Son of Ukrainian Canadian homesteaders becomes Alberta's agriculture minister

by Christopher Guly

OTTAWA - In the early 1990s, Ed Stelmach was out in the fields of his northeastern Alberta farm tending to the hogs. He had to sell those animals, but kept some cattle when he was elected to the provincial legislature in June 1993.

Mr. Stelmach, 46, retained his northeastern Alberta Vegreville-Viking seat for the ruling Progressive Conservatives in the March 11 provincial general election. Not only that, but Premier Ralph Klein included the Ukrainian Canadian and former Tory whip in his second-term Cabinet.

As the new provincial agriculture minister, Mr. Stelmach now has to worry about all of Alberta's farm animals.

Luckily for him, the province enjoys an economic success rate envied by the rest of Canada. Premier Klein has targeted 2005 as the year Alberta's $6 billion ($4.5 billion U.S.) debt will be eradicated. Unlike residents in Canada's nine other provinces, Albertans don't pay retail sales tax, and their income tax rates are among the lowest in the country.

And, as agriculture minister Mr. Stelmach has secured one of the highest-profile - and one of the most successful - portfolios in the 18-member Cabinet.

Last year Alberta's food and beverage industry, along with farm cash gate receipts, pumped $12 billion ($9 billion U.S.) into the province's economy. The agricultural sector is also the province's largest employer, with 113,000 Albertans working directly in the farm industry. That doesn't include thousands more employed in such ancillary sectors as marketing, transportation and processing.

As the farmers' political boss in the Alberta government, Mr. Stelmach is humbled by being named to the post.

"When Ukrainian families first came to Alberta, they settled in the area of the province which I represent and established farms," Mr. Stelmach said in an interview from his farm near Andrew, a community 30 miles southeast from Vegreville.

"My predecessor, Walter Paszkowski, used to say agriculture isn't part of Alberta's past, it's part of its future."

The area from which Mr. Stelmach originates itself holds considerable personal significance for him as well.

Mr. Stelmach's paternal grandfather, Nicholas, arrived there from the western Ukrainian district of Radekhiv in 1898 with his wife, Theodora Kuchera, and helped build the Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in the community. The Stelmach family remained, and Ed Stelmach grew up as the youngest of five children.

"My sister is 20 years older than me and got married when I was born," said the agriculture minister. "There is 10 years' difference between me and one [of three] of my brothers." As the baby in the Stelmach family, the future politician hung out with adults sitting around kitchen tables. "I used to listen to their discussions, and learned a lot about Ukrainian history and the language," said Mr. Stelmach.

Now married to Marie Warshawski (who claims Ukrainian-Polish descent) and with four children (three sons and one daughter ranging in age from 12 to 22), Mr. Stelmach is active in the community. He's involved with a Canadian-Ukrainian legislative exchange program, sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, which brings Ukrainian politicians for look-sees to Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Mr. Stelmach also has a hand in a business initiative project involving entrepreneurs from Canada and Ukraine. Three provinces have agreed to be responsible for three different sectors: Manitoba has construction, Saskatchewan - agriculture, and oil-rich Alberta - energy.

"I would like to give something back to [Ukraine], now that they're working toward a market economy," said Mr. Stelmach. Certainly, Ukraine has given Alberta much - at least in terms of the province's landscape.

Seven fellow Ukrainians

When the new legislative session officially opened on April 16, Mr. Stelmach was joined by seven fellow Ukrainian Canadians in the government caucus, including Jon Havelock, who represents the Calgary-Shaw constituency and now serves as Alberta's attorney general.

The other Conservative caucus members include: Dave Broda, Mark Hlady, former Deputy Premier Ken Kowalski, Peter Trynchy, Stan Woloshyn and Julius Yankowsky. The Tories lost a Ukrainian Canadian member in the last election: Andrew Beniuk, who held the Edmonton-Norwood seat. Ihor Broda, whose work with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress gained him a considerable profile in the community, also lost in his bid to give the Conservatives an extra seat in the Liberal stronghold, Edmonton.

Still, the Tories' 63 seats (out of 83) left the Opposition Liberals with 18 seats, with the other two going to the New Democrats.

However, Gene Zwozdesky held on to his seat in Edmonton. Former Liberal leader Laurence Decore, who also once headed the province's official opposition, decided against running for re-election.

About 250,000 out of Alberta's 2.7 million residents claim Ukrainian descent. They now have considerable representation in Ralph Klein's government. In turn, Mr. Stelmach said that his prominent role around the Cabinet table may accord him the chance to teach the premier some Ukrainian.

"He can already say, 'dobryi den' (Good day) and 'dai Bozhe' (May God grant it), "but maybe I'll be able to expand his vocabulary," said the agriculture minister.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 27, 1997, No. 17, Vol. LXV

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