Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 13, 2005
Women pioneers from Ukraine
Museum tells tale of women whose roles expanded on Canadian Prairies
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
In the homeland, the Ukrainian peasant woman was part of a well-defined village society. Life cycles, the seasons, and holy days dictated the rhythms of everyday life, in which ancient rituals and superstitions fused with Christian prescribed behaviour.
Here in Canada, the physical isolation of the homestead placed unaccustomed emphasis on the individual family, unlike in the old country, where extended family units living together were common. This isolation increased women's domestic influence as mistresses of their own homes.
Pioneering conditions, poverty and the simple tools that characterized Ukrainian homesteading reinforced women's importance to the family's economic survival. It meant that in addition to their usual childcare and housekeeping duties, they also did physical labour on the land.
Now the Basilian Fathers Museum is honouring these "indispensable" women through a temporary exhibit called The Legacy of the Ukrainian-Canadian Woman, which tells the story of the Ukrainian-Canadian woman's status and development in Canada from the pioneer era to the present.
Opened by Ukrainian Bishop Lawrence Huculak May 29, the exhibit was put together by museum curator Dagmar Rais in cooperation with professor Frances Swyripa of the University of Alberta, whose book Wedded to the Cause, Ukrainian-Canadian Women and Ethnic Identity: 1891-1991, was used as the exhibit's framework.
Why an exhibit on Ukrainian-Canadian women? "Because I think they deserve it," Rais laughed. "From the beginning the woman was indispensable for the family economic situation."
Back home women cooked, raised children and worked in the garden. When they arrived in Alberta they also had to work in the fields, clearing the land, Rais noted.
Through photographs, text, artifacts, traditional costumes and stories, the exhibit tells the story of the Ukrainian-Canadian woman from their arrival on the Prairies to the present. More than 480 photographs and 11 personal stories of women are included in the exhibit. Many people contributed photos for the exhibit, which now form part of the museum's collection.
The exhibit begins with a scene on the verandah - a display with mannequins posing in different actions and wearing Ukrainian costumes from the Bukovyna region. Illustrating the main story is a photo of an aging, sad-looking woman working the land with a shovel.
As Rais noted, Canadian society didn't look favourably on the way Ukrainian-Canadians lived at the time. People complained the women on Ukrainian homesteads were overworked. Female teachers and missionaries felt that Ukrainian women were denied education and subjected to arranged marriages.
Women took great pride
A 1917 government investigation into conditions in the Ukrainian districts on the Prairies found that two-thirds of the women surveyed did regular work on the land. But the investigation also found that Ukrainian women took great pride in their contributions.
The exhibit also illustrates how education and the daily contact with Canadian society influenced the lives of Ukrainian women. Changes in marriage laws in the new country led young girls to marry later rather than at 16 or 17 and arranged marriages began to decrease.
Access to education led many young women to become nurses or teachers, virtually the only two professions available to women at the time. The exhibit shows examples of women involved in both professions.
And then it shows how women, realizing the need to speak for themselves, began forming their own organizations, such as the Ukrainian Catholic Women's League, which they set up in 1944.
Along with all these changes, women realized they were responsible for keeping the culture and began establishing singing and dancing groups, organizing concerts and teaching their traditions to the younger generations.
"The goal of the exhibit is to acknowledge women for the role they played and the legacy they left," Rais said.
The Basilian Fathers Museum, located some 80 kms east of Edmonton, is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On weekends (summer only) it is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free, although donations are accepted. For more information call the museum at 780-764-3887.
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