Prairie icons

The Ukrainian ceme­ter­ies found in out-of-the-way places in Western Canada pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into Old World tra­di­tions.

Canada's History - - DESTINATIONS - By Bryan Dem­chin­sky and Ster­ling Dem­chin­sky

JOSEPH MARTSINKIW WAS AN EN­ER­GETIC man of many tal­ents. He was a farmer, har­vest-gang boss, tele­phone line­man, and car­pen­ter. He built his own house and barn and the barns of neigh­bours. More than half a cen­tury on, the barns are aban­doned. But you can still seem them around Don­well, the ham­let in east cen­tral Saskatchewan where he farmed, and they still stand straight and true.

Martsinkiw, our ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, also built the cross that marks the grave where his teenage son was buried, and many more for other peo­ple in the district. His crosses and those fash­ioned by other Ukrainian-Cana­di­ans are found in count­less ru­ral ceme­ter­ies across the Prairies, some neatly tended and still in use, oth­ers all but for­got­ten or lost.

The burial grounds and lit­tle churches next to them are tes­ta­ments to the faith of the set­tlers and their de­vo­tion to the an­cient tra­di­tions they car­ried with them from east­ern Europe. But as the parishes of an older farm­ing gen­er­a­tion pass away, so does the her­itage they be­stowed on Canada.

Some ru­ral parishes re­main healthy, if di­min­ished, and their churches are re­stored and are kept in good shape by the mem­bers. But many more are go­ing or gone.

In the es­ti­ma­tion of Ot­tawa-based eth­nol­o­gist and his­to­rian Jen­nie Dutchak, this is “a tremen­dous loss, a chap­ter of Cana­dian his­tory wiped out.”

For Dutchak, the loss is per­sonal. Her mother was on the parish ex­ec­u­tive for the small church where she was bap­tized near Buchanan, Saskatchewan, and she re­calls see­ing her fa­ther car­ry­ing the pro­to­col books, one of which dated to the be­gin­nings of the church in 1910. That mem­ory led her to thirty years of writ­ing and pub­lish­ing on the sub­ject of Ukrainian Prairie churches.

As the nine­teenth cen­tury drew to a close, thou­sands of im­mi­grants poured into Western Canada fol­low­ing, and some­times pre­ced­ing, the rail­ways that were be­ing laid down at a fu­ri­ous pace to re­ceive them. By the time the First World War stemmed the tide, more than a hun­dred thou­sand east­ern Euro­peans had cre­ated a band of set­tle­ment that stretched from south­east­ern Man­i­toba to north­west­ern Al­berta. They were mostly Gali­cians, Bukovini­ans, and Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­ans, names that des­ig­nated where they came from. For most of them, their com­mon lan­guage was Ukrainian, and this came to de­fine them as an eth­nic­ity be­fore there was a state called Ukraine.

The set­tlers were de­vout fol­low­ers of both

Cap­tion Holy As­cen­sion Ukrainian Ortho­dox Church near Maryville, Saskatchewan, in 2010.

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