Monday, March 30, 2009

Robitnytsia - A Source for Ukrainian Canadian Women's History

I am a young mother with my afternoons free...
I would dearly love to learn to speak and write Ukrainian...
My mother is Ukrainian but she no longer speaks her native tongue.
This area has a lot of Ukrainian people that I would love to talk to,
but most of them do not speak English.

'Dear Doris', Doris Clark columnist, The Brandon Sun,
Manitoba, Canada, Tuesday, 23 March 1965, p. 5

Dear Doris's answer to "U By D" was very positive about this young woman's proposal to assist an older neighbour with his English while learning some Ukrainian from him. Doris also pointed out how many resources for learning Ukrainian were then available in the community. This was a far cry from earlier years, I suspect, when both mother and daughter may have been forbidden or at least strongly encouraged to speak only English. But did this young mother's children learn Ukrainian? How will that affect their future family history pursuits?

Despite Doris's optimistic answer, according to Census Canada, while in 1971, 309,890 Canadians said their first language was Ukrainian, in 2001, there were only 157,385 and in 2006, only 141,805 native Ukrainian speakers. The language groups that showed the largest data in 1971 – German, Italian, Ukrainian and Polish – for the last 35 years are no longer among the list of top immigration sources. (Note 1) The children of these earlier immigrants in the main now have English or French as their first language, although some children in my grandson's generation, especially in Manitoba, I understand, are going to Ukrainian schools.

Because I have become interested in Eastern European born family connections, I have been reading articles and books and researching Internet sources. This month to celebrate International Women's Day, I chose to read Frances Swyripa's book, Wedded to the Cause, about Ukrainian-Canadian women.

Her's is not a detailed timeline or history of women and women's organizations. She makes it clear from the start that her goal is to examine ideas, not necessarily everyday reality. However, she does give many examples of events, and of practical matters, as well as attitudes within and without Ukrainian-Canadian communities which directly affected women's lives.
Much of her information came from historical periodicals and newspapers. She reports that in March, 1937, for instance, muddy roads kept the women of the Ranfurly, Alberta branch of the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA), a left wing political organization, from attending their own International Women's Day event. (Note 2)

Some of her information comes from Robitnytsia, "a semi-monthly magazine for Workingwomen. Organ of the Workingwomen's Section of U.L.F.T.A.", published in Manitoba, Canada. I wanted to have a look at the magazine myself, if possible. Although I do not read Ukrainian, I thought I might get a sense of its content and I could always copy anything of interest and have that translated. Swyripa does have some information about the magazine's history, its (all male) editors and the kind of articles it carried, as does Joan Sangster in an article about the magazine noted below.

I found that Simon Fraser University in Burnaby had a microfilm copy and viewing it, I was immediately struck by how often photographs of women, mostly young women, were included (and how well these had been reproduced on the film). Many issues have names of letter writers and subscribers or contributors, as well as articles about social and political matters, science, jokes and poems, and apparently recipes. And this magazine was for a North American audience. Although I'm most interested in Canada, groups in the United States were mentioned.

How many people doing their family history will look for grandma or great grandma in these kind of publications though?

First, although these particular magazines have been microfilmed, they are mainly available only at university libraries or by purchase. Second, almost everything in them is written in Ukrainian - that's why I looked for statistics on Ukrainian native speakers in Canada. Most of the Ukrainian-Canadians I know my age or younger do not read Ukrainian at all, even if they speak some. And third, this particular publication was highly political and at least a few people I know don't seem to want to investigate their family members' political backgrounds. (This doesn't apply only to Ukrainian-Canadians, of course.)

The Multicultural History Society of Ontario, which microfilmed Robitnytsia and its predecessor, Holos robitnytsi (Voice of the Working Woman) in the 1970s, has partnered with Simon Fraser University of Burnaby, British Columbia in the university's MultiCultural Canada digitization projects. However, although there are some Ukrainian resources being included in that collection, these publications are not among them.

And, as far as I can learn, there are no genealogical/historical indexes publically available for Robitnytsia or Holos robitnytsi. This ought to be remedied and soon.
It is almost a constant refrain of mine that so few historical labour, political and 'ethnic' newspapers and magazines are being made available digitally, even though many Canadian publications like these have been available on microfilm for decades.

If you have an interest in any of these photographs, please contact me.

And in this case, I feel it is especially sad. Sometimes it seems there are so few historical sources about women, particularly regarding early immigrants to Canada, and to politics and community action. These publications ought to be more widely accessible.

This is where the co-operation of a genealogical society could be vital, first, if the group has an Eastern European or Ukrainian Special Interest Group, in finding readers or translators as requested, second, by making references to these kind of publications better known to its members and others, and third, by encouraging the indexing and digization of this kind of publication for research use.
This post was written for the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy.

Robitnytsia (Workingwoman). 15 March, 1924-August 1937. Microfilm, Multicultural History Society of Ontario [MHSO]: Toronto, Microfilm Recording Co., 1972. 7 reels, 35 mm. Chiefly Ukrainian, some English. Organ of the Workingwomen's Section of Ukrainian Labor Temple Association, originally published in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Holos robitnytsi (Voice of the working woman). January/February 1923-February/March 1924. Microfilm, Multicultural History Society of Ontario [MHSO]:
Originally published in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, monthly.

Wedded To The Cause: Ukrainian-Canadian Women and Ethnic Identity 1891-1991 by Frances Swyripa (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1993)

"Robitnytsia, Ukrainian Communists, and the 'Porcupinism' Debate: Reassessing Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in Early Canadian Communism, 1922–1930" by Joan Sangster. Labour/Le Travail .56 (2005): 63 pars. 31 Mar. 2009 - Available on-line:

MultiCultural Canada, Simon Fraser University:

Note 1. "The Evolving Linguistic Portrait, 2006 Census: Sharp increase in population with a mother tongue other than English or French", Statistics Canada:

Note 2. Wedded To The Cause, Frances Swyripa, 1993, p. 161. Citing Ukrainian Canadian, March 1972, pp. 20-1 and June 1978, pp. 15-19. [Another publication to look at - originally published in Toronto, Ontario, Canada from 1947-1991. Microfilmed by MHSO.]

1 comment:

Pawlina said...

Thanks for this post. Very valuable info!

I've been researching immigrant women from this era for a novel I've been working on since the beginning of time.... and there isn't much out there, especially in English.

So knowing about this publication is enormously helpful. Thanks again!