Preserving Ukrainian Heritage
At the turn of the 20th
century, a wave of Ukrainian migrants left their homeland in search of a better life. Some fled eastward, settling the steppes of Central Asia in what is now the Republic of Kazakhstan. Others went westward, crossing the Atlantic and ultimately settling in the similarly flat and fertile prairies of Western Canada. Separated by half a globe and a century of history, these communities beg the question: do they still share a deep-seated cultural pride and impermeable sense of identity?
The culture and folklore of the Ukrainian Diaspora is the focal point of the work of Natalie Kononenko, professor in the Department of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies. Born in a displaced persons camp in postwar Germany and raised in New Jersey, Kononenko’s lifelong fascination with her ancestral homeland drove her to pursue Slavic and Near Eastern Studies at Harvard University at a time when studying the then-Soviet Bloc nations was virtually impossible. “There were no field work options at the time,” she explains. “Even archival material wasn’t available until 1987.”
The fall of the Iron Curtain opened the door to research opportunities in the new nation states that came into being when the USSR fell apart, and Kononenko wasted no time. Starting in Ukraine, her research led her to the Canadian Diaspora and then to its counterpart in former Soviet Central Asia. Her recent travels in Kazakhstan revealed remarkable parallels with Canada’s Ukrainian communities. New rituals are formed even as old songs are preserved. Farming practices are similar and, when Khrushchev’s attempts to turn the steppes of Kazakhstan into wheat fields failed and caused soil erosion, it was Canadian prairie grass that came to the rescue — seeds and grass stabilized the soil enough that the erosion halted.
Since 2004, Kononenko has held the position of Kule Chair of Ukrainian Ethnography at the U of A. She, along with John-Paul Himka (History & Classics, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies) and Frances Swyripa (History & Classics), are the principles on the Sanctuary project, documenting the sacral art, architecture and rituals of Ukrainians and other Slavic peoples in the Prairie provinces. Kononenko is active in promoting cultural exchange between Ukrainian-Canadians and their counterparts in Ukraine and Central Asia. She also finds time to delve hands-on into her culture, leading workshops to teach people how to make motanky (cloth folk dolls) and pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs).
Top Right: Anna Kozakova, a resident of Orlovka, Kazakhstan, shows Kononenko the garden and medicinal plants of Kazakhstan (2011) Photo by Alevtina Cvetkova
Bottom left: Kononenko talks with Pavlo Suprun, a blind minstrel in Kyiv, Ukraine, with whom she has worked since 1987 (2009) Photo by Oleksandr Romaniuk
"The Right Kind of People"
“Democracy was never intended for degenerates.” These words were spoken by United Farm Women of Alberta president Margaret Gunn in 1924, in support of a province-wide campaign of forced sterilization of the mentally ill, presaging the passing of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta in 1928. This act would remain in effect until 1972 and would lead to the forced sterilization of more than 2,800 individuals in one of the darkest and most little-known chapters of Alberta’s history.
The under-studied history of eugenics in Alberta is a focal point of the research of philosophy professor Rob Wilson. A graduate of Cornell University and a U of A professor since 2000, Wilson’s interest in the practice of eugenics in Alberta was triggered by a chance encounter. “I was teaching material on eugenics in the U.S. and Nazi Germany and I had two students who had relatives who had been sterilized right here in Alberta,” he explains. “Before that I had no idea that eugenics had been practiced here.”
For the last three years, Wilson has devoted himself to raising awareness of this hidden history. He is currently working to create the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, an online repository of archival material and oral accounts of survivors. The project is partially funded by a grant from the Community-University Research Alliance program at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). “Most people are shocked to hear about this,” he notes, adding that in some cases children who were sterilized were also used to test psychotropic drugs in institutions. “It’s a story of institutionalization and mistreatment.”
In addition, Wilson has a long-standing interest in teaching philosophy to children in his role as director for Philosophy for Children Alberta. He also leads the What Sorts Network, an international community of thinkers dedicated to grappling with the question of “What sorts of people should there be?” Wilson explains, “It’s about informing social policy in ways that will create more inclusive communities.”
Had Stephen Harper consulted with political scientist and voter behaviour expert Lori Thorlakson beforehand, he probably would have thought twice before wading into the 2011 Ontario election on behalf of PC leader Tim Hudak. As it happened, his comments about a Conservative “grand slam” in Ontario (referring to himself, Hudak and Toronto mayor Rob Ford) created an instant backlash and helped push the scale in favour of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals.
Political competition in multilevel settings with a specialization on the European Union is the focal point of Thorlakson’s work. A graduate of the London School of Economics and an expert on European Union politics, her commentary on European political affairs has been sought after by the BBC, the Globe & Mail and other news media.
Her primary area of expertise is voter and political party behaviour within the European context, where, in addition to the sub-national and national political arenas we have in Canada, there exists a third stratum in the form of the EU parliament in Brussels. Thorlakson notes that, while Canadians tend to vote differently at the national and provincial levels, Europeans as a whole tend to vote for ideologically analogous candidates at all levels, with national interests tending to trump the interests of the European Union. This lack of a European voter consciousness, she contends, is the crux of the EU's current problems.
“The economic crisis was brought on by a political crisis, which was caused by a lack of solidarity among member states,” she explains. “What’s needed in Europe is political architecture that’s conducive to greater solidarity. The advantage of the disconnected competition we see in Canada is that it can generate more responsiveness at different levels of government.”
At home, Thorlakson is involved in the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies and, since 2008, has been recruiting students for EU study tours. She is also involved in a nationwide voter behaviour study aimed at understanding, for example, why a province as politically impassioned as Alberta regularly produces the country’s lowest voter turnout rates. “There’s a strong interest in politics here,” she notes. “It’s just not translating into election turnout. We’re trying to figure out where that disconnect is.”