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Manitoba History: Book Review: Frances Swyripa, Storied Landscapes: Ethno-Religious Identity and the Canadian Prairies

by Peter J. Melnycky
Alberta Culture and Community Services, Edmonton, Alberta

Number 68, Spring 2012

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Frances Swyripa, Storied Landscapes: Ethno-Religious Identity and the Canadian Prairies, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2010, 296 pages ISBN 978-0-88755-720-0, $26.95 (paperback)

In Storied Landscapes University of Alberta history professor Frances Swyripa examines the impact of ethno-religious settlement by European immigrants on the physical and cultural landscape of Canada’s prairie provinces. This mass immigration over a 150-year period was unique in scope and effect within the Canadian experience, producing a remarkably diverse population (p. 6). Swyripa’s study focuses primarily on Ukrainian, Mennonite, Icelandic, Doukhobor, German, Polish, Romanian, Jewish, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and American Mormon settlement on the land along with the religious and cultural expressions that arose as a result. The landscapes explored “are both physical places and places of the mind, the stories, the multilayered, sometimes contested narratives and material legacies that immigrant settler peoples mobilized in shaping and claiming those places” (p. 9).

Swyripa examines multiple issues flowing out of this settlement process, pondering at what point ethno-religious identities and experiences transcended group commentaries to influence the self-image of all westerners and becoming central to Canadian national self-perception in general. She observes the widening spheres of group identity, the process of group domestication of the landscape and the subsequent attachment to the land, the evolving unique regional consciousness and collective memory, the crystallization of founding stories and entrenchment of landmark anniversaries, the commemoration of points of first arrivals, and the emergence of sacred places and sites of secular and religious pilgrimage. She cautions however that her treatise is not a history of the groups per se, but rather an exploration of themes rising from groups cultivating their self images and historic legacies, and readers expecting to find the story “of his or her people will therefore be disappointed.”

The volume is thus an eclectic and selective rather than definitive study, leaving many important stories untold, such as the Icelandic pioneer memorial at Elfross, Saskatchewan, commemorating the Vatnabyggd bloc settlement in the Quill Lakes region, or that of “architect” priest Rev. Philip Ruh O.M.I., a native of Alsace-Lorraine who adopted the Ukrainian Catholic eastern rite, and singlehandedly imprinted the western Canadian landscape with his “prairie cathedrals” and devotional shrines. Receiving no mention at all are early examples of conservation and commemoration efforts such as the pioneer earthen shelters or “Buddas” of Ukrainian pioneers reconstructed by Michael Swistun and donated to the Rural Municipality of Rossburn in Manitoba, or the Ukrainian Pioneer House erected by the Ukrainian Pioneers Association at Elk Island National Park. Similarly absent is the Negrych Homestead north of Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, a municipally owned resource designated provincially and nationally as the oldest and most complete Ukrainian vernacular homestead complex in that province.

The focus of this book is on the original and fading footprints on the landscape. The preservation and interpretation of buildings individually, or within collective amalgams such as the Arborg and District Multicultural Heritage Village and the Mennonite Heritage Village, both in Manitoba, and the National Doukhobor Heritage Village in Saskatchewan, receive only passing attention. This is unfortunate in that these institutions play a key role in relaying the stories of western Canada’s landscape. The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village in Alberta, for instance, has an outstanding record of systematically studying, conserving and commemorating the imprint of Ukrainian settlement, through the preservation and interpretation of original representative buildings as well as through commemorative memorials. Noteworthy in this regard are the “Pioneer Family” monument, the Centenary Pioneer Recognition Monument, the monument to Dr. Josef Oleskow (champion of the emigration of Ukrainians to Canada), the memorial commemorating the internment of Ukrainians in Canada during the Great War, a cenotaph to Ukrainian Canadian servicemen, the Chernobyl Commemorative Cross and the monument to Vasyl Stefanyk (the western Ukrainian writer whose short story masterpiece Kaminnyi khrest [Stone Cross] immortalized the story of Ukrainian immigration to Canada). More importantly, the Village commemorates the specific story of “founding father” Ivan Pylypow, through the preservation and interpretation of his circa 1928 dwelling.

By excluding urban areas from her analysis, the author creates an artificial divide between urban and rural dwellers. While she crosses this divide at will to discuss aspects of the Icelandic and Jewish communities especially, she largely avoids mention of the symbiotic relations between urban and rural Ukrainians in cities such as Winnipeg and Edmonton. As a result, such striking imprints of commemoration as the trio of Ukrainian memorials erected on a major thoroughfare in Winnipeg’s Point Douglas between 1942 and 1944 are overlooked. The first was a stone cairn dedicated to Ukrainian Canadian Heroes [“Heroiam ukraintsiam kanadiiskym”] and “their brothers in arms” fighting in the Second World War, topped with a statue of Archangel Michael extending a laurel wreath. A similar cairn commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first Ukrainian settlers to Canada was crowned with a cross and plow. The third monument depicted Ukrainian clergyman and writer, Rev. Markian Shaskevych on the centennial of his death. It was the first of a number of tributes to Ukrainian literary figures, which would be erected throughout the west, followed by monuments to Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Vasyl Stefanyk and Lesia Ukrainka.

The author demonstrates on several occasions that reading the stories of the landscape is not always a straightforward matter. Although the Ukrainians were separated over the centuries by numerous political boundaries, there was nonetheless a common overlapping heritage. The major source of Ukrainian immigration to Canada had been part and parcel of the same Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth in which the Kozak state was formed, whose army laid siege to all of western Ukrainian lands and whose Hetmans included Petro Konashevych- Sahaidachny, born in ethnographic territory west of where most Ukrainian prairie settlers arrived from. This Kozak heritage is regarded by Ukrainians as a common patrimony as are Soviet rule and Stalin’s assault against the Ukrainian nation during the genocidal Holodomor of 1932–1933 (p. 213). None is foreign or out of place among Ukrainians in the prairie west, as implied by the observation that the famine and Soviet tyranny “never personally touched the families of pioneers with origins in western Ukraine.”

Storied Landscapes relays many fascinating aspects of the ethno-religious experience on the prairies ranging from the venerated German Catholic Marian shrines of Saskatchewan, to the commemoration of the tragic mass burial of forty Ukrainian children and two adult settlers stricken by scarlet fever at Patterson Lake Manitoba in 1899, to the commemoration of farm toponyms and the heartfelt re-enactment of their first landings at Willow Point by Manitoba’s Icelanders, to the unique discussions within the Mennonite community on the inherent complicity of prairie immigrant settlers in the dislocation of aboriginal peoples from the western landscape.

Swyripa offers a broad-ranging sweep of analysis which leaves much room for discussion, disagreement on observations or challenging of conclusions, yet all along one is struck by the wealth of material and contemplation presented. This stimulating book should not be judged on its omissions or particular interpretations, but rather for the insights it offers and the invitation it extends for all to explore the intricate tales seeded in the rich and storied landscape, which is the human history of western Canada.

Page revised: 25 April 2021

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