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Keynote speaker focusses on historic Ukrainian buildings at Kyiv Konnection banquet

Jun 3, 2024 | Community, Featured

Dr. Jeffrey Stepniski. Photo: Nestor Makuch

Marco Levytsky, NP-UN Western Bureau Chief.

Buildings inspire memories and memories have stories. Such is the case with many of the historic Ukrainian buildings in Edmonton, said the keynote speaker at this year’s Kyiv Konnection Banquet, May 14.

“Why memory and place? I am a sociologist which means that I study interactions between people, the groups that they form, and their identities – people’s sense of who they. This also includes the identities of communities – who are we as Ukrainians? A big part of identity has to do with space and place. Think for example of your childhood home, and how important either for good or bad it is to your sense of who you are – the feeling that comes over you when you return to it, smell it, walk around it.,” said Dr. Jeffrey Stepniski, Associate Professor and Kule Chair of Ukrainian Community and International Development, Department of Sociology, MacEwan University at the event sponsored by the Ukrainian Foundation of College Education (UFCE), and held at St. John’s Cultural Centre in Edmonton.

Dr Stepniski focussed on several historic Ukrainian community buildings and places in Edmonton, specifically the Galician Hotel and Market, the Rudyk Block, Narodnyi Dim, the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple and the Holowach Tree.

The Galician Hotel was not actually a hotel, but a collection of shacks, tents and, according to some accounts, caves dug into the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. It was used to support Ukrainian labourers working in the city and in the construction of the railroad. Ukrainian pioneer leader Peter Svarich organized the site and gives the following description in his memoirs, which were translated into English by his nephew William Kostash, father of writer Myrna Kostash:

“On the slope at the foot of the bank, we improvised kitchen ranges and heaters. We collected tin cans from bacon and conserves and used these as utensils for cooking, frying, and drinking. We baked flat cakes and biscuits, and cooked pyrohy and noodles which we greased with lard and greaves…”

The Rudyk Block, which was established in 1912 by Pavlo Rudyk, a wealthy Ukrainian entrepreneur who also supported Ukrainians and the Ukrainian community, was located at the far East end of Jasper Ave where the Edmonton Convention Centre stands today.

“Rudyk Block, Edmonton, Alberta.”, 1914, by McDermid Studio. Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

In a column that appeared in 1917 in the Winnipeg based newspaper Ukrainskyi Holos (Ukrainian Voice), V. B. Melnychuk, wrote: “In the city there live different ethnicities, among which the most prominent are Ukrainians. There are even a few well-off ones, like Rudyk, Kraykiwski and Kramar. On the main street Jasper Ave. there proudly stands Rudyk’s stone house with a golden sign Rudyk Block, which hangs even higher than some of the city’s buildings. This block left a very nice impression on me. And I thought to myself: so the Ukrainians are not lagging behind..”

Dr. Stepniski noted that “over the years the building housed residential suites but also offices for lawyers and real-estate agents, an asphalt and oil company, a music store as well as a farmers loan company. It also had a pool room and on the main floor, for a period, a movie house. This was Ukrainian entrepreneurial activity at the heart of Edmonton.”

Narodnyi Dim (People’s Home) was built in 1917 and associated with St. Josaphat’s Ukrainian Catholic Church (which became the Cathedral for the Edmonton Eparchy when it was first established as the Ukrainian Catholic Apostolic Exarchate of Western Canada in 1948). Officially, in the phone books of the time this was called the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Association Hall. It was typical of the type of community halls that developed in late 19th century Ukraine and were built all over Canada by early immigrants.

Narodnyi Dim. Photo by Dr. Jeffrey Stepniski

Over its long history there were many events often announced and reported in Ukrainski Visti (Ukrainian News). They included meetings of local Ukrainian organizations, dances, educational lectures about Ukraine, concerts and performances including events honouring Taras Shevchenko’s anniversary, noted Dr. Stepniski. An article in Ukrainski visti says that for this event the hall “was decorated with a beautiful view of the Dnipro River near Kaniv and the tomb of T. Shevchenko.”

The first Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple in Edmonton was established in 1921 and served as the community hall for the pro-Soviet Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA) which was renamed the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians (AUUC) in 1940. Like other Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temples in Canada, it also served as a kind of social support agency, especially during the Great Depression, Dr. Stepniski said. In his history of the Ukrainian labour-farmer movement in Canada Petro Kravchuk wrote that itinerant labourers “would stop in the larger centres to take a break or look for work, and if there was a Ukrainian Labour Temple there, it became a kind of oasis [again the theme of shelter] – a place to rest, receive a bowl of soup, a cup of tea or coffee and a sandwich, and perhaps even spend the night”.

All labour temples in Canada were confiscated by the federal government in 1940 because of the ULFTA/AUUC’s opposition to the “imperialist” World War II. The AUUC changed its position when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Today it maintains the Ukrainian Centre on 97th Street.

The last item Dr. Stepniski focussed on was not a building, but a tree. “I mention this tree because it is another site of Ukrainian memory that is still standing. As a tree it plays an important symbolic role. Like memory, trees root us and connect past to present.

This tree was planted by Ukrainian immigrant Samuel Holowach in the backyard of his downtown home around 1920. Now it stands in a downtown parking lot wedged between buildings. The tree is a rare horse chestnut, reputedly brought to Edmonton from Vienna by Samuel Holowach’s son, Walter. This is another way in which space and place connect Edmonton to Ukraine. The horse chestnut (which strangely I also have in my front yard) is one of the symbols of Kyiv.”

“Memory of space and place is important whether it is the memory of Ukrainian spaces in Edmonton or the memory and eventual reconstruction of spaces and buildings in Ukraine,” he said in conclusion. “That said, without stories, buildings and spaces are lifeless and dead.”

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