by Oleh W. Gerus – May 2000
Since the beginning of Ukrainian settlement in Canada more than hundred years ago, the Ukrainian Canadian community has produced a number of outstanding individuals. The dedication and efforts of these men and women gave our community a sense of much needed self-confidence and purpose. On the national level, these individuals pioneered the concept of Canadian cultural pluralism. Their idealism and their commitment to public service helped to reshape Canada from an assimilative British-French model into a unique multicultural nation, an envy of much of the world. Simply put, they were Canada’s unheralded nation builders whose legacy must be remembered and perpetuated for future generations. One of these outstanding Ukrainian Canadians was Paul Yuzyk, a respected community leader, a reputable academic, an exemplary Senator and a noble human being.
History remembers Paul Yuzyk as a major advocate of multiculturalism and a key figure in its establishment as an official policy of Canada. I remember Paul Yuzyk, first and foremost, as an inspiring and supportive history professor at the University of Manitoba.
Forty years ago, when professors wore obligatory academic gowns, were aloof, and generally rarely had time for their students after class, Professor Yuzyk was refreshingly different. He was friendly and outgoing. He respected his students and generously offered them encouragement and guidance; so much so that his office in the old Tier Building was a virtual hangout for Ukrainian students. There community issues and politics were argued passionately. There we learned about Yuzyk’s youth as a prairie school teacher in Saskatchewan and as a founder and organizer of the Ukrainian National Youth Federation of Canada. We also learned about bigotry towards Ukrainians. In Yuzyk’s seminars, we realized how the mainstream Canadian historiography distorted Canada’s history. It did so by either ignoring or misrepresenting the role of non-Anglo and non-French minorities, especially the Ukrainians, in the context of Canada’s evolution as a nation. It was obvious that academic and general ignorance about the enormous economic, intellectual and cultural contributions of the “ethnics” to the development of Canada was the main cause of prejudice and discrimination against them. Yet, Yuzyk was positive and optimistic about Canada’s future. He was convinced that injustice .would eventually be ended by public education and by political will. He was right.
As a concerned citizen, Yuzyk raised the concept of the Third Force, that is, a formation of a tactical alliance of the nearly one-third of Canada’s population — the ethnics — into a political force for change. Yuzyk’s vision of a renewed and better Canada was that of a multicultural, democratic and just society, a society in which every ethnic group would enjoy equality in law and in practice and would be assured of the right and means to perpetuate its cultural heritage in its adopted homeland. For Yuzyk, multiculturalism was not only a strategic means of securing a better future for his Ukrainian Canadian community, but it was a question of moral principle. He argued that ethno-cultural preservation itself was a basic human right without which there could be no just society. Such radical and challenging ideas were not popular with the academic establishment in a highly conservative and Anglocentric institution that the University of Manitoba then was.
In 1963, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a genuine friend of the Ukrainian Canadian community, appointed Professor Yuzyk to the Senate of Canada, the upper chamber of our parliament. Later that year the new Liberal government created the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in response to the growing Quebec nationalism. Professor J. B. Rudnyckyj, head of the Slavic Department at the University of Manitoba, was appointed to the commission. Senator Yuzyk made the promotion of multiculturalism the main objective of his public life. Over the next eight years, the senator campaigned vigorously for his ideal, in the Senate and throughout the country. Bi-culturalism as proposed by the B and B Commission violated Yuzyk’s sense of fairness and justice. He considered such a concept to be discriminatory against the minorities, who would be obliged to assimilate with one of Canada’s two melting pots, the English or the French. Those ethnic groups still clinging to their heritage would become alienated and marginalized. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, was seen as an effective way of overcoming prejudice and of strengthening the national unity of the country, with its increasing ethno-cultural and racial diversity. Unity in diversity was a frequent theme. Although the B and B Commission favoured biculturalism, Yuzyk’s leadership played an important, if not decisive, part in galvanizing the Third Force into action opposing biculturalism. The Ukrainian community, notably UCC, rose to the occasion and inspired others to defend minority rights.
The pro-multiculturalism campaign was very effective. In 1971 Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau announced the national policy of bilingualism and multi-culturalism, a distinctly Canadian compromise on a difficult issue. As adopted by the Federal Government, the new policy gave recognition to English and French official languages. At the same time, it also gave official recognition to all cultures of Canada and committed the government to provide opportunity and assistance for maintaining those cultures. Senator Yuzyk was justifiably pleased with the outcome.
Multiculturalism has been part of Canada’s social fabric for nearly thirty years. The implications of multiculturalism in general and of Ottawa’s role specifically have been a subject of endless debates. There are still many critics and the specifics of the multicultural policy will continue to be reassessed. However, the fact that such remarkable constitutional transformation of Canada was achieved has remained a great tribute to the proponents of multiculturalism, especially to Paul Yuzyk.
His epitaph succinctly summarizes the philosophy of his life: “Inspired by Christianity and multiculturalism”.