Archival photos will tell the tale of Ukrainian immigrants at exhibit

art exhibit
Photo of a young girl called Strong and Free? and sculptures that will be exhibited at ACT Arts Centre/Photo Supplied

Three female artists of Ukrainian ancestry are ready to exhibit their works at the ACT Arts Centre starting this Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. 

The exhibit, Labour & Memory-Ukrainian-Canadian Contexts will showcase artworks in different mediums including sculpture, printmaking, archival photos, moving images and more. 

Sonya Iwasiuk, 51, is one of the three artists. Her art includes various mediums, but, for this exhibition, she will showcase photos of early Ukrainian immigrants to Canada. 

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Through this exhibit, people will have the opportunity to learn about the longstanding history between Ukraine and Canada. 

Iwasiuk will be showcasing archival photos of Ukrainian immigrants arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax. 

Women and children at the forefront

artist in the gallery
Sonya stands in the middle of the photo scrolls/Photo Supplied

Coincidentally, most of her photos are of children and women. 

“It wasn’t deliberate but I was raised by a single mother and I have a lot of respect for the women in my life so maybe that’s why. I also wanted to focus on people who are sometimes overlooked,” she said. 

During her research, she found that most archival documents tend to focus on men and forget about children and women who worked hard and were an integral part of building homesteads, too. 

“A lot of times when people think of homesteads they think of men. Maybe it’s time to focus on women and children.” 

Through her work, she wants people to see that we are all immigrants, on Indigenous land and help understand the turmoil war and migration bring. 

Canada’s dark history 

Contrary to mainstream coverage of the war in Ukraine, in Canadian history, they were considered “the lowest of the low,” she shared. 

“What I have found in my research is that [Ukrainians] were thought to be farmers that came over who were uneducated, poor, had a strange culture and dressed funny. All of these things made people think they were almost like animals,” Iwasiuk added. 

Ironically, they were not considered people who looked or dressed like everyone else. 

“The dumping down of these penniless and ignorant foreigners into progressive and intelligent communities is a serious hardship to such a community. These people bring with them disease in almost every consignment…and their dirty habits render the stamping out of infection among them a very difficult matter.” This is a news clipping from Winnipeg Nor-Wester 1897 about the Ukrainian Immigrants. 

The first immigrants from Ukraine 

working on art
Sonya Iwasiuk works away at her art piece/Photo Supplied

The first Ukrainian immigrants (estimated to be 150,000) arrived in Canada between 1891 and 1914, before the first World War began. 

According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census, nearly four per cent of the Canadian population is Ukrainian, making it the 11th largest ethnic group in the country. 

But their history is no different than many ethnic minorities in the country. 

During the First World War, they were put into labour camps which resulted in the loss of land and possessions. 

It wasn’t until 2001 that Canada’s Bill C-331 acknowledged the injustices committed against Ukrainians during the world war. 

Resilience and the Moon 

portrait of mother with children
A Ukrainian mother with her children as they arrive in Canada/Photo Supplied

Iwasiuk shared that her favourite photo from the collection is Resilience and the Moon. 

It shows a strong mother with her children, facing hardships in front of her. 

Another favourite is called “Strong and Free?” which shows a young, stoic-looking girl. 

The girl is too young to be feeling that way and has to stand up to the world. But she looks like she’s going to make it, Iwasiuk added. 

On the contrary, there is a photo of a young boy who looks meek and vulnerable. Adding this photo to the exhibit was a deliberate decision. 

“I wanted to show this side of migration, too. It’s a journey and it’s a difficult one to make. There are sometimes rats and domesticated animals and body fluids in the boats because they move so much. I can’t imagine experiencing that as an adult, let alone as a child,” she said. 

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