I was born and raised for the first twelve years of my life in the mining town of Rouyn-Noranda in northern Quebec, some six hundred kilometres almost directly north of where I live now. The town had a lively and burgeoning Ukrainian community fueled by the arrival of a large contingent of Ukrainian “Displaced Persons” or DPs from the refugee camps of a post-war Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They joined an already established group of First and Second Wave Ukrainians that had settled here in the 1920s and 1930s, lured by the plentiful jobs to be had in the mining industry that was booming following the discovery of huge local deposits of copper, zinc, gold and silver. Rouyn-Noranda, together with its neighbouring towns of Val D’Or and Kirkland Lake on the Ontario side of the border, boasted large populations of Ukrainians during those mining boom years.
Regrettably, that mining boom had largely petered out by the end of the 1970’s, and most of the Ukrainians packed their belongings and moved south where the weather was more amenable and the job opportunities were better. My father had worked in various mines in the area subsequent to being discharged from the Canadian army at the end of the Second World War, but by 1962 he had had enough of the perils and hardships of being a miner and he too moved south. In his case, it was to the Niagara Peninsula where he bought a farm and where I spent my teenage years. I did not return again to my original hometown for another thirty years after that.
I will be travelling again to Rouyn-Noranda this week to do some research on a translation project I have been working on for the past year and half. It is a history in Ukrainian written by Msgr. Lev Chayka who served as parish priest to the scattered Ukrainian communities of northwestern Quebec and northeastern Ontario in the latter half of the twentieth century. These included Kirkland Lake, Virginiatown, Timmins, Rouyn-Noranda, Val D’Or, Amos, Malartic, and many other small towns and villages in the area. He was assigned there in the early 1950s and was instrumental in creating parishes, building churches and organizing not only the religious, but also the social, cultural and educational life of Ukrainians living in this northern hinterland.
In the latter decades of his life, he started writing a history of his life and work in the north, which was only completed recently just prior to his death last year at the age of 99. Two years ago, he gave me his rough manuscript and asked if I could translate it into English and arrange for it to be published. I have been working on that translation on and off since then and am nearing the completion of my efforts. My upcoming trip is one of the last steps in that project, wherein which I hope to be able to confirm dates, names and events as described in the manuscript.
I knew Msgr. Chayka fairly well as I had spent several years as one of his altar boys at the church in Rouyn and had kept in touch with him on an irregular basis over the decades. He was quite a character, with boundless confidence and energy, qualities which were more than necessary in terms of the challenges he faced when he was assigned to what was still a wilderness area of the far north. Over the decades, he was responsible for building at least three large churches, community halls, priestly residences, and a summer camp. This he did from scratch, twisting arms to get the necessary funding, organizing the communities to do much of the actual construction, and mediating the typical disagreements and conflicts amongst the Ukrainian community that was often at odds because of politics, religion, as well as regional and generational divides. His persistence and methods at times may have riled some of his parishioners, but there can be no doubt that he was a cornerstone and primary organizer of almost everything that happened in the Ukrainian communities in this remote part of Canada in the latter half of the twentieth century.
This translation project has been somewhat of a challenge for me, as the manuscript was prepared on an old manual typewriter that was almost as old as Msgr. Chayka, and where the quality of the printing could be said to be more than just a little uneven. The text also contains many whiteouts, corrections, written notes and commentary that required patience to decipher. Further, all the names, including those of French and English persons mentioned in the book were transliterated into the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet and many proved a challenge to figure out what they were in the original English or French alphabets. Being written over the course of several decades, there were also some cases of repetition and redundant text which required significant editing. Nonetheless, I have completed a first draft and hope to have the book published early this spring. I consider it vital that we have a proper historical account of this significant and important chapter in the history of Ukrainian settlement in Canada.
In the meantime, I am greatly looking forward to revisiting the neighbourhoods of my youth and rekindling those memories of the rich Ukrainian life I experienced in my youth which played such a formative role in developing my Ukrainian consciousness and identity.