Russia’s brazen escalation of violence in Ukraine has inspired solidarity demonstrations across Canada, often led by people of Ukrainian descent and members of the diaspora. Rallies also took place in Prairie cities less accustomed to protest, like Brandon, Manitoba, and Lethbridge, Alberta, where Ukrainian flags were raised at city halls in a show of support.

“Ukrainians being early settlers in Canada have made untold contributions to our province and country,” Alberta MLA Jackie Armstrong-Homeniuk, a Conservative lawmaker representing Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville, told Postmedia last week. “There is grave concern for the future of Ukraine and its people.” 

As Russian bombing intensifies and displaced people continue to flee, concern for Ukrainians’ future is shared across the political spectrum. But much of that concern is accompanied by affirmations of historical narratives about Ukrainians in Canada that conceal the violent history of settler colonialism and undermine efforts toward decolonization. Among those are media reports of First Nations and Métis people recounting how their ancestors helped Ukrainian newcomers adjust to life in the Prairies, trading goods and developing important social alliances with one another.

Challenging the myth of thegood settler”

Over 1.3 million people of Ukrainian descent live in Canada, making up the second largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world, after Russia. When the first Ukrainians arrived in Canada in 1891, many of them homesteaded on Treaty land later granted to them by the Canadian government. Further waves of migration from Ukraine took place after the First and Second World Wars, and finally, in the decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“If you look at the mythology of Ukrainians, of Ukrainian arrival, it truly is the arrival to an empty, barren wilderness where nothing could or should thrive,” said Leah Hrycun, a doctoral student in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. 

“There’s a lot of really romantic stories about how [Ukrainian] folks were saved by Indigenous people, or how they relied on Indigenous people, or, you know, medicines were shared back and forth,” said Hrycun, who studies relationships between Indigenous people and Ukrainians in Treaty 6 territory. “These are lovely stories, but they’re really a very romanticized, very ephemeral view of the relationships between Indigenous peoples and Ukrainian settlers.”

Ukrainian block settlements spanned the Prairies, from central Alberta to southeastern Manitoba. Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta.

Hrycun is far from the only prairie scholar challenging the myth of the good settler.  Métis author and assistant lecturer at the University of Alberta Chelsea Vowel says it’s important to support those impacted by war without misrepresenting historical relations between Ukrainian settlers and Indigenous peoples. 

“In solidarity, people are glorifying Ukrainian presence on these lands” and referring to Ukrainian descendants as “the good settlers,” said Vowel, a former member of the Indigenous Ukrainian Relationship Building Initiative at the University of Alberta. And they’re “not wanting to talk about colonialism at all.”

Throughout the 19th century Indigenous peoples in the Prairies were forced onto reserves amid the coordinated slaughter of bison herds essential to their sovereignty and survival. In the 1870s, Canada purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company and negotiated most of the numbered treaties with First Nations as part of its campaign to clear the plains for construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. This in turn facilitated mass European settlement and resource exploitation, with Ukrainian settlement fanned out across the Prairies in block settlements spanning from central Alberta to southeastern Manitoba.

Initially, predominantly Catholic, Orthodox Christian and Jewish Ukrainian Canadians faced discrimination from the white, English-speaking Protestants who ran the country. This culminated in the internment of more than 8,500 people in camps between 1914 and 1920, when Ukrainians were labelled enemy aliens and had their property confiscated under the War Measures Act. 

Following WWI, as the settler colonial project advanced, Ukrainian Canadians began to be seen as whites in a white supremacist settler society. Hrycun notes that as Ukrainian Canadians became part of white Canada, they did so using Indigenous peoples “as a stepping stone to become whiter.”

Although many Indigenous people in Canada also have Ukrainian ancestors, structural racism has meant that white Ukrainians often do not recognize them as kin.

Solidarity against colonialism everywhere

A recent campaign by Indigenous people on social media to show solidarity with Ukraine using traditional scarves brought these inequalities to the fore. Narratives around shared histories of settlement and discrimination among Ukrainian settlers and Cree, Métis, Anishinaabe, Dakota, and other Indigenous nations were reproduced in the mainstream media.

During a March 1 speech in Ottawa, Métis-Ukrainian Senator Patti LaBoucane-Benson said Indigenous and Ukrainian women bonded over their shared oppression. Ukrainian women gifted the scarves—commonly referred to as babushkas, or kokum scarves—to Indigenous women. 

“These scarves have become symbols of empathy and relationship, resilience and solidarity,” said LaBoucane-Benson. “They are symbols of trade and cooperation between Indigenous people and Ukrainian settlers. They’re symbols of people sharing resources and wisdom, working together and caring for each other.”

While accounts of friendly relations and solidarity are part of the story, they hide Ukrainian settlers’ participation in the historical and ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples. They also entrench settler innocence, says Vowel.

“Indigenous people extending generous readings of relationality with Ukrainian settlers is not the same as settlers denying their position within settler-colonialism,” Vowel recently posted on Twitter. “See it as a challenge to be in better relations, please.”

Some have questioned contradictions in Canada’s support for Ukraine while actively occupying Indigenous lands only to be met with accusations of “whataboutism”—a rhetorical device sometimes used to deflect legitimate criticism.

“It’s interesting how quickly people will drop any pretense of giving a shit about reconciliation or understanding the history of this country when something else big is going on.”

Chelsea Vowel

Critiquing mainstream media coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Cree journalist Rick Harp questioned why the press doesn’t make similar efforts to humanize Indigenous people in Canada when they defend their lands and their nations’ sovereignty.

“Do they take a similar humanizing approach to Indigenous land defenders hit with these heavy paramilitarized police forces coming in, in service to the oil and gas industry?” Harp asked on a recent episode of his Media Indigena podcast. “There’s no virtue or honour imbued in the coverage of those land defenders, and it’s pretty noticeable.”

As Vowel recently wrote, “it isn’t ‘whataboutism’ to say that I am seeing, in real time, the undoing of conversations about Ukrainian settlers’ positions here on the Prairies and their relationship to settler colonialism, in the name of solidarity with Ukraine.”

Attempts to shut down discussion of settler colonialism at opportune times is not only “undoing all of the work we’ve been doing to get settlers to interrogate their positionality—and specifically Ukrainian settlers,” she told The Breach by Zoom from her home in Edmonton. “It’s interesting how quickly people will drop any pretense of giving a shit about reconciliation or understanding the history of this country when something else big is going on.”

Indigenous organizations like the Union of BC Indian Chiefs have spoken out against the violence in solidarity with Ukrainians while also acknowledging ongoing colonial violence in Canada.

“As Indigenous peoples, we fully understand what it is like to have our peoples attacked and our lands and resources stolen at gunpoint,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the UBCIC said in a recent statement. “We strongly condemn Russia’s completely unprovoked, illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine.”

Condemnation of Russia, and of Canadian settler colonialism, are not mutually exclusive, Vowel and others argue. Rather, Vowel says, the simultaneous acknowledgement of support for Ukrainians weathering Vladimir Putin’s war, on one hand, and Canada’s colonial violence against Indigenous peoples, on the other, are necessary for strengthening Indigenous and settler solidarity.

“People who are coming to these lands need to understand that they’re entering a structure of settler colonialism—and we don’t hit pause on that discussion because there’s war,” Vowel says. “If we have this new wave of migration to Canada, Ukrainians are going to be folded into the mythos that Ukrainian descendants have formed here about their identity and presence. And it is too late to speak back to that once it has been established and accepted.”

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