members are of non-British race.”

The speaker proposed a very simple remedy. I quote:

“... the law should be amended immediately so that no alien can be elected trustee in any part of Saskatchewan. The time has come when the English-speaking people of this province must unite and demand, in the interests of all, that such a condition of affairs shall cease to exist, To quote from Burns again, ’Never but by British hands, Shall British wrongs be righted’.”

Although I have quoted from publications outside the province of Manitoba similar fears and suspicions existed here as can be seen by perusing the pages of the Manitoba Free Press and the Winnipeg Telegram.

There can be no doubt that a large measure of this suspicion and distrust was due to the fact that Canada was at war and the older Canadians were suspicious of those who came from Austria, thinking that the loyalties of these newcomers were still with the Austro-Hungarian kingdom. The unfortunate pastoral letter by a Ukrainian Catholic bishop issued after Austria declared war on Siberia, which called upon the Austrian subjects and I quote “to go to the defence of our threatened Fatherland” heightened this suspicion, and although the letter was recalled as soon as Canada joined the war, an irreparable damage was already done. The persistent efforts of the Ukrainian community leaders to retain the bilingual school system also added to the confusion. It can now be said in retrospect that these fears and suspicions that the Ukrainian group was endeavoring to build some sort of a small Ukraine in Canada or that its loyalties were doubtful, were completely groundless. Mr. William Burianyk, a veteran of the First World War and a former teacher, who made a special study of the enlistments of Ukrainians in that war, estimately that approximately 10,000 of them joined the Canadian armed forces and served overseas. One of them by the name of Philip Konowal, was awarded the Victoria Cross. Some who were refused enlistment because of their former Austrian citizenship Anglicised their names in order to become acceptable.

The brunt of these attacks and suspicions was borne by these early Ukrainian teachers, who were leaders in their respective communities and some of which became spokesmen of the group on a national scale. I would like to mention a few of them, who were graduates of the Ruthenian Training School or employed on its teaching staff.

There was Wasyl Kudryk, who taught at St. Norbert and in the Stuartburn district. He was the first editor of Ukrainian Voice, a veritable walking encyclopedia. He spoke several languages and is the author of several books mostly on church matters. He had one of the finest private libraries that I ever knew. In his collection he had some rare books. A man of very modest living, he would part with his last few dollars to add a book to his collection. A great lover of flowers, his study was full of potted plants. One of his former pupils, now living in the United States, wrote thus of him in the recent Christmas issue of Ukrainian Voice:

“when he entered the classroom he was accompanied by Socrates, Aristotle, Shevchenko, Byron, Tolstoy, Drahomaniw, Rudansky ...”

Some of these early teachers attained a varying degree of success and public recognition.

Taras Ferley, who taught at the Ruthenian Training School at Brandon, and one of the most eminent of Ukrainian leaders, was the first of Ukrainian origin to be elected in 1915 to the Manitoba Legislature. He possessed a winning magnetic personality and was held in high esteem by those who knew him.

N. V. Bachynsky sat in the Manitoba Legislature continually from 1922 until 1958. From 1950 until 1958 he was Speaker of the Legislative Assembly.

J. W. Arsenych, one of the outstanding leaders of the Ukrainian community, who in his early years taught in the Dauphin district, was the first of Ukrainian parentage in Canada to practise law, the first to be appointed King’s Counsel, and the first to be appointed judge. He served until death in the Dauphin circuit court.

Michael Stechishin, one of three illustrious Stechishin brothers, taught for a while in Manitoba, later moved to Saskatchewan, studied and practised law and was appointed judge in the Wynyard district.

Onufrey Hykawy, one of my own teachers, was for many years editor-in-chief of a weekly called the Canadian Farmer.

These outstanding personalities who acted on a wider stage, along with many lesser personalities in the early teaching profession in this province were in the fullest sense of the word - COMMUNITY BUILDERS. They were the trail-blazers for the growing and succeeding generations. They set an example of dedicated and devoted service. They assisted their kinsmen in the transitional period from the status of an immigrant to that of a fully-fledged Canadian citizen. It was, as I have stated earlier, a blessing in disguise that they were not readily acceptable in non-Ukrainian districts, for without their leadership the process of transition would have been a more difficult one.

Let me quote part of a letter written on 29 December 1925 by Mr. Thedore Bodnar, chairman of the Ethelbert School Board, to Dr. Robert Fletcher, Deputy Minister of Education. Mr. Bodnar was one of the early teachers, who later became District Agricultural Representative in the Ethelbert area. I quote:

“As regards the question why we advertise for teachers in the Ukrainian Voice and not in the Free Press or Tribune, we will give you our reason quite frankly. We know that the majority of our Ukrainian teachers read the Ukrainian Voice whether they read the Free Press or Tribune or not, and when we wish to get a teacher of Ukrainian descent we advertise in that paper, but when we wish to get only English-speaking teachers, we advertise in the Free Press or Tribune. We would like to give a first chance to our Ukrainian boys and girls that are fully qualified and able teachers to teach in our school. You know it Sir, as well as we do that these boys and girls are not readily accepted as teachers in purely English speaking communities. Their innocent long name is against them in spite of their qualifications and ability to teach. We might be somewhat clannish in this respect but we are just imitating things that the other people are practising. Perhaps the time will come when we would not have to do these things in this Canada of ours, but that time has not come yet.

“There is nothing underhanded about the expression used in “National Work”. This expression when properly translated means that the teacher should be prepared to lead the other young people to do some community work, tending to raise the standard of the community educationally, socially and economically. We do not want our teachers to confine their work to the school and be mere “blacksmiths in their shops”. We expect our teachers to be leaders and educate the dads and mothers as well as their sons and daughters and thus raise the standard of the individual home and of the whole community to a higher level of citizenship. For this extra work we are prepared to pay a little premium in their salaries.

“We are proud of our Ethelbert School and its good name is dear to us. Therefore the sooner we clear off the suspicion which apparently is in existence the better it will be for all concerned. Some such elements of suspicion might have been justified twenty years ago, but not now when we have grown with the development of this country and have become part and parcel of this country’s institutions. Its well-being is as much in our hearts as it is in any other Canadian community.”

We have gone a long way since this letter was written. Teachers of Ukrainian origin have won their spurs and are readily accepted in any community.

I have meant this paper to be a tribute, modest as it is, to the early Ukrainian teachers in Manitoba, for in my estimation they have played, and with distinction, a very significant role in the process of integrating the newcomers into the Canadian way of life and in the utilization of the opportunities inherent in a democratic society which is our common heritage in this free land.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Ruthenian Training School / Strathcona Block (144 Tenth Street, Brandon)


* The 1961 census showed 473,337 persons of Ukrainian ethnic origin in Canada, 2.46% of the total population, of which 361,496, or 1.98% of the total population, indicated Ukrainian was their mother tongue. In Manitoba, 105,372 persons of Ukrainian origin, or 11.43% of the provincial population, had 85,173, or 9.24%, who indicated Ukrainian as their mother tongue.

1. Statutes of Manitoba, 1897, C. 26, Sec. 10.

2. Editor’s note: D. P. McColl, Deputy Minister of Education in Saskatchewan, came to visit the Brandon school and reported as follows: “... 34 pupils ... in attendance; 15 in the senior class, 19 in the junior. 2 teachers are continually employed; one an English-speaking teacher, the other a person qualified to speak the Galician tongue. Accommodation is provided by the government and is of a very satisfactory character.” Public Archives of Saskatchewan, 1066, 4. Correspondence Re. Ruthenian Matters, McColl to Calder, 10 March 1908, p. 139.

Page revised: 11 October 2014