Both sets of my maternal great-grandparents came from Ukraine. Curious to find out which region they’d lived in, Magellan began searching “Danchuk Wakaw Saskatchewan”. The result: a surprising chain of intertwined stories and fresh discoveries.
My Canadian-born grandparents, Jim and Alice Danchuk, whose farm was three miles from ours, played a very significant role in our lives. (You may recall our tribute to Grandma For Alice, Merry Christmas, Happy Birthday, Thanks that included a recipe for one of her famous cookies, Perishka.) We knew little about their parents, Mikal (Mike) and Tekana (Tina) Lasko and John (Iwan) and Violet (Wasylyne) Danchuk, mostly what we learned in the 80s when Magellan filmed my grandparents paging through photo albums and sharing stories.
Magellan wasn’t having much luck in his search. Until he found Merle Massie’s review of the cookbook Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens:
My favourite recipe from the book might be the Coconut Cookie, written as Kokonat kuki. Using a blend of English and Polish, Kate Turgeon (née Kaminski) sat down to write out this recipe, copied from her neighbor, Mrs. Danchuk. Teaspoon becomes tispun, cup becomes kap, baking soda is Bekin Sodor, flour is flouwur, water is watyr. The instructions are somewhat more vague: “dot myk 7 do kuki rot do smiot doit …pres wyd do fork.” So I’d interpret that as make them into balls, then press with fork before cooking.
There are no particular cooking instructions — temperature, timing — for Mrs. Danchuck’s cookies. Ehman notes that this lack is noticeable to our modern eyes when we read old recipes. Prior to electricity, cookstoves were as varied as the makers created or could afford, and each depended on the fuel used. Different kinds of fuel burned differently, and produced higher or lower heat units. There was an assumption that cooks would know how to mix and bake.
“Any chance this is Alice?” Magellan asked.
Yes! Kate Turgeon lived across the street from my grandparents. In a community with multi-ethnic names: MacLeod, Holland, Reid, Zuzak, Pickard, Welch, Olchowy, Hegg, Oleniuk, Fisher…
I emailed the cookbook’s author, Amy Jo Ehman, to ask how she got the recipe (from friends of hers who are Kate’s descendants) and ordered her book, in which she writes:
In the 1920s, Kate Turgeon (née Kaminski) came from Poland and married a widowed farmer with 10 children, adding three more kids to the family. When they moved into the nearest town, Crystal Springs, she struck up a friendship with her new neighbour, Mrs. Danchuk, who was, one might surmise, an excellent cook.
“I wonder if Merle is related to Ron and Joyce Massie,” Magellan pondered. Joyce, his first cousin, and her husband Ron and their three sons farm near Biggar, Saskatchewan.
Yes! Merle is Joyce’s daughter-in-law, a historian and friend of Amy Jo’s.
Well, this is such a fantastic coincidence! I had no idea that Mrs. Danchuk’s recipe would bring about the connection! I am going to Government House here in Saskatchewan this Tuesday for International Women’s Day, and will be reading from A Radiant Life: Sylvia Fedoruk. Such an honour.
Good stuff but it wasn’t telling us about our Ukrainian ancestors. Magellan continued searching. (Do you know why I love this man?)
In the 1926 census from Hoodoo municipality, he found an entry for Tikana and Mike Lasko arriving in Canada in 1901 at the age of 36 and 48, respectively. Not from Ukraine—but from Austria—an area called Bukovina, although they stated their “mother Tongue” as Ukrainian.
Bukovina, the land of beech trees, had sometimes been labeled ‘Switzerland of the East’, given its diverse ethnic mosaic and deep-forested mountainous landscapes. The region, which includes a portion of the northeastern Carpathian Mountains and the neighbouring plain, was settled by Ruthenians (i.e. Ukrainians), the largest ethnic group in the north, and Romanians (i.e. Moldavians), the largest ethnic group in the south.
After the Partitions of Poland (1772–1795) the area around Lviv fell under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire. (Austria didn’t exist as a country until 1955.) In the mid-nineteenth century Ukrainian nationalism took hold, “rooted in the traditions and dialects of the region’s peasants and the aspirations of intellectuals who had fled the stifling rule of Russia rule further to the east.”
Few of the early immigrants would have called themselves Ukrainian; they identified themselves as Galicians, Ruthenians, Hutsuls, Lemkos or Bukovinians. Most were Greek Catholic, except for those from Bukovina who were Greek Orthodox. As Amy Jo writes in her cookbook:
Trick question: How many early settlers to Saskatchewan came from Ukraine? Answer: None.
How can this be, in a province with a penchant for perogies, borscht and cabbage rolls? At the time of prairie settlement, prior to World War I, the independent nation of Ukraine did not exist.
Violet and John Danchuk were also part of the first wave of “Ukrainians” to settle in Canada. The 1916 Census has them arriving in 1903; the 1926 Census says 1901 for John, 1900 for Violet. Like the Danchuks and Laskos, most of them were small ‘c’ conservatives and uneducated (about 50% were illiterate: Violet could read and write; the other three were illiterate). Whole villages migrated and settled together in communities near the CNR line from what’s now southeastern Manitoba to northern Alberta. Both sets of my great-grandparents settled in the Hoodoo area, now Wakaw, Saskatchewan. Our daughter Lynn remembers Grandpa telling her about his parents’ trip to Western Canada. When the train was chugging across the Canadian Shield, people began wailing, feeling they had come to hell and wishing they had stayed in “Old Country”.
Aunt Ethel confirmed what mom told me in the (sadly) few times I asked about her grandparents. “We had very few conversations of any kind while we were growing up; words were spoken but usually had to do with the task at hand.” Ethel’s favourite memory of her Grandpa John is the time he built a huge bonfire and buried cobs of corn in their husks in the embers, delighting she and her sisters with a new flavour. Around 1939 John got cancer. There was no treatment. His pain was so profound, his suffering so insurmountable that he committed suicide. Perhaps that’s why my Grandpa held such high praise for Tommy Douglas. Among his friends gathered at the dining room table, coffee if morning, vodka at night, Grandpa frequently championed the man who quit federal politics to form the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and establish Saskatchewan’s universal healthcare program.
“The frightening situation in the Ukraine nudged new thoughts of heritage,” says Ethel who recalls her Grandma Violet living with them for a month after John’s death. She remembers her skill at spinning wool and her outdoor oven in which she could bake eight loaves of bread at a time.
Aunt Lilian filled in other gaps, identifying the exact township and range where the Lasko’s settled. “Tina and Mike were Greek Orthodox you know,” she said. And then her shocking news. “And John and Violet were Jehovah’s Witnesses, out delivering pamphlets instead of caring for their kids.”
What horrors did Violet and John and Tina and Mike experience and foresee 120 years ago that caused them to uproot their lives from their farm so near the Russian border and, with no money, somehow make their way to Canada in hope of a better future?
Under Austrian-Habsburg rule of Bukovina the peasantry were free. The government even introduced compulsory universal education, which led to cultural growth and a Ukrainian national movement. (My grandparents Jim and Alice championed education, moving to Crystal Springs so their kids could be near a school; later, Grandpa led the effort for building a high school. They always spoke English. If we heard them talking Ukrainian, we knew they were arguing about something.) However, by 1860 the rules had changed—most of Bukovina’s forests and pastures were awarded to the nobility and the average size of peasant landholdings dwindled to two hectares.
Ivan Franko (1856-1916), the famous Ukrainian writer, scientist and political activist, described the lives of peasants in the Lviv Oblast of Ukraine, poor and very poor people at the mercy of the landlord, pub holder, priest and gendarme. In 1875 a new law forbade forest pasturing, forcing the peasants to sell off a third of their cows and pasture their remaining animals on the roadsides. If they ventured into the forest to collect brush wood, mushrooms or berries, they were fined and imprisoned for four days—locked up for 21 days if they cut a tree! No wonder these peasants wanted to leave.
Land poverty and overpopulation in the countryside led to peasant strikes and migration, especially to North America. Between 1886 and 1914, more than 170,000 immigrants arrived in Canada from what officials labelled “Austria.” Although English-speaking Canadians felt immigrants from eastern Europe would threaten their culture, Clifford Sifton, Federal Minister of the Interior, defended the “stalwart peasants in sheep-skin coats” who were turning remote territories into productive farms.
As of today, March 13, 2022, Lviv (the closest city to Bukovinia where John and Violet and Tina and Mike came from) is the only free city in Ukraine. Writing in the Washington Post, Daniel Henninger suggests that Lviv be designated a NATO protectorate, governed by Ukrainians for Ukrainians wishing to stay, a hub for managing the humanitarian crisis and everything else Ukraine needs. “A protected, untouched Lviv would be a multination rebuke to the war crimes committed already by Mr. Putin and his associates,” he writes in Memo to NATO: Secure Lviv From Russian Aggression.
On the Canadian Prairies, the hard labour, entrepreneurialism and perseverance of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians formed the backbone of successful development. Now, in this shambolic Russian-led war, millions of Ukrainians on their own soil are employing those stalwart characteristics—like the grandmother who threw a jar of tomato/plum pickles out her window and knocked out a Russian drone. Fighting for their life, their democracy, their freedom. And ours.
Dorosh Heritage Tours. “Travel In Time: Visit a Galician Village of the 19th–early 20th century.” July 17, 2019.
Ehman, Amy Jo. “Prairie Kitchens Coconut Cookies.” Home for Dinner blogpost. April 7, 2014.
Ehman, Amy Jo. Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. Lunenburg: MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc., 2020.
Family Search. “Ukrainian and Hungarian Immigration to Canada.”
Henninger, Daniel. “Memo to NATO: Secure Lviv From Russian Aggression.” Washington Post. March 9, 2022.
Hui, Ann. “In the Prairies’ proud farming communities, war in Ukraine prompts grief and guilt.” The Globe and Mail. March 12, 2022.
Janowich, Mia. “A grandma in Kyiv says she took out a suspicious drone while Russia was attacking by throwing a jar of pickled tomatoes at it.” Business Insider. March 8, 2022.
Kaminsky, Ilya. Deaf Republic. Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press, 2019. Ilya’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War” has become a viral touchstone for the war on Ukraine. From “Soldiers Aim at Us”:
a helicopter eyeballs my wife—
a man cannot flip a finger at the sky
because each man is already
a finger flipped at the sky.
Massie, Merle. ” Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens.” Merle Massie A Place in History blogpost. September 29, 2014. Merle’s latest book A Radiant Life is a biography of Saskatchewan’s Sylvia Fedoruk, daughter of Ukrainian immigrants Annie Romaniuk and Theodore Fedoruk, a pioneer in cancer research in nuclear medicine with many firsts: first woman appointed to the Atomic Energy Board of Canada), first woman chancellor of the U of S and the first woman to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan as well as an elite athlete in curling and softball and so much more. For A Radiant Life, Merle won the Saskatchewan Book Award and University of Saskatchewan Nonfiction Award, 2021.
Pewtraityte, Akvile and Gailiute, Leva. “50 Beautiful Pics of Ukraine that are Heartbreaking to See Right Now.” Boredpanda. Thank you Pat for sending us these.
Tharoor, Ishaan and Thorp, Gene. “How Ukraine Became Ukraine, in 7 Maps.” Washington Post. March 9, 2015.