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The View From Here: Being Ukrainian

Aug 29, 2017 | Featured, The View From Here - Walter Kish

Volodymyr Kish.

Those familiar with my journalistic body of work will know that I have written much about what it means to be Ukrainian, particularly one born and raised here in Canada. There are, of course, many ways of looking at this question. One can take the academic approach and examine the socio-anthropological aspects by dissecting ethnicity, the forces of assimilation and the evolution of culture language and traditions in an environment displaced from one’s roots. One can also look at this issue through a political prism, examining the influence of nationalism and its staying power through multiple generations following immigration from one’s homeland. Or you can do what I did several weekends ago and attend the Capital Ukrainian Festival in Ottawa.

For those three days, I must admit that I never once considered either the socio-anthropological or the political context of my being a Ukrainian Canadian. Instead, I reveled in the spirited and energetic music. I was continuously awed by the remarkable spectrum of artistic and musical talent. I was dazzled by the vibrant colours and patterns of Ukrainian costumes, embroidery, ceramics and pysankas. I was deeply moved by the inspirational choral performances both on stage and in the adjacent church. I over indulged in all the culinary offerings and had more than my fair share of excellent Ukrainian beer and vodka. I talked and laughed with friends, old and new, and had more fun than can be imagined or easily put into words. In sum, I experienced intensely what it feels like to be Ukrainian, and that is much preferable than trying to describe the concept.

When it comes to describing who we are, words are an insufficient and inadequate medium. Being Ukrainian is more akin to a state of mind or an emotional experience. Trying to translate that into words is problematic. That is why in order to get a proper appreciation, one needs to experience being a Ukrainian, rather than just try to formulate a definition with our limited vocabularies in whatever language.

This is where the artistic media comes to the rescue. Through art, music and the sensory stimulations of sight, sound, taste and feel, we can begin to appreciate on an emotional and psychological level the magic of what it is to be Ukrainian. Being Ukrainian is something that must be felt rather than analyzed. It must be experienced and lived, and not just studied.

There is one other dimension to being Ukrainian in Canada in 2017 that came out in conversations I had with a number of people at the festival, and that is that our Ukrainian reality is different now than what it was when the various waves of immigrants came to Canada over the past one hundred and twenty-five years or so. Obviously, it is also different to what my cousins who were born and raised in Ukraine would consider to be Ukrainian. Culture and identity is not a static thing, but changes significantly over time and the influence of environmental factors.

What we have here and now in Canada is a very distinct form of Ukrainian culture that is the product of our experiences in our adopted land. The purists may claim that it is a diluted or mongrelized form of Ukrainian culture, but I would strongly disagree. Our unique genres of Ukrainian music, dance and art forms of all kinds are no less rich and creative than those in Kyiv or Lviv or the Carpathians. Our Ukrainian authors, artists, singers, composers, musicians and performers are every bit as talented, inspired and innovative as their contemporaries throughout the world. We need make no excuses or offer any explanations, apologies or justifications. We can say we are Ukrainian and show the world what we have accomplished with pride.

One last observation comes from an interesting question posed by my friend and radio show producer Steve Andrusiak, who asked those at the festival what they thought Ukrainian culture in Canada would be like in fifty years. To me it is a question that has no real credible answer, because culture is one of those unpredictable forces of human nature that follows no rules or defined processes. It is born from inspiration, emotions and spiritual drive and gets transformed by genius and talent into all the tangible end products that we know as art and culture. I am pretty sure of one thing though. Fifty years from now, there will still be a strong Ukrainian community in Canada, and there will be more festivals like the one this past weekend in Ottawa, that will allow all people, whether they be Ukrainian or not, to know and experience what it is like to be Ukrainian.

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