Monday, December 28, 2009

A short history.

I'm finally settling into life in a small northern town, although it' s not really the true north which is at least 200 miles away. But it is the last real "civilized" community in that the Swan Valley represents the last real agricultural land in the province. Once you drive ten miles north you get into the Boreal forest which consists of stunted pine trees, moss and bogs and thousands of lakes.

Our family even has a lake named after a distant uncle who died on the beaches of Normandy in WWII. Canada has a policy of naming lakes after their war dead and considering there are probably hundreds of thousands of lakes, we still have lots of unnamed lakes.

The north also consists of the Precambrian Shield, which features some of the oldest rock formations in the entire world.  It stretches pretty much through Manitoba's north thru Ontario and Quebec and has a wealth of minerals and precious metals, including a recent find of diamonds that rivals anywhere in the world.

Manitoba is roughly the size of California and Oregon and twice the size of Great Britain. Most interesting is that well over 2/3rds of this is remote wilderness. There are only two highways that wind their way north, and even they end just past the halfway mark.

Historically, Manitoba was the main fur route of the Hudson's Bay Company in the 1700's and still has trappers that work remote wilderness.

My people, the Ukrainians, first migrated here in a period from 1895 to 1911, at 140,000, the largest single migration in Canada's history. Being farmers and peasants, they were welcomed by the Canadian government who wanted the western provinces populated.

But unfortunately, they were victims of discrimination by the British, the Swedes and other WASPS. It wasn't as severe as the American's discrimination of minorities but certainly enough to be noticed. Many Ukrainians who sought work often had to change their names so as to be hired and one Prime Minister said that Canada should "send back the vomit to the country that threw it up".

Nice words, huh.

Being raised in the 50's, I was very much aware of this, and was often embarrassed to say my last name as it was obviously not English. My uncle Fred, a feisty light Communist who sold potato chips and was a hockey scout for the Detroit Red Wings often referred to them as "anglo-saxon bastards".  He lived to be 103. 

And when I was back in Winnipeg in 1998 working on my two movies for Paramount,  Roswell and Dream House, I noticed a strange feeling. 

Everything had changed with regards to Ukrainians. My generation, the first of the previous two generations which included the original settlers and my parent's generation, were baby boomers and many of us were the first to finish high school, go to college and become doctors, lawyers, politicians and even... filmmakers.

Yet I was uncomfortable. The crew excitedly asked me if they could take me to Alicia's, a Ukrainian restaurant in the city. I declined, mostly because I had my share of perogies and cabbage rolls.  I felt it was like an African American being asked to go to a rib joint.

I felt it was condescending.

Yes, things had changed here, things were better for my people, but I found the need of those "anglos" to go overboard in their somewhat well-intended but clumsy attempts to say they liked me. And I felt even more paranoid.

I mentioned this to my producer Steve White, who was Jewish, and we both shared a history of discrimination even though Ukrainians were well-known to discriminate against Jews in the Ukraine and even here.

But I think the only thing I accomplished was making both him and I paranoid.

Maybe it was wrong to think these Anglos were condescending, they seemed sincere, yet it still nagged at me,  maybe it was my problem, some of them told me. We even joked about it, one of my best friends  bought me a Ukrainian style coffee cup signed from "your Anglo-Saxon bastard friend". Yet when I returned to Swan River last Christmas my mother's English neighbor insisted Ukrainians and Jews were never discriminated against.

So now, when I go to restaurants and cafes, and see Ukrainian food on the menu, when 40 years ago, the WASPS wouldn't even consider eating that food, I guess it is better. I just wish they wouldn't continue to tell me how much they love those perogies. Which I've even seen at a Chinese buffet with the incredible name of "Foody Goody".

I lost a lot of my insecurities when I moved to Windsor, across the river from Detroit, going from a small town of 500 people to a metropolitan area of just over 3 million. And I went to school with Italians and French Canadians who were anything but insecure about their heritage. It rubbed off on me and I soon became proud of what I was. Of course the great joke in Canada is that the only thing that unites the country is that everybody hates the WASPS.

Someone once told me Ukrainians and Irish are the same, they forgive but they don't forget.

Old wounds don't disappear.

1 comment:

  1. well spoken Jim - like most of the Irish sons who were sent off to fight the Saxon Hun!!
    But we all love each other these days in the British Isles as they - or we - have found somebody else to hate!!