Elise Stolte: Why are so many Canadians surprised at the Kamloops mass grave? Ukrainian research holds a clue

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“Leah, there were no natives here” — that’s what Leah Hrycun’s Ukrainian grandmother kept telling her, with increasing annoyance, as Hrycun wrestled with a mystery.

If the Cree moved onto reserves before the Ukrainian settlers arrived, as local Ukrainian historians had said, then why do Indigenous families have stories of grandfathers learning to speak Ukrainian? Why do their grandmothers pass down Ukrainian poppy seed cake recipes?

Hrycun is a PhD student at the University of Alberta. I thought of her work Monday as city council debated renaming the Grandin LRT station.

Hrycun’s mystery goes a long way to explain why it’s possible for Canadians to still be so surprised by the children’s graves in B.C. The abuse, disease and trauma has been extensively documented. But the Ukrainian example illustrates how the stories we tell ourselves become a mix of myth and reality; Canada’s popular history is also full of blind spots.


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Council voted unanimously to remove Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin’s name in response to the discovery of 215 unmarked children’s graves beside a residential school in Kamloops. Just before Monday’s vote, Coun. Aaron Paquette shared his perspective.

“Growing up, I knew about (the residential schools, abuse and lost children) and I learned more as I got older. But for Indigenous people this history is very much present and constant,” said Paquette, whose heritage is Cree and Métis.

“It’s as if there are two histories — two worlds, two realities — in this land. I’ll tell you, growing up, I didn’t understand why no one else cared about these things. I thought they knew and didn’t care. It didn’t occur to me that they lived in an entirely different reality, a different history, and therefore had entirely different priorities. But I’m hoping that changes.”

Bishop Grandin was a key supporter of the French language and community in Alberta, who also lobbied to build more residential schools. He wanted to isolate Indigenous children from their parents so they would let go of their traditions and beliefs.

The vote Monday means the city is taking down references to Grandin at the LRT station, and will then work through a renaming process with Edmonton’s Indigenous and French communities. City officials also covered the mural depicting the residential school system with orange, a symbol of reconciliation.

Hrycun’s work is specific to the Ukrainian community of central Alberta, but a similar forgetting happened in many communities as Canada created the “two histories” Paquette references.


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The first Ukrainian settlers fled persecution to settle in Western Canada in the early 1900s. At that time, their letters home and their written stories had stories of help. These farming families were unprepared for how cold it gets on the prairies and many would have starved and froze if local Indigenous families hadn’t rescued them.

But those stories gradually changed. As Ukrainian settlers learned to farm here, their stories about Indigenous neighbours still expressed sympathy but also stressed hard work, said Hrycun. It became a “bootstrap narrative” — that Ukrainians succeeded through their own hard work.

By the 1970s, the stories of all Indigenous Canadians did to help their Ukrainian neighbours had all but disappeared.

“(Former prime minister Pierre) Trudeau was really pushing that multicultural atmosphere,” said Hrycun. “It was only then that Ukrainians truly began to feel they were part of this Canadian project. At that time, a lot of settlers who had stories of interactions with Indigenous peoples really pushed them under the rug.”

University of Alberta PhD student Leah Hrycun and her Ukrainian grandmother (Baba) Eva Hrycun, taken at her wedding on Aug. 5, 2018. It is her favourite picture of the two of us. Photo credit: Nicholas Hrycun
University of Alberta PhD student Leah Hrycun and her Ukrainian grandmother (Baba) Eva Hrycun, taken at her wedding on Aug. 5, 2018. It is her favourite picture of the two of us. Photo credit: Nicholas Hrycun

That much has been documented by other researchers. Hrycun’s PhD project is to find local stories of Indigenous-Ukrainian interaction and share them again. She has help from Indigenous friends such as Judy Half, whose Cree grandfather spoke Ukrainian, and Sharon Venne, whose Indigenous grandmother passed down the Ukrainian poppy seed cake recipe. Eventually, Hrycun will co-produce a travelling public exhibit with participants.


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For Hrycun, what stands out is how much Ukrainian and Indigenous families had in common. They were both oppressed, pushed to the margins of society and dealing with the loss of their traditional lands. They must have had longstanding friendships to share language, food and sometimes even intermarry.

But as they gained acceptance in Canadian society, Ukrainians created a new founding myth, she said. “Ukrainians came to see themselves as the first true occupants of these lands. These revisionist histories are the stories of my ancestors.”

Hrycun’s work is deeply personal. It makes for awkward family conversations. Some of her relatives are excited about the new perspective, while for others there’s guilt and a sense that this wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t talked about.

On a broader scale, we need to recognize the history of Indigenous oppression isn’t dead. The trauma of residential schools is still being felt today, and it’s absolutely appropriate to mitigate that harm by at least removing murals and names celebrating what was done.

But Bishop Grandin isn’t being “cancelled.” If all goes well, his legacy will simply be seen more completely. Then our new myths will at least be more accurate, and that has to be a first step to healing.



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