When retired University of Alberta professor Natalie Kononenko started studying Ukrainian culture in Canada, she found a community in constant evolution.
“Whenever people think about Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian folklore in Canada, they say ‘they preserved the stuff from the old country,’” said Kononenko. “Well, no they didn’t. What they did was create a Ukrainian culture, but it’s new. Well, not totally new — they still make pierogies. But it fits Canada. It fits the lived circumstances of Canadian life. It fits the lived circumstances of the 21st century.”
For her most recent book, Ukrainian Ritual on the Prairies: Growing a Ukrainian Canadian Identity, Kononenko gathered stories from Ukrainian immigrants and their descendents all across Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“The purpose of this book was to let people see what I’ve seen in the Prairies,” she said. “The people have fantastic accomplishments — artistic accomplishments, accomplishments in terms of preserving their churches and their culture.”
From 2009 to 2019, Kononenko was part of a team of researchers studying Ukrainian churches in the Prairies, gathering photographs and interviews to preserve stories and structures before they were entirely lost to time.
“The churches are phenomenal,” said Kononenko. “Some of them were built when Ukrainians first came over, and a lot them were built and torn down and rebuilt. But now people are moving. People are coming into cities … so the churches are closing.”
Over the course of her travels, Kononenko gathered hundreds of hours of interviews. Soon, she realized she was capturing snapshots of a still-evolving culture, within the churches and beyond them.
“People talked about how the church is very flexible,” she said. “It has to be. You’ve got one priest, 12 parishioners, and you’re having a Church service every Sunday? No way. So people adapted. I heard about adaptations in weddings, in baptisms, in funerals.”
A lot of Ukrainian-Canadian culture, she said, has been “negotiated in the cemetery,” as burying and honouring the dead took on particular importance in communities establishing themselves so far away from their Ukrainian homeland.
“When I first started this, I was a little bit unnerved by the attention to cemeteries,” she said. “People would drive from Edmonton to Hafford, Saskatchewan, which is quite a jog. And, why? Because their ancestors are buried in Hafford. People take bread and fruit — symbolically, the products of the earth — and put them out on a ritual towel on their ancestor’s grave. And then it is blessed with holy water.
“The idea of planting extends not just to crops. People feel like burying your ancestors in Canadian soil is like sinking roots into Canada and establishing your family line in Canada.”
Some of the changing traditions Kononenko heard about have very practical roots. For example, the Ukrainian practice of throwing a dish of Kutya — boiled wheat berries with honey — at the ceiling to predict the harvest fell sharply out of favour around the time when stippled ceilings came into fashion on the Prairies.
“So in Nipawin, they have a chicken harvest prognosis,” said Kononenko. “You take two chickens, you put them down in front of a bowl of wheat and a bowl of water, and you see what they go for. If they go for the water, it’s going to be a rainy year. If they eat all the wheat, it’s going to be a good harvest. That’s the Canadian adaptation of the tradition.”
Traditions around the Ukrainian wedding bread Korovai have also been reinterpreted in Canada.
“In Ukraine, if you have Korovai at a wedding, you have to eat the whole thing,” said Kononenko. “You can’t even leave any crumbs — you have to make sure a bird eats them, or throw them in the water for a fish to eat them. You just can’t leave any, or else the marriage will go bad. But what do we do with Korovai in Canada? You shellac it and put it in your China cabinet.”
For Kononenko, the best way to understand the nature of Ukrainian-Canadian culture has been to focus on the extraordinary stories of ordinary lives — the woman from Priestville who commissioned larger-than-life status of the Stations of the Cross for her hometown cemetery and chose to be buried under a pink granite tombstone; the community in Sturgis who sold pierogies for $2.50 a dozen and brought in enough money to reroof their church; the 86-year-old artist who keeps up with her intricate pysanky painting by finding new patterns online. “It’s very important to me that people know about the ‘little guy’ that nobody knows about,” said Kononenko. “People spend so much time on the people in power, and a lot of them are not really nice people. Whereas these people, they’re nice people.”