Ukrainians in Alberta: Early History



Ukrainian Canadian Heritage Day is celebrated in Alberta on 7 September to mark the anniversary of the day in 1891 when the first trailblazers of Ukrainian settlement arrived in Canada. Iwan Pylypow (Ivan Pylypiv, 1859–1936) and Wasyl Eleniak (Vasyl Yeleniak, 1859–1956) landed in Quebec City and commenced an exploratory trip across Canada to assess its suitability for immigration. The two men immediately boarded a train to Winnipeg, where they were met by a land agent and taken to Langenberg (today in eastern Saskatchewan) to see a fledging colony of German settlers. Although they filed for homesteads there, upon returning to Winnipeg they decided instead to continue west to the Edmonton area, where another colony was in the process of being established by Germans—who happened to be from a village called Josephburg in the Kalush district of Galicia, which was also home to Pylypow and Eleniak. The two men only made it as far as Calgary before the approach of winter convinced them to double back to Winnipeg, as they felt it would take too long to make the trek to the Josephburg colony, east of Fort Saskatchewan, and they were concerned that they might be overwhelmed by snowy conditions. Pylypow and Eleniak ended up working on farm in Gretna, Manitoba, for a Mennonite settler from southern Ukraine; then Pylypow returned to their native village of Nebyliv to collect their families and organize a group of fellow Nebylivites to emigrate overseas. While a contingent of six families successfully made it Canada in June 1892 and eventually settled in the vicinity of Lamont northeast of Edmonton, Pylypow was only able to join them in 1893, Eleniak following even later in 1898. The colony that was established thanks to their initiative grew to become the largest and oldest agricultural bloc settlement founded by Ukrainians in Canada—in what is now popularly known as Kalyna Country, after an ecomuseum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada was launched with the participation of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.


Although the first Ukrainian settlers had arrived in Edmonton in June 1892, it was almost six years before a Ukrainian actually took up permanent residence in the city. Michael Gowda (Mykhailo Govda, 1874–1953) was a teacher from Wietlin (Vetlyn), Galicia, a Ukrainian village 10 km east of the city of Jarosław (Yaroslav), today in the southeast corner of Poland. After landing in Halifax in June 1896, Gowda gradually made his way across Canada, working various jobs and acquiring a functional command of English, which he had already begun studying before he left Europe. Thus, upon disembarking at Strathcona station on 18 May 1898, Gowda was able to get hired immediately by the Bellamy Agricultural Implement Company as an interpreter fluent in Ukrainian and Polish and conversant in English, German, Slovak, and Russian.  In addition to translating for farmers coming into the city on business, Gowda played a key role in the early years—helping new arrivals to navigate the process of buying supplies, livestock, wagons, and tools and to register their homesteads with the Land Titles Office. He was a leading figure in the establishment of the first Ukrainian organizations in the city and was well-known to Edmonton’s most prominent politicians and entrepreneurs. A founding member of the Taras Shevchenko Reading Society (Chytalnia) in 1901, in 1908 Gowda enlisted in the 101st Regiment of the Canadian Home Guard, and in the 1913 provincial elections he ran as an independent candidate in the Victoria district around Vegreville. In 1903 Gowda composed the poem “To Canada” declaring his passion for his adopted land, which became the first Ukrainian-language poem written in Canada to be translated into English and widely published. Two of Gowda’s sons served in the Canadian military during the Second World War; one of them, Edson, earned a British Empire Medal for gallantry in 1942 for rescuing Canadian airmen from their burning bomber after it crash-landed at a base near Canada’s east coast.


The first Ukrainian to visit Banff, Alberta, as a tourist was Josef Oleskow (Yosyf Oleskiv, 1860–1903), who was a leading promoter of Ukrainian immigration to Canada. An agronomist by profession, Dr. Oleskow was deeply committed to improving the lives of the peasants in Western Ukraine by encouraging them to emigrate to Canada; there, land suitable for homesteading was available from the Canadian government, and job opportunities existed in railway and road construction, mining, and the forestry industry. In 1895 Oleskow visited Canada on a trip that was arranged with the help of the Canadian Department of Citizenship and Immigration, which was keen to attract settlers to the Canadian prairies so as to develop the economic potential of the West. Arriving at Montreal on 12 August, Dr. Oleskow stayed in Ottawa for three days to meet with federal officials and see the experimental farm, then traversed much of the breadth of Canada by rail, wagon, horse, and boat over a span of fifty days, travelling as far west as Victoria and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Besides visiting the Ukrainian colonies that had already taken root in southern Manitoba and east-central Alberta, Oleskow also made a brief side-trip into the north Okanagan Valley and a three-day visit to the experimental farm in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. Before returning to Ottawa at the end of September and leaving for Lviv from Montreal on 5 October, Dr. Oleskow spent six days with fellow activists in Pennsylvania, familiarizing himself with the American Ukrainian community. Immediately prior to coming to Canada, Oleskow had authored a 38-page book titled Pro vilni zemli (About Free Lands, published by the Prosvita Society), based on information that had been provided to him by the Canadian Ministry of the Interior. After his return, he wrote a detailed 72-page account of his firsthand observations about Canadian conditions in a volume titled O emigratsii (About Emigration, published by the Mykhailo Kachkovsky Society), which was issued in Lviv in December 1895; he died shortly afterward in Lviv at the young age of 43. Both of Dr. Oleskow’s publications had the desired effect of stimulating the mass immigration of Ukrainians to Canada—at the same time dissuading many from going to South America, where the plight of Ukrainian settlers was much harsher. It was while he was on his way back from British Columbia that Oleskow spent the better part of two days in Banff, which the Canadian government was developing as a resort town to attract tourists to the Canadian Rockies.


The first Ukrainian cleric to visit Canada was Rev. Nestor Dmytrow (Dmytriv, 1862–1925), a native of the village of Ustashkiv, northeast of Lviv. He emigrated to the United States in February 1895, reaching Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, on 4 March, where he immediately took up duties as the pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Greek Catholic Church. There he became a prominent member of what became known as the American Circle, a group of eight patriotic Ukrainian Catholic priests who dedicated themselves to developing a strong Ukrainian immigrant community along national populist lines. He soon got involved with the Ruthenian National Union (later renamed the Ukrainian National Association) and subsequently became an important contributor and a co-editor of the newspaper Svoboda (Liberty, est. 1893). It was during the visit of Dr. Josef Oleskow to Mount Carmel (25–30 September 1895), that the idea undoubtedly first arose to have Rev. Dmytrow—who by then was mastering English—serve as an immigration agent in Canada to assist the growing number of Ukrainians settling there. On the recommendation of Dr. Oleskow, Canadian authorities hired Dmytrow to come to Canada and write a detailed report on how Ukrainian immigrants were faring in the colonies they had begun to establish on the Canadian prairies. Thus, at beginning of April 1897 Rev. Dmytrow left by train for Winnipeg, where he began an ambitious tour that first took him to rural settlements at Dauphin and Stuartburn in Manitoba and then to east-central Alberta; while he was en route, he compiled a series of detailed articles that were published in Svoboda in the form of a travelogue. After a brief trip back to the US to see his family and attend the Fourth Convention of the Ruthenian National Association in Mayfield, Pennsylvania, he returned to Canada in July, where he again visited Stuartburn and Dauphin—as well as Yorkton, Saskatchewan—before travelling to Edmonton and the Ukrainian colonies in outlying areas. He undertook this leg of his journey partially in response to a visit made in mid-July by missionaries dispatched to the District of Alberta by the Russian Orthodox Mission in San Francisco, which had learned that new Ukrainian settlers were bereft of pastoral care. Everywhere that Rev. Dmytrow went, he ministered to the needs of settlers, regardless of whether they were Greek Catholic Galicians or Orthodox Bukovynians, celebrating liturgies and often consecrating land for churches and cemeteries, as well as hearing confessions, baptizing children, and officiating at weddings. Dmytrow spent the better part of the summer of 1898 working tirelessly with new arrivals to Canada and visiting Ukrainian settlements, and the physical and psychological demands of the job took a toll on his health. While it seems that the original plan was for him to move permanently to Canada, in the fall of 1898 it was announced that he had taken up duties as a parish priest serving Ukrainians in Troy, New York State, after which he never returned to Canada. Nevertheless, Father Dmytrow left a lasting legacy to the Ukrainian community in Canada in the form of a large body of journalistic articles and works of fact-based fiction documenting his experiences and the lives of Ukrainian Canadian pioneers. It would not be until October 1902 that the first priests who were dispatched to stay permanently in Canada arrived from Western Ukraine to minister to Ukrainian immigrants.