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A bit of history

Feb 24, 2021 | Featured, The View From Here - Walter Kish

I took an unexpected little stroll into history this past week while browsing the digital archives of the Oshawa library on the Internet. I stumbled across a directory of the residents of the city for 1921. It was similar to the telephone directories we used to get every year from the phone company, except of course, back in 1921 very few people had phones, and there were no phone numbers listed in this directory.

However, I was surprised at the information that was published in it. Not only was there an alphabetical listing by name of all the residents in the city, but there was also a listing by street of the residents at each address. Each listing gave not only the name of the resident, but also their occupation, and the company they worked for. A typical entry looked like this:
Wolowec P., lab Fittings res 144 ½ Olive Av

This entry tells us that P. Wolowec was a general labourer (lab) who worked at Fittings Ltd., a large foundry and steel works, and one of the city’s largest employers. It also shows that he lived (res) at 144 ½ Olive Avenue, only a few blocks away from where he worked.
In 1921, Oshawa was still a relatively small town with a population of around 12,000 people, but it was growing rapidly as an industrial centre, thanks in large part to the fact that some three years earlier, General Motors of Canada had established its operations there on a foundation created by a successful local enterprise called the McLaughlin Carriage Works which used to make horse-drawn carriages. The auto plant, together with associated feeder plants created a large demand for manual labourers who flocked to the city, with Ukrainians being among them.

These Ukrainians were part of the first wave of some 170,000 that came to Canada between 1891 and 1914. Most had settled on farms in the western provinces, but some had gravitated to the larger urban centres in Eastern Canada where steady employment was more readily found, and Oshawa was one of these places.

In browsing through the directory, I found a fair number of Ukrainian names, at least one hundred and likely more. Following are some examples:

Boluk, Dan formn Fittings res 153 Olive av
Cherewaty, Wm lab Fittings res 160 Olive av
Mandryk, Nic lab Robson Lthr res 164 Base Line Rd.
Smykaluk, Thos lab Ont Mall res 588 Front St.

Of all the Ukrainian sounding names, almost three quarters worked for a small handful of large manufacturing companies, which included Fittings Ltd., Mclaughlin Carriage Works (GM), Ontario Malleable Iron Co. Ltd., Robson Leather and Pedlar People Ltd. They almost all lived in a close-knit neighbourhood, a veritable “Little Ukraine” which included Base Line Rd. (later renamed Bloor St.), Olive Avenue, Albert St., Front St. and Oshawa Blvd.

Although most were manual labourers, there were a few more independent souls – Steve Salmers ran a general store, Sam Sabulyk and John Rybushko were cattle dealers, Morris Sowsky had a clothing store, Sam Gura was a carpenter, Martin Bulkoski was a taxi driver, Karol Baran was a shoemaker, Nick Polanchuk ran a pool hall, and there was even a priest, a Rev. V. T. Kupchynski. Whatever the actual population of Ukrainians in Oshawa was at that time, there were enough of them to have the desire and wherewithal to build their first church (St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic) on Albert St. in 1917.

One thing I noticed was that the people compiling this directory had some trouble with the spelling of Ukrainian names. For instance, I have known a family by the name of Yurkewich in Oshawa and had to giggle when I came across two listings in the directory for this name but spelled “Yrckewick” and “Yurkowoch”. Other examples of mangled spellings were: Watmnuk, Semniuk, Pacownk, Humenuch, Andrychew, and Knikniski.

In any case, the number of Ukrainians in the city grew rapidly over the years, particularly during the second wave (1923 – 1939) and third wave (1945 – 1952) of Ukrainian immigration to Canada, so that at present day, there are over 12,000 Ukrainians in the greater Oshawa area. “Little Ukraine” as such, is now largely gone, but I still have memories of when I first moved to Oshawa in the early 1970’s when it was still going strong, and within a four or five block radius of Bloor St, between Simcoe St. and Wilson Rd. you had three Ukrainian churches, a UNF Hall, a SUM/LUC Hall, a Hetman organization hall, and a Ukrainian Labour Temple (Communist).

It was interesting how a chance discovery while browsing the internet led to some interesting insights into the lives of the earliest Ukrainian immigrants to Canada. It is an area that deserves further research and study, and perhaps when this COVID epidemic subsides, I shall delve into this further.

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