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Contemporary Multiculturalism: Telling our Stories

Paper presented at the Multiculturalism in the New Millennium Conference. Ukrainian Professional and Business Association. Winnipeg, MB. February 17, 2001.

Denis Hlynka

Acting Director, Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies, University of Manitoba

This contribution to the discussion is focused in the domains of education and culture, is informed by the role of contemporary technology, and is grounded by contemporary cultural theories of postmodernism. Four points will be presented. These four points need to be integrated into any final directions or philosophy. I shall call these four issues naming, universality, mythology and technology. Let's look at each.

Point #1: Naming. There is a continued confusion between the names Canadian and Ukrainian. Names matter. Confused names confuse. Let me explain using myself as an example; You can choose to buy into it or not as you wish. I was born in Ottawa. My birth certificate and passport clearly identify me as Canadian. Whenever I travel abroad, the most important point of reference is that Canadian citizenship. Custom officials around the world couldn't care less as to my ethnic origins. I am Canadian. Further: look up the word Ukrainian in either Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary. It states clearly "a native or inhabitant of Ukraine." I am neither. It is interesting that the official definition of Ukrainian... and the same applies to English, German, or Polish, or what you will... the official dictionary definition of Ukrainian does not even give room for the concept "of Ukrainian heritage" or "of Ukrainian origin." So am I Ukrainian? Not according to my passport. Not according to the dictionary. Yet, there is no doubt as to my heritage. Too often these terms are confused, and we still try to put one ahead of the other. The opposition between Ukrainian and Canadian is a false opposition. There is no question as to which is more important. The Ukrainian/Canadian opposition deconstructs further. It is imperative that we realize that there is no one Ukrainian Canadian group any more than there is one Canadian group. There is no single community. Ukrainian Canadians in Canada today are not one cohesive group. We are many groups. We cannot make them one group. It is useless to try.

Point #2: Universality. The problem of a Ukrainian Canadian perspective and a Ukrainian Canadian identity is not unique. In fact the general nature of the problem is universal. For example, the problem lies at the heart of Canadian identity. Here are some alternative examples beyond our interests today, to show the extension of the problem: On January 28, 2001 the CBC program Ideas ran a lecture which asked what is the role of Canada in a digital age? The argument: Canada is in danger of disappearing as we approach a 200 channel universe. The audience for the so-called niche channels are miniscule. What we gain is more American programming.

  • A second example: Feb 4, 2001 CBC Cross Country Checkup conducted a national call-in show asking the implications of the fact that the Montreal Canadiens hockey team had been purchased by an American. The issue: Are we giving up more than a hockey team? Are we allowing our Canadian cultural heritage to be eroded? And if that is so, should the government step in and assure that our teams remain Canadian, regardless.
  • A third example. A just published book titled Vanishing Voices by two British scholars Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine points out that the languages of the world are becoming extinct. Is this a problem? The authors argue that diversity in language is just as significant as biodiversity. We need our timberwolves and our rainforests, and wild prairies, just as much as we need our languages. Incidentally, in terms of disappearing languages, Ukrainian is not on the endangered list. Indeed, Ukrainian is one of the top 25 languages in the world.
  • A fourth example: On superbowl Monday... the day after the superbowl... the front page of Canada's National Post was telling indeed: It showed…full page…the catch that put Baltimore on top. But, the point is, the name of the paper is the National Post. How can it be "national" when it celebrates front page a non-Canadian sporting event? We have a problem as Canadians to recognize what is an appropriate Canadian front page story. So, it is critical to understand the problem we are discussing is NOT unique to the Ukrainian Canadian community, but in fact is an issue of 21st century society. There is no easy solution. Certainly, there can be no imposed political solution.

Point #3: Mythologies. A mythology is a story or a group of stories that unify. The problem is that in a postmodern world, that is, a world of multiple discourses, we at a personal level, buy into several often conflicting mythologies. Why we do so is uniqiue to each of us. Some of the Ukrainian mythologies which may or may not unite us in this room are the narratives of early settlers, of postwar immigration, of heritage, the stories of Mazeppa, of Taras Bulba. of Taras Shevchenko and the medieval 10th century Kiev. But, these get mixed up with the mythologies of Canada: The mounties, the railroad, the voyageurs. From a different direction come the mythologies of King Arthur and Robin Hood; from popular culture come the mythologies of Davy Crockett and Hopalong Cassidy. There is no law or ethical practice to distinguish the importance or nonimportance of one or more of these mythologies on our psyche. Mazeppa or Davy Crockett? Both were historical characters. Both are a part of the Canadian heritage, even thought neither is a Canadian personage. One is biased towards our cultural heritage; the other biased towards the mass media influence of Walt Disney. Taras Bulba vs Zorro? Same issue, though both of these are fictional mythologies. What is the point? We live in a world of alternative, multiple and conflicting mythologies. There are those that matter to some of us, but don't even make a blip on the radar screen for others. Even the Ukrainian mythologies are not equally shared among us. Why should they be?

Point #4: Technology. Technology is integral to an understanding of 21st century culture. A contemporary culture that ignores technology does so at its peril. Rather, a culture must use technologies, and re-invent itself in light of these new traditions, new modes of narrative, new ways of community. The technologies of the 21st century are television, the internet, the digital compact disc, the computer, the re-vitalized motion picture film and its close cousin the DVD.

If film, video and television provide a new outlet for literature, then the internet provides a new kind of community. The concept of a "virtual community" has been around ever since Howard Reingold. The Ukrainian community has reinvented itself on infoukes.com, e-Poshta and through active listservs, all of which have re-defined community. Canadian young adults of Ukrainian heritage do not hang out at Prosvita or the National Home or church basements; they hang out online.

We used to describe those individuals of Ukrainian heritage who saw only things Ukrainian as living in a ghetto. Today, there is a new ghetto. That ghetto consists of those who ignore that the future and impact of a Ukrainian culture and a Ukrainian Canadian culture will be played out under the shadow of digital technologies. If we understand and embrace these technologies, then a Ukrainian presence will be inevitable. If we ignore technology, then we do so at our peril.

So: Will the Ukrainian Canadian community survive either the continuation or the demise of official multiculturalism? No one knows. What we do know is two things. First, we absolutely must work within modern technologies. And second: Because of the independence of Ukraine in 1991, our role has changed. We are no longer the guardians of a captive culture. In fact, we must give back what is no longer ours. Instead, we need to reshape an identity within Canada which allows individuals to make their own choices. And finally. Ukrainians and Ukrainian Canadians are no longer an unknown entity. Today our community has subtly but clearly made its mark on the culture and the well being of Canada. We have made a difference.

However, our stories in Canada are slowly being forgotten. The next step is to tell and retell them to ourselves and to all Canadians.

Denis Hlynka is a professor of instructional technology in the Department of Curriculum, teaching and learning at the University of Manitoba. He is also (since 1980) the acting director of the Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies at the University of Manitoba.