Toronto’s Ukrainian Community

With its roots in the west end, the cultural impact of the Ukrainian community is city-wide. Written by Krystyna Cap and originally published July 15, 2009.

Ask most Canadians where the heart of the Ukrainian Diaspora can be found in this country and they’ll likely answer Alberta or Manitoba, calling to mind images of Clifford Sifton’s sheepskin-clad farmers who began settling the Canadian west in the 1890s. Few would cite Toronto, despite our city’s own distinct Ukrainian heritage, now over a century old. Yet the War of 1812 brought the first Ukrainians to the city (then called York) as mercenary soldiers. For their service in the de Meuron and de Watteville battalions, these men were granted land near present-day Perth, Ontario and Winnipeg, Manitoba, although it was not until the late nineteenth century that the first Ukrainian immigrants began arriving in significant numbers to form the “nuclei for [Ontario’s] Ukrainian communities today.” [1]

In the two decades before WWI, some 180,000 Ukrainians, primarily from the provinces of Galicia and Bukovina in the Habsburg Empire, immigrated to Canada. From the Russian Empire where record keeping was poor, statistics concerning Ukrainian immigration remains difficult to ascertain; however, migrants were largely drawn from the Dnieper River region, parts of Right-Bank Ukraine and the areas of present-day western and central Belarus.[2] Although the Canadian government remained ambivalent about their immigration policies as regards Eastern European immigrants in general and to those originating from the Russian Empire in particular, a number of private Canadian land and railway companies attracted settlers from the more “undesirable” Eastern European provinces, since these regions were widely regarded to be vast “pools of cheap labour.”[3] Although the majority of Ukrainian immigrants opted for settlement in the prairies, some remained in Ontario as temporary economic sojourners.

Like many immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, Ukrainians assumed difficult, low-paying jobs across sectors such as agriculture, railway construction, mining and lumbering. The mines at Copper Cliff, Kirkland Lake, and Sudbury became destinations for Ukrainian immigrant workers, as well as the lumber and paper works in Kenora and Dryden, Ontario. Manufacturing centres in Windsor and Oshawa, the Hamilton foundries, and even the port towns that now constitute present-day Thunder Bay all saw the influx of Ukrainian immigrant labourers.[4]

With the outbreak of the First World War and the passage of the War Measures Act, the Canadian government transformed hard-working immigrants into “enemy aliens,” interning over 8,000 Ukrainians who had emigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to Lubomyr Y. Luciuk, “twenty-six internment camps and receiving stations were set up across Canada…Of these, six were located in Ontario, although only three were permanent camps, the others being receiving stations.”[5] Now forced labourers, Ukrainians were put to work in some of the most arduous jobs across the country, including the steel mills in Ontario and Nova Scotia and the mines of British Columbia. Tragically, some of those interned died, while a handful of others were killed in abortive efforts to escape the various camps across the country. Although the Canadian government has since made efforts at restitution, the event remains an unfortunate chapter in our nation’s history.

Ukrainian immigration to Canada continued throughout the interwar period, with more than 68,000 Ukrainian settlers arriving in Canada during this period.[6] Although the majority continued their westward migration to the prairies, in the years following World War II, of the estimated 35-40,000 Ukrainian “displaced persons,” or DPs, who arrived in Canada, almost 75% elected to remain in Ontario.[7] Throughout the 1970s, Alberta’s strong economic growth once again attracted Ukrainian Canadians, but Ontario, and Toronto more specifically, has remained a central receiving area for Ukrainian immigrants.[8]


In Toronto, the Ukrainian presence is alive and well, evinced in the myriad churches, restaurants, shops, cultural events and heritage institutions throughout our vibrant city. Since the early twentieth century, associational and community life has blossomed from the earliest attempts by a handful of immigrants to found a benevolent aid society, to the range of organizations in existence today, including full-scale congresses, parish groups, festivals and cultural institutions, all reflecting the dynamism and vibrancy of this community. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with members of various groups and institutions across the city to discuss the role their organization plays in maintaining cultural traditions and sharing the rich heritage of Ukrainians with the rest of Toronto

St. Vladimir Institute: 620 Spadina Avenue

Halyna Ostapchuk, the head librarian at St. Vladimir’s greets all her visitors with a sunny smile and a warm disposition. When I arrived one Saturday in May, she immediately welcomed me into the cozy library, home to more than 15,000 volumes on art, literature, language and history. Our conversation about the context for the original Institute began with a brief history of the Ukrainian community in Toronto and the earliest migratory wave to take up residence in the city.

St. Vladimir Institute, 620 Spadina Avenue (Photo courtesy of Halyna Ostapchuk)

Like the vast majority of Central and Eastern European immigrants, Ukrainians settled in St. John’s Ward, the area bounded by present-day University Avenue, College Street, Yonge Street, and Queen Street. A second Ukrainian enclave sprang up around The Junction, concentrated around the CP railway area in west Toronto, and particularly on streets such as Franklin, Edwin, Perth, Edith and Royce Avenue (now Dupont).[6] Efforts to establish organizations, institutions, and services were ongoing and by the 1940s, discussions were underway to establish an institute similar to learning centres in Saskatchewan and Alberta like the Petro Mohyla Institute in Saskatoon and the Mychailo Hrushevsky Institute in Edmonton (now renamed St. John’s Institute). Though the St. Vladimir Institute had opened previously at another Toronto location, the current institution opened its doors at 620 Spadina Avenue in 1969. The original educational and cultural vision of the institute’s founders remains in the continuing mandate and activities of the organization. Though initially founded as a “one-stop” community residential hub for Ukrainian students studying in Toronto, for a long time since, the institute has welcomed students of every nationality and background and continues to offer a range of cultural programs aimed both at the Ukrainian community and interested Torontonians of every stripe; classes include language, cooking and even a unique icon painting class taught over ten sessions by a master iconographer.

Statue of St. Vladimir outside the Institute (Photo courtesy of Halyna Ostapchuk)

When the Institute moved from its previous location, a small room was allotted to a library collection, which grew throughout the course of a decade. A professional librarian on staff at the University of Toronto Libraries assisted in its planning and organization and saw its eventual opening in 1980. Today, the library caters to the needs of students and patrons across the GTA, with its collection specializing in Ukrainian history, language, literature, music, art, and children’s books in Ukrainian, English, and other languages.


Event at the SVI (Photo courtesy of Halyna Ostapchuk)

One of the Library’s unique treasure troves is a small rare book collection, which is home to old and out-of-print Ukrainian publications from the beginning of the twentieth century. A great deal of material and many publications were destroyed during the Second World War, but publishers, especially those during the Stalinist repression in the 1930s and after, sent their manuscripts to Canada for publication by the Diaspora community. As Halyna explained, the rare books and newspapers are an excellent resource for scholarly research and volumes have even been loaned to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto for various exhibits.

St. Vladimir Institute Library (Photo courtesy of Halyna Ostapchuk)

For those interested in the library or learning more about the institution, its history or its range of programming, visit

The Shevchenko Museum: 1614 Bloor Street West

Tucked away amidst the diverse shops, pubs, and restaurants dotting Bloor Street West between Keele and Dundas is a unique historical and cultural museum celebrating the Ukrainian bard and fine artist, Taras Shevchenko. The only such museum in the Americas, the original institution, established by the Taras Shevchenko Museum and Memorial Park Foundation, was located near Oakville, Ontario and opened on July 1, 1952. One year earlier, a prodigious monument of the bard had been donated by the people of Soviet Ukraine to their Canadian brethren to mark the 60th anniversary of Ukrainian migration to Canada. In two tragedies, one in 1988 and one in 2006, the museum and nearly all of its valuable collection was lost to arson, and the bronze Shevchenko statue, measuring nearly three metres in height atop a 70-tonne granite base, was stolen. The head of the latter was recovered and now rests at the Bloor Street Museum and the death mask – a bronze copy of the original mold housed at the National Museum of Shevchenko in Kyiv and donated by the Ukrainian government – was the only item rescued from the 1988 fire.

Museum on Bloor Street West (Photo courtesy of Lyudmyla Pogoryelova)

With Bill Harasym, President of the Foundation, as my guide, I was offered a tour of the institution. Its holdings boast a number of unique exhibits and pieces, including a 1937 poster from Kyiv, Ukraine advertising a birthday celebration and concert tribute in honour of Shevchenko, a hand-etched granite portrait, and stunning reproductions of Shevchenko’s art by contemporary Ukrainian artists. More broadly, the museum’s collection also includes unique holdings of Ukrainian arts and handicrafts and agricultural implements used by some of Canada’s earliest Ukrainian immigrants. The two-storey museum also houses a picture gallery and library containing a range of Shevchenkiana, such as albums, newspapers, essays, biographies, and books concerning the bard and his collected body of work. Lyudmyla Pogoryelova, Director of the Museum, showed me one particularly impressive volume, Shevchenko’s immortal poem, Zapovit (Testament) published in over a hundred languages.

The Gypsy Fortune Teller (1841), reproduction (Photo courtesy of Lyudmyla Pogoryelova)

Born a serf in the Russian Empire (1814-1861) and bought out of servitude through the efforts of the famous painter Karl Briullov, Taras Shevchenko is widely regarded as the founder of modern Ukrainian literature and even the modern Ukrainian language. In 1840, his first collection of poetry entitled Kobzar was published and in 1845, the Council of the Academy of Arts bestowed the title of an artist upon Shevchenko, who, in addition to composition produced watercolours, etchings and other visual art. In 1841, he earned his third Silver Medal from the Imperial [Russian] Academy of Arts for his painting, Gypsy Fortune Teller. Arrested and exiled for his connections to the liberal Pan-Slavist political group, the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, Shevchenko was sent to the Urals to serve in a military detachment there. Though he was strictly forbidden by the tsar to either write or paint, he nevertheless continued to produce several drawings and even write throughout his travels in modern-day Kazakhstan. As a humanist, Shevchenko championed the cause of the poor and oppressed and stood in direct opposition to the serfdom which enslaved peasants across the Russian Empire and was finally abolished the year he died.

The Shevchenko statue, prior to 2006 (Photo courtesy of Lyudmyla Pogoryelova)

According to Lyudmyla, “no one other person in the history of mankind has as many statues in his honour [as Taras Shevchenko].” Monuments have been erected in Canada, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, France, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Russia, and the list goes on. Most recently, in March 2009, another statue to Shevchenko was unveiled in Prague. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has twice recognized Shevchenko as “a cultural leader of world acclaim.”

The Shevchenko death mask, rescued from the fire and on display in the Museum. (Photo courtesy of Lyudmyla Pogoryelova)

“Shevchenko was an international poet, artist, and humanist because what he wrote about was not only Ukrainian but for all people who struggled,” explained Bill. Born a serf and raised as a houseboy on the estate of a wealthy Russian landowner, Shevchenko understood first-hand the plight of the peasantry in the Russian Empire and elsewhere. Both Bill and Lyudmyla agree that the range of Shevchekiana makes the museum unique and accessible to everyone. “Many non-Ukrainians think you need to know Ukrainian to come,” said Lyudmyla, but this isn’t the case. “Our aim is to introduce Shevchenko to the rest of the world and to the city of Toronto.”

Bill Harasym, President (Photo courtesy of Lyudmyla Pogoryelova)

For more information about the Museum, including tours, visit

St. Demetrius the Great Martyr Ukrainian Catholic Church

This year St. Demetrius’ in Etobicoke will celebrate its 50th anniversary with year-long jubilee festivities, the largest of which will be a church service and banquet for some 1,000 guests in October. Father John Tataryn has been with the parish since his ordination 50 years ago and recalled the differences between the community of the 1960s and today. “This area was all farmland, because Etobicoke was a lot of small villages,” Father John explained. “Young families moved west [of Toronto] because homes were cheap. The parish was all young couples from out west – Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Some were born in Toronto, but there were no immigrants.” Now the parish counts among its community several non-Ukrainian nationalities, many through intermarriage, some owing to the close proximity of the church to their own homes, as well as a number of senior citizens.

In 1975, a school was built – one of only four heritage schools in Toronto – and nine years later, to mark the Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine, the St. Demetrius senior’s residence, a 219-unit home, was constructed. Another decade later, the Ukrainian Canadian Care Centre was erected to offer residents the full scope of long-term care. Today the parish continues to engage in a variety of charitable activities, including used furniture drives and flea markets. An impressive project spanning a little more than three decades was the church’s stained glass windows, which were commissioned by Father John after a 1974 art show at St. Vladimir Institute where he met the American-born artist Yaroslava Surmach Miller. Her images of Ukrainian peasant life inspired the windows of the Church, Senior’s Residence and Ukrainian Canadian Care Centre. Between 1974 and 2007, Yaroslava Surmach Miller worked tirelessly on the windows, inspired by the frescoes and mosaics of Kyiv’s St. Sophia and Pecherska Lavra and the fourth- and fifth-century churches in Ravenna, Italy among others, and included over 250 pounds of hand-blown German full-antique glass.[9]

According to Father John, religion plays an important role in Ukrainian culture because “many traditions are based around the liturgical calendar – Christmas, Easter, the Pentecost and so forth.” For Canada’s earliest Ukrainian immigrants, rural parishes were among the first buildings erected by communities and in Toronto, St. Josaphat’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, now Cathedral, was built on Franklin Street in The Junction between 1913-1914.[10] Today there are more than ten Ukrainian Orthodox, Catholic, Pentecostal, and Evangelical Baptist churches in the Greater Toronto Area boasting active parish communities.

The Toronto Ukrainian Festival in Bloor West Village

Bloor West Village was the heart of Toronto’s Ukrainian community in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Though the Ukrainians continue their westward migration to Etobicoke, Mississauga and other suburbs, a number of Ukrainian-owned delis, bakeries and shops remain in the area. “You never know who you’re going to run into,” said Olya Grod, one of the energetic chief coordinators of the Toronto Ukrainian Festival when I met her outside of the Kontakt (Ukrainian Television) offices catching up with a family friend. The demographics of the area may have changed, but for many Ukrainian-Canadians, particularly around Easter, Bloor West Village remains a one-stop shopping destination.

“[The area] is more diverse,” remarked Olya, reflecting on the way the neighbourhood has changed over the years. “Much like the [Toronto Ukrainian] Festival itself.” Both reflect the increasing diversity of our great city.

Festival Parade featuring parade marshal Randy Bachman (Photo courtesy of Anna Heychuk)

The Toronto Ukrainian Festival is in its thirteenth year and has grown exponentially in attendees since its inception. “The original festival had 3,000 people crammed into a parking lot at Jane and Bloor,” said Olga. Since then, the event has grown “block by block,” and now attracts audiences in excess of 300,000 and is North America’s Largest Ukrainian Street Festival. Olya jokingly described the original event as a “Ukrainian love-fest,” but its current flavour is one that captures the deep pride felt by Ukrainians not only in their unique culture, but also in their Canadian heritage.

Guest Performers from Yuzhne, Ukraine (near Odessa) (Photo courtesy of Anna Heychuk)

“We always go back to our vision,” she explained. “We want to share our culture with [people]…to inform them. What also makes our event unique is that it reaches out to other groups and cultures.” The inclusivity of the event and the continuing mandate of its organizers is evident from the range of participants and attendees. The parade has previously welcomed the participation of the Italian Carbinieri, the East Toronto Shrine Club, the Johnson School of Irish Dance, the Slovak Dance Company and the Native Indian Community, and parade marshals have included famous Ukrainian Canadians such as Randy Bachman of Bachman Turner Overdrive and Guess Who, Luba Goy of the Royal Canadian Air Farce, and Toronto Broadcaster Ted Woloshyn.


For festival goers, activities, entertainment and, of course, food abound, from sidewalk sales to live music to refreshment gardens selling Ukrainian food and drink. The event boasts countless pavilions, kiosks, stage shows, and offerings for revelers of all ages. This year’s event, taking place September 18-20, will also feature a new art show and sale organized by the Collective of Ukrainian Artists in addition to the midway, ongoing live entertainment, food and other events and attractions.

Festival Attendees (Photos courtesy of Anna Heychuk)

For more information about the Toronto Ukrainian Festival, visit
[1]. Zoriana Yaworsky Sokolsky, “The Beginnigns of Ukrainian Settlement in Toronto, 1891-1939,” Polyphony: The Bulletin of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario 10 (1988): 32; Stella Hryniuk, “Ukrainian Immigration to Ontario: An Overview,” Polyphony: The Bulletin of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario 10 (1988): 21.
[2]. Vadim Kukushkin, From Peasants to Labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration from the Russian Empire to Canada (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), 54.
[3]. Kukushkin, 84-5.
[4]. Hryniuk, 22.
[5]. Lubomyr Y. Luciuk, “Ukrainians and Internment Operations during the First World War,” Polyphony: The Bulletin of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario 10 (1988): 27.
[6]. Ninette Kelley and M.J. Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 197.
[7]. Lubomyr Y. Luciuk and Iroida I. Wynnyckyj, “A Distinct Constituency – the Ukrainians of Ontario,” Polyphony: The Bulletin of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario 10 (1988): 4.
[8]. Paul Robert Magocsi, “Ukrainians,” in Encyclopedia of Canada’s People, ed. Paul Robert Magocsi (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, c1999),1286.
[9]. Reverend Peter Shumelda, ed., Windows to Heaven. Stained Glass Windows at St. Demetrius the Great Martyr Ukrainian Catholic Church by Artist Yaroslava Surmach-Mills (Toronto St. Demetrius the Great Martyr Ukrainian Catholic Church, 2008), 11, 14.
[10]. Andrew Gregorovich, “The Ukrainian Community in Toronto, 1914-71,” Polyphony: Bulletin of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario 10 (1988): 48. An earlier version of this article is available online at

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