August 25, 2017

How the Ukrainians helped make Canada what it is today

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J. B. Rudnyckyj in 1963, when he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

University of Manitoba, Elizabeth Dafoe Library

J. B. Rudnyckyj in 1963, when he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

In 1867 a new country, the Dominion of Canada, was formed out of a number of separate North American British colonies. Extensive celebrations of the event are being held this year to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary.

J. B. Rudnyckyj in 1963, when he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

University of Manitoba, Elizabeth Dafoe Library

J. B. Rudnyckyj in 1963, when he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

In the United States, Canada has the reputation of being one of the most liberal and progressive countries of the modern post-industrial world. Not only does it have a universal health care system (which works fairly well) fully supported by the tax systems, both federal and provincial (the equivalent of Washington and the states in the U.S.), but its relatively open-door immigration system, its friendly acceptance of new immigrants, and their promotion in public life even as far as the federal Cabinet (which at present contains two ministers of immigrant Muslim background, including a relatively young Afghan woman) are the envy of cosmopolitan and liberal-minded people everywhere.

In fact, the general concept of “multiculturalism” for which the country is famous, is even mentioned in the Canadian Constitution. The word appears in a special section called the “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

It is generally recognized that, in addition to British traditions of liberty and parliamentary democracy, Canada’s various ethnic groups contributed to this fortunate situation and that Canadians of Ukrainian background played a special role. But exactly what that role was, and how it happened is still largely unexplored by Canada’s historians.

Indeed, as late as 2008, the prominent Canadian public intellectual John Ralston Saul, in his book “A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada,” claimed that Irish Protestants in the second half of the 19th century were the only immigrant group (as opposed to the French and English “Charter Groups”), that believed they had the right to “remake Canada in its own image.” That image was largely built on negatives: anti-Catholic, anti-French and implicitly “anti-Metis” or mixed race. Saul maintains, however, that this was not all bad as it furthered British imperial sentiment and patriotism. At that time the British Empire was at the height of its power and prestige, and this presumably made the country safe, secure and confident of its future. At any rate, after 1918, the British Empire began its rapid decline, reaching a true tail-spin after 1945. More and more, the formerly ubiquitous British “red” disappeared from the world’s map.

Saul, however, is quite wrong about the general lack of influence of other immigrant groups and their self-images, and the Ukrainians – who in the 1960s numbered about 750,000 (or almost 3 percent of the population of the country) – are a very good example. For not only were the Ukrainians important in the demographic, social and economic development of the Prairie Provinces of western Canada, as is sometimes mentioned in history books dealing with that region, but they also played a key role in the forging of that new concept of “multiculturalism,” which was first enunciated, defined and implemented in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Two important public figures played a central role in this development, and they were both of Ukrainian origin.

The first was Paul Yuzyk (1913-1986), a native of Saskatchewan, a history professor at the University of Manitoba and, by 1963, a member of the Senate of Canada from the Progressive Conservative Party. On March 3, 1964, in his very first speech in the Senate Chamber, for the first time in Canadian parliamentary life the word “multiculturalism” was used. The senator de facto demanded an expansion of the previous Conservative government’s Bill of Rights into the cultural realm.

The second was J. B. Rudnyckyj (1910-1995), a post-1945 immigrant from Germany, who had been born in Peremyshl in pre-1918 Habsburg Galicia, raised and educated in interwar Poland, and lived in Prague and Germany before immigrating to Canada in 1949. It is Rudnyckyj’s career and contribution that we will primarily outline here.

Rudnyckyj was a philologist or linguist by profession, a specialist in the Slavonic languages, especially Ukrainian dialects. He received his doctorate from the University of Lviv in 1937, working under the Polish specialist in name lore or “onomastics,” Witold Taszycki. From Lviv he went to Berlin to work on a great Ukrainian-German dictionary. When war broke out, he moved to Prague; when it ended, he went to Germany, where he taught Slavonic Studies. He moved to Canada in 1949.

It seems that even in interwar Poland, Ukrainian political life had deeply influenced the young scholar. In the Republic of Poland, as in Austrian Galicia previously, the local Ukrainians openly struggled to attain their national and linguistic rights through some sort of national autonomy. They wished to protect their language and culture through certain legal guarantees that they wanted the Polish government to give them, especially with regard to the use of their language in schools and local government institutions. They also demanded a certain proportion of the government jobs in the areas where they formed a majority. This kind of national autonomy based on a specific territory is what political scientists call “national-territorial autonomy,” and it is usually implemented in relatively well-defined regions. Many people, both friends and foes of the Ukrainians, saw it as a step towards eventual political independence.

Years later, in Canada, the French Canadian nationalist movement in Quebec strove for similar goals. But in Canada, French already enjoyed certain constitutional guarantees, and the country itself, as mentioned above, was already a clearly federal state with a democratic constitution based on the British parliamentary tradition. The French Canadian nationalists in Quebec were not satisfied with this, however, and all of them wished to expand their presence and influence in the federal government, get guaranteed jobs in the federal as well as the provincial government, and see the French language in general use in business as well as government. Very importantly, they also wanted more economic equality with the predominant English.

The extremists among them, dissatisfied with legal parliamentary methods (which up to then had not always worked very well) launched a fight for the full political independence of their principal center of power, the province of Quebec. To attain their goal, they began a campaign of political violence against federal symbols such as post offices.

The federal government was forced to react to this threat, and in 1963, the Liberal prime minister, Lester B. Pearson, established a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism to study the problems in the country and recommend ways to solve them. The commission was to be made up of an equal number of French and English speakers. But Pearson was aware that about 17 percent of the country was neither French nor English, but of “other” national or ethnic background. Consequently, he appointed two further members to the commission, an “ethnic” from English-speaking Canada, and another “ethnic” from French-speaking Canada.

German Canadians then made up the third largest group in the country and, like almost everybody else, they too wished to have their say in the direction it was to take. But because of the recent war in Europe, German Canadians were at a disadvantage and could not take the lead in this movement, which was sometimes controversially called “The Third Force.” The next largest group was the Ukrainians and, quite naturally, Pearson turned to one of their most important members, the linguist Rudnyckyj, to join the commission.

When the prime minister phoned him up at his office in the Slavic Studies Department of the University of Manitoba to offer him the job, Rudnyckyj quickly accepted. Of the 10 members of the Royal Commission, all of them distinguished Canadians, Rudnyckyj was the only linguist, his closest counterpart being a writer from Quebec, the co-chairman of the Commission, Andre Laurendeau, a strong French Canadian nationalist.

After several years of very intensive work, and consultation with wide sectors of Canadian society, French, English and others, including briefs and recommendations from writers, scholars, universities, professional associations, ethnic groups, business associations, churches, and cultural groups and institutions, the “B and B Commission,” as it came to be called, produced an enormous six-volume report that made wide-ranging recommendations as to the direction in which the country and its government should move. It recommended measures to promote French-English bilingualism at all levels of the federal government, in Crown corporations such as the public broadcasting system (the CBC), which at that time played an important role in Canadian society (far greater in fact than anything comparable in the U.S.), and an increased presence of French in particular in the schools, universities and in business. One of its key recommendations was the provision of French and English linguistic rights not only in areas where each was a majority, but also, very importantly, in all areas where they formed a minority of at least 10 percent of the population.

As to the other languages in Canada, they were also to be promoted in certain ways, such as via access to radio and television, their use as “subjects” (but not as “languages of instruction”) in the schools and universities, and their acceptance as qualifying second languages to enter those universities. All members of the commission, including Rudnyckyj, who seems to have pressed quite hard for increased minority linguistic rights, agreed with this.

But Rudnyckyj did not stop there. Given his political background in Galicia and Poland and his special interest in languages, and undeterred by the skepticism of his commissioner colleagues, the professor from Manitoba cast a Votum Separatum, or dissenting opinion, printed in Book One of the commission’s report, which recommended that not only should English and French minorities receive special rights where they made up 10 percent or more of the population, but that such rights should also be extended to all “other groups,” specifically to what were then the major minority languages of Canada: Ukrainian, German, and Italian. In other words, Rudnyckyj, the European-educated linguist, applied to Canada the “regional principle,” or the old East European model of “national-territorial autonomy.”

By 1969, Pearson was gone and a new prime minister, the Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau, took up his office and received the “B and B Report.” In 1971 he responded to the report in an important speech to the House of Commons. He basically accepted all of its most important recommendations and declared that thereafter government policy would be to promote “Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework.”

Shortly afterwards, he also addressed the Ukrainian umbrella organization in Canada, the Ukrainian Canadian Committee (today known as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress), which had been quite vocal in demanding further rights, and whose reaction was of some concern to the federal authorities. At that gathering, Trudeau reiterated the new policy.

In general, the Parliament of Canada and the general population welcomed that policy. Not only was it expected that it would promote French and English equality and defuse the “separatist” movement in Quebec, but it recognized the importance of all sectors of Canadian society, including those so-called “other groups.”

However, the government did not accept in full Rudnyckyj’s Votum Separatum. There was little talk of “multilingualism,” and no regional bilingual districts were to be created for the non-French and the non-English languages. But the other measures that it took seemed to more or less satisfy those varied ethnic groups, who were happy that at last they were to get some official recognition of their important role in Canadian society.

A decade later, when the Canadian Constitution was repatriated from London to Ottawa, “multiculturalism” was written into it. In following years, moreover, several provincial governments, including Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta – all provinces with substantial Ukrainian minorities – also enacted multicultural legislation and expanded recognition of “other” languages (and to some extent cultures) in the schools over which they had exclusive authority. (In this way, seemingly even the Votum Separatum had some impact.) Many universities also made certain adjustments to their various programs of study.

Finally in 1988, a third prime minister, Brian Mulroney, and his Conservative government confirmed and further defined multiculturalism by statute. In this way, both Liberals and Conservatives came to accept the recommendations of that famous “B and B Commission” and promote them throughout the land.

It is clear that Yuzyk’s and Rudnyckyj’s resolute positions on multiculturalism and linguistic pluralism, and the “other” communities, especially the Ukrainian one that they represented, had a direct influence on these profound changes in Canada’s federal and provincial policies, in Canadian law and eventually in the very Canadian identity itself.

But the details of how this came about – especially the Ukrainian angle – are still largely unknown to the general public and are unexplored by historians. At the very least, however, they reveal that John Ralston Saul’s remark about only one “immigrant” group trying to remake Canada in its own image is considerably wide off the mark.


Thomas M. Prymak, Ph.D., is a research associate at the Chair of Ukrainian Studies, Departments of History and Political Science, University of Toronto. He has taught at several different Canadian universities and is widely published in the field. His most recent book is titled “Gathering a Heritage: Ukrainian, Slavonic, and Ethnic Canada and the U.S.A.” (University of Toronto Press, 2015).

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