Ukrainian Independence in Historical Perspective

The ongoing situation in Eastern Europe and the Crimea has found a great deal of attention in media and public circles alike. Much of the focus has been on the volatility of military action and the potential for increased hostility in the immediate region, while media coverage of the situation internationally has explored in significant detail the impact of economic sanctions on Russian action. It is unfortunate that the civilian story often seems tertiary to events most told, so in today’s post we focus on the history of Ukrainian nationalism with an eye to understanding government response in Canada to episodes in the push for Ukrainian independence.

As a reflection of Russian society prior to the First World War, many Eastern Europeans who arrived in Canada in the early twentieth-century were politically active, often falling on the radical left of the spectrum. A small but strong number of Ukrainians asserted their political voice as members of the Communist Party of Canada. Along with other segments of Eastern Europeans, these newly Canadian immigrants participated in the formation of organizations such as the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association.

A new wave of Eastern Europeans began to arrive in Canada in the 1920s, and because of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917) their political interests tended to differ considerably from those who had arrived just a few decades earlier. The 1920s wave of immigrants were less inclined to assert an active political voice, especially many Ukrainians who had witnessed first-hand the failed attempt of their home country to resist Soviet domination during a brief period of Ukrainian independence at the close of the First World War. Ukrainian nationalism was nonetheless on the rise, and those who had a hand in creating the Ukrainian National Federation did much to lay the ground work and provide a measure of confidence to those who helped create the Ukrainian Canadian Committee (UCC) during the Second World War in 1940.

At the close of the Second World War in 1945, approximately 32,000 Ukrainian immigrants arrived in Canada. Along with other large segments of Eastern European immigrants, many Ukrainian-Canadians openly opposed Communism and Stalinism. Those who did not were viewed suspiciously by the state as non-conformists or for having resisted assimilation into the Anglo-Canadian norm. The ethnographic measuring stick of “societal norm” in postwar Canada was the traditional heterosexual family structure, and those who resisted the stereotype were somehow conceived to be in opposition to Canadian interests. Then as now and despite government intentions, Canada was by no means a monolithic society. Postwar immigration to Canada remained a mix of persons with varying political interests, but while the government was concerned with family and gender stereotypes, many Eastern European newcomers to Canada had seemingly more potent concerns.

Cold War immigration to Canada meant escape for many Ukrainians from the shadows of Communism and the Stalinist Soviet Union. Those who left Eastern Europe in favour of democratic North America often clashed politically and in public with Communist supporters who had arrived in the early twentieth-century. Tensions were so high in the immediate postwar period that anti-Communist rhetoric even assumed tones of anti-Semitism. Persons on the radical left endured the most resentment, marked by events such as the bombing of a Communist bookstore and the violent disruption of an Association of the United Ukrainian Canadians’ (formerly the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association).  

On the other hand and in the context of the post-1945 era and the politics of the Cold War, Ukrainian nationalists discovered much support for their stance against the Soviet Union and push to liberate Ukraine from Communism. Nationalist organizations such as the Liberation of Ukraine found political support through amalgamation with the UCC, which became known as the primary political representative organization for those not on the left.  Despite political organization, however, Ukrainian nationalists did little to sway Canadian foreign policy. The early Cold War period saw three different governments in Ottawa: King, St. Laurent, and Diefenbaker. Although openly and strongly opposed to Communism, none of the three were willing to assert a hard line in support of Ukrainian independence. John Diefenbaker was certainly more outspoken than his political predecessors. He used anti-Communist rhetoric during the federal election campaign of 1957 to gain support of large segments of the Eastern European immigrant voter base, named Canada’s first Ukrainian-Canadian Cabinet Minister, and before the United Nations General Assembly in 1960 openly challenged Nikita Khrushchev to allow free elections. Yet at no point during Diefenbaker’s premiership (1957-63) did official Canadian policy adopt measures in recognition of Ukrainian independence as a Soviet republic.  In fact, it was not until after the fall of the Soviet Union and the close of the Cold War (1991) that the Canadian government officially began working with Ukrainian-Canadian nationalists in support of the newly independent Ukraine.

In a diplomatic reversal of Canadian foreign politics, Canada’s current governing party is certainly not shy to speak out against Russia or its polarizing leader, Vladimir Putin. The Cold War era brought challenges that are decidedly different than those stemming from the contemporary situation in the Crimea, and yet certain similarities cannot be overlooked. When considering the past record of the Canadian government in support of Ukraine, it becomes apparent that interests stemmed far beyond the goal of Ukrainian independence. In line with its Western democratic allies, the Harper government continues to impose economic sanctions on Russia in an attempt to end hostilities in Eastern Europe. Yet today as in the past, support for Ukrainian independence seems to have alternative means.