Canada, land of refuge for Ukrainian immigrants

March 8, 2022

Canada, land of refuge for Ukrainian immigrants

 Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The war that is currently raging in Ukraine is an opportunity for us not only to pray and offer our multifaceted assistance to this fragile and scorned people, but also a moment to remember the history of their arrival in Canada. To this, we must add the great social benefits that flowed from it and that contributed to the development and enrichment of our country with its vast stretches of often inhospitable and wild lands at the time.

There are currently approximately 1.4 million Canadians with Ukrainian roots. This is the second largest diaspora after the one in Russia. The first Ukrainian immigrants arrived in 1891.

Over a period of twenty years, between 170,000 and 200,000 Ukrainian immigrants made the long journey, lured by the promise of the federal government to give them 160 acres to farm in Western Canada for a $10.00 registration fee! Quite a gift for these newcomers! But the journey was long and arduous: the Atlantic crossing took three to four weeks. They then had to transit through Montreal and then board a train to the Prairies. Some changed their minds and decided to settle in Montreal instead. Today, we can hardly imagine the length of this tiring journey the destination of which was totally unknown.

The immigrants, most of whom were farmers, left fertile lands in Eastern Europe to settle in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, known as the breadbasket of Canada. They were the “land-clearers of the West”, as Professor Stella Hryniuk, a specialist in Ukrainian-Canadian history, put it.

After the First World War, nearly 65,000 Ukrainian immigrants arrived in Canada. During the Second World War, more than 35,000 Ukrainians enlisted in the Canadian army. Another wave of immigrants later arrived in Canada. They settled especially in the large cities of Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto; some moved as far as Val-d’Or and Black Lake in 1910, where 500 of them worked in the mines or in industry. But the rise of Quebec nationalism under René Lévesque created a great deal of uncertainty and concern, causing many to flee Quebec. Other major political changes at the international level, notably the fall of the Soviet Union and the war in Crimea, led them to settle in Canada.

Hundreds of Ukrainians came to Abitibi in the very early days of settlement, but a darker page was turned later during the First World War, when 1,000 immigrants were detained in an internment camp near Amos because they were considered potential enemies. About 1,200 Ukrainian Canadians were sent to the Spirit Lake camp between 1915 and 1917, where they were treated as prisoners of war. In all, about 5,000 Ukrainian-Canadians from Galicia were imprisoned in camps during this period. Ukrainian language schools were closed and Ukrainian language newspapers were severely restricted.

In 1906 in Hochelaga (Montreal), a Belgian Redemptorist was entrusted with the care of three Ukrainian communities, but Winnipeg remained unquestionably the cultural center of the Ukrainians and Poles of the Prairies. It was not until 1902 that the Holy See in Rome allowed a small number of celibate religious of the Ukrainian Order of St. Basil to leave Galicia and emigrate to Canada. Three years later, the Basilian religious had taken charge of only two Manitoba parishes.

From the time of their arrival in Canada until the First World War, Ukrainian immigrants were deprived of religious assistance, because the Vatican prohibited the emigration of married priests, who constituted almost all the Ukrainian Rite Catholic clergy in Eastern Europe. In 1912, a Basilian priest from Galicia was ordained bishop for Ukrainian Catholic immigrants to Canada and thus became the first Greek-Catholic bishop in Canada. Bishop Nykyta Budka (now Blessed) arrived in Canada that same year and settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in December 1912. At that time, the Ukrainian population in Canada numbered over 150,000.

A few years before the creation of the Ukrainian diocese in 1912 encompassing all of Canada, Ukrainian immigrants represented about half of the faithful in St. Boniface in southern Manitoba; 80% in Prince Albert in central Saskatchewan; 33% in Calgary and 50% in Edmonton.

In 1912, the Basilian bishop finally succeeded in encouraging a handful of secular priests and some Redemptorists (who arrived in the same year after the formation of the new English-speaking religious vice-province of Canada) to adopt the Byzantine Rite. The latter eventually served a population of nearly 100,000 faithful.

In Canada, Ukrainian immigrants are best known for their considerable contribution to agriculture. Over time, they moved from the land to the cities. In 2016, they make up nearly 9% of the population of Alberta, 13% of Saskatchewan and 15% of Manitoba.

In this troubling time when war is currently taking such a toll on Ukraine, let us pray and keep our hearts open to the arrival of future immigrants who will once again have to reluctantly flee their home countries. Let us become a land of hospitality, as Christ expects of us. Like our ancestors, let us again be welcoming and compassionate to these immigrants! They will undoubtedly contribute once again to our mutual enrichment and growth.

If you would like to make a personal contribution to humanitarian aid programs in Ukraine, here are some links where you can safely send your donations to help our brothers and sisters in distress:


Sincerely yours in Christ our Redeemer,

+ Guy Desrochers, C.Ss.R.
Bishop of Pembroke

Read: Statement of the Executive Committee of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Read: Catholic Bishops of Canada invite all Canadian faithful to join Pope Francis and to pray for peace in Ukraine

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