Dmytro Lyaschuk reminisces about early Ukrainian settlers in Canada whom he met and interviewed.

Along the banks of the Chornova River, which carries its muddy waters into the swift-flowing Prut River, nine villages and one small town, Hwozdetz, are tightly strung together. Not only a new arrival, but a longtime resident finds it hard to tell where one village ends and another begins. During the First World War, Russian soldiers, who had crossed the territories of Russia, Ukraine and Galicia, remarked that this was the largest village they had encountered in their path. Local residents had to explain to them that this was not one "large village", but nine villages and one small town with separate names: Balyntsi, Buchachky, Trofanivka, and others.

The first Ukrainian settler from this area, Danylo Syrotiuk, arrived in Canada in 1893. He was materially well-established and an educated man. He chose to settle in Canada through his acquaintance with Kyrylo Genyk, who was from Bereziv and was already in Canada. His son, Yury, also immigrated to Canada. In 1897 both father and son were already farming in the district around Ethelbert, Manitoba.

Manitoba government documents testify that Danylo and Yury Syrotiuk, Ivan Malkovich, from Bereziv; Milko Monita, the Pakholkos, Symchychis and Fekuls, were the first settlers in the district around Ethelbert.

In 1898 VasyI Syrotiuk came to Canada. Together with his brother Yury they wandered for some time through Western Canada and the United States, settling finally in Vancouver. Quite possibly they were the first Ukrainians to settle in this Pacific Ocean port.

During the early years in Vancouver, their wives fried, or marinated in barrels, fish that they caught in the Fraser River. In time, the Alberta government hired Yury Syrotiuk to work in the agricultural department. His task was to travel around the farms and teach farmers how to raise chickens. He died in 1928 in an automobile accident near Radway, Alberta. His brother, VasyI Syrotiuk was not as fortunate in getting himself established. He worked hard at various jobs and ended up farming in Aldergrove, B.C. He also lived for some time in the United States. He died in Vancouver in 1932, without having achieved his longed-for security, and having wandered from place to place for 68 years.


In 1897 Ivan Hryhorchuk emigrated from our district to Canada and took a homestead in Wanleau, Manitoba. My mother told me that he was an intelligent man, but somehow couldn't make ends meet at home. He wandered from job to job, working in Galatz on the Danube and in Moldavia. At the urging of immigrant friends in Canada he emigrated together with his wife and four children, thinking that he would find a better life here. Ivan Hryhorchuk was a radical who was interested in community affairs and education. Because there wasn't a Reading Room (library) in his native Buchach, he went to Balyntsi where one was built in 1890. Here is what his wife recounted to me in 1928 about their first years in Canada: "We arrived at our homestead. Ivan dug a pit in the ground, covered it with branches of trees and sedge and left for town to look for work, leaving us behind to fend as best we could. One day a heavy rain fell. Everything in the dugout - flour and all our clothing became soaking wet. Fortunately I had matches on my person and was later able to light a fire. The water in the dugout was over our knees. The children were crying, but I was afraid to leave the dugout because there were coyotes howling and bears prowling around outside. We suffered greatly during these first years of our life in Canada..." Ivan Hryhorchuk didn't find the good life he hoped for in Canada. After the First World War he sold the farm in Wanleau and moved to Ethelbert to live near his children. He died of cancer in 1928. Some farmers in the area continue to refer to him as the radical from Kolomeya even after his death.


Four families from Buchachok and Trofanivka came to Canada in 1902: Semen Demchuk and his sister, Dmytro and Petro Dzhaman. They came to Ivan Hryhorchuk in Wanleau and settled together on a quarter section of land. Their life on this quarter section in the Northern Manitoba scrub was harsh, dark and cheerless. They lived in extreme poverty. I visited them in 1928. I found only Semen Demchuk, who was living on 40 acres of land and his sister, who had 80 acres. Their children had left, seeking their fortunes elsewhere in Canada and the United States.
The land could not provide for them. Semen Demchuk, now 90 years old, is living near his daughter in Saskatchewan. A mass exodus from our village followed these four families. Why did our people leave their homeland? Some where driven to Canada by the lack of land in their villages; others did not wish to serve in the army and emigrated to avoid military service; still others left because of heavy debts. Some left legally, others "disappeared" quietly, depending on their situation.

My uncle, Mykola Maksymchuk left for Canada in 1907 because of debts. He lived and died in Portage la Prairie. So that the larger number of those who emigrated did not leave of their own free will, but because of economic pressures, lack of land and extreme exploitation. They left their small holdings with tears and pain in their hearts.

I had the opportunity of visiting many of them, and although many have been living here for decades, they could not forget their little plots of land with the ponds free of ice, the flowering orchards and their whitewashed small homes. Venturing into the unknown, they left with the hope that they would work in Canada a year or two, earn a "great deal of money" and buy back their little holdings and possibly even add more land to them.

A large group of our villagers came to Canada in 1906-1907. They came to Winnipeg and Kyrylo Genyk helped to settle them on homesteads around Broad Valley, Manitoba. There they met Danylo Tretyak and Mykola Uhryniuk from the village of Dzwyniache, Zalischyky District, who were great lovers of amateur-choral and other cultural activities. They quickly made friends with the newcomers and began cultural activities in the area. It should be noted that many of the emigres from Balyntsi had participated in the choir that had been organized in the village by the school principal, VasyI Barnych. It was due to his efforts that cultural activities had developed in Balyntsi, Trofanivka and Buchachky. He died in 1936 at the age of 82.

The immigrants from Balyntsi built a shed of sorts on Danylo Tretyak's homestead, which served as their living quarters. The men left it for work in the summer months while the wives remained behind to work the land. During the winter months the building served as a reading room and a rehearsal room for the choir under the leadership of Mykola Uhryniuk and Ivan Dalavrak from Balyntsi. This was one of the first amateur choirs in Canada and they presented concerts in barns in Inwood and Teulon.

The availability of such talented singers prompted Mykola Uhryniuk to organize a Presbyterian church in which he served as a priest. But the Balyntsi immigrants, who were old country radicals, did not wish to be his parishioners. They left for Portage la Prairie, where they formed a cultural-educational group which they called "Canadian Rus". The greater majority of its members were from Balyntsi. They didn't, however, remain long in Portage la Prairie. Following the example of VasyI and Yurko Syrotiuk they moved further west, ending up in Vancouver, where they finally settled.

In Vancouver, Ivan Dalavrak continued to lead the choir, and in 1911 they staged the Ukrainian operetta, "Natalka Poltavka". Ivan Dalavrak is rightfully regarded as the first choir conductor in the Ukrainian progressive societies in Vancouver. He now lives in California. In 1902, a so-called Balyntsi "Bursa" (educational institute) was founded in Kolomeya on Didushitsky Street. The founders were Tytor Voynarovsky, a priest from Balyntsi and member of the Austrian parliament, and the director of the school, VasyI Barnych. Students from Balyntsi, Buchachky and Kulachkivtsi were enrolled in this school.

Dmytro Ferley, the son of a wealthy family, acted as instructor-supervisor of the school. His treatment of the students was very harsh and on many occasions he came into conflict with its director, VasyI Barnych. He also wrote anonymous letters directed against the Balyntsi Choir. After an investigation into this, he was dismissed by the director Sofron Nedilsky, who was, by the way, a personal friend of the writer Mykhailo Drahomanov.

Following his dismissal, Dmytro Ferley immigrated to the United States where he joined up with a monk (Ahafiy Honcharenko - Ed.) from Ukraine to form a "commune" in San Francisco. He didn't remain here long, however, leaving for Canada in 1908 which he entered as Taras Ferley, not as Dmytro Ferley.

Many other students, besides Dmytro Ferley, came to Canada from the Balyntsi Institute: Semen Mykytiuk, Mykhailo Sawiak, Petro Dalavrak, and others. Two of them: Mikhailo Sawiak and llya Pernerowsky remained in the ranks of the progressive Ukrainian organizations to the end of their lives; the others joined various Ukrainian nationalist associations.

In 1910 Dmytro Ferley, together with a group of his supporters, formed the newspaper "Ukrainsky holos" (Ukrainian Voice) in Winnipeg. He was also active in community affairs and was elected member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly representing the district of Gimli.
Later, he was one of the organizers of the Ruska Elevator Company which functioned a number of years before going bankrupt. He was also the principal of the Ruthenian Teachers Training School in Brandon, Manitoba, for a period of time. This school was organized by the Manitoba government to prepare teachers for the Ukrainian settlements. It was a bilingual school. While principal, Ferley accepted fellow countrymen from his own village as students, especially those who had a few years of high school or a completed public-school education at home.
In 1930 Dmytro Ferley was elected to the Winnipeg City Council. This was his last post in community affairs. After this he was employed in some government institution.

llya Pernerowsky had completed eight grades in higher education in the old country. Having attended the Ruthenian Teachers Training School, he worked for some time as a teacher in Saskatchewan public schools. He left teaching later because of arthritis and became an interpreter for Saskatchewan courts. In the evenings he taught English to immigrants in the Ukrainian Labour Temple.

Mikhailo Sawiak played a very important role in the Ukrainian progressive organizations, especially in disseminating progressive ideas amongst the Ukrainian farmers of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta. He was the editor of the newspaper "Farmerske zhyttia" (Farmer's Life) for many years. Along with many leaders in the progressive Ukrainian organizations, he was interned by the Canadian government at the beginning of World War II. Due to the harsh conditions of internment, his health deteriorated. This brought about his early release, but it came too late. For after several months in a hospital, he died, true to his beliefs and ideals.

My uncle, Mykola Maksymchuk, during his four years in Canada, sent my aunt all of four dollars. This meager help couldn't even pay off the old debts, least of all additional debts incurred after she purchased two pieces of land with borrowed money. In 1911 she left for Canada, leaving both old and new debts to my father. Departing, she said that if things went well for her in Canada, she would send a red thread in an envelope, if not, she would send a black thread. She could not read or write. In the first years after her departure we received a number of envelopes with red threads. After that there were no more letters and no promised money.

At that time we were living in dire poverty due to years of heavy rain. The grain, beans and corn rotted in the fields. Barley and oats were not threshed, but left for cattle. We ate cornmeal from rotten corn and spoiled beans. People had no money - only six households in the village were debt free. It was very difficult to find guarantors and without them banks and money-lenders would not lend.

After finishing public school I entered the gymnasium in Kolomeya, despite the lack of money for living expenses. The first year cost my father 100 guilders in Austrian money and though I studied well, my father said I would not be continuing my schooling for lack of money. He sat me down and showed me our debts to five different banks and loan companies. There were also debts for seed, leather, etc. - all in all it came to 2,100 guilders. We then tallied up the value of our holding and came to the conclusion that if it were auctioned we would lose our land and be left with only the house and garden. My father stood up before me and said:

"Dmytro, my son, do not blame me. My debts did not come from drinking in the pub. Your grandfather was poor. When I was as young as you are now I worked for the rich landowners. I went to school for only one day. I was a shepherd. With the other shepherds I learned a little reading and writing. Then I learned to read these cursed promissory notes. Your mother and I worked day and night to buy more land so that you, our children, would not have to be servants to the wealthy. That is why we went further into debt. Now I can see that you are faced with the same fate."

He ended his talk with tears coursing down his cheeks. That was the first and last time I saw my father cry.

I understood everything and saw my dreams sink under life's realities, the same realities that deprived the children of thousands of Galician peasants of their elementary rights - the right to an education and to grow up in happiness.

This talk with my father moved me deeply and helped me to seek and find answers to many questions which I didn't understand at that time: why do some live in the lap of luxury and others barely survive in poverty and ignorance? I was troubled by this and sought answers and solutions. I began to find my answers in the life of a Canadian worker.

After this, my father began preparations to leave for Canada to escape his debtors, but for some reason kept putting his departure off. Came the First World War, and he never did immigrate to Canada. He was conscripted into the army and sent to the Italian front. In the meantime my mother became paralyzed and was crippled for life.

Our life was no better under Polish rule after the war. Hunger for land, debts, auction sales, conscription into the army, national oppression continued to be our lot. Our peasants in Balyntsi were barely surviving. I could tolerate this no longer and on July 17, 1928, I bade farewell to my home, my parents and friends and left for Canada.

On August 10, 1928, I set foot on Canadian soil. The Canadian colonies of Balyntsi and Buchachky gained a new immigrant.

"The Ukrainian Canadian" magazine, July-August, 1989, p.35-38, Kobzar Publishing Company Limited