Memorable Manitobans: Borislaw Nicholas Bilash (1929-2021)
Educator, linguist, author.
Born at Winnipeg on 9 May 1929, elder son of teachers Nicholas Bilash and Mary Waroway (1904-1990), his childhood was spent at Ward and later Dauphin. His parents gave him a knowledge and appreciation of his Ukrainian heritage and the Ukrainian language. During his early childhood his parents taught in areas of Manitoba where Ukrainian customs and traditions were maintained. He completed his primary education under the tutelage of his parents and then his secondary education at the Dauphin Collegiate Institute, graduating in 1944 at the age of fifteen.
Following a summer of intensive pedagogical training at United College, he worked as a “permit teacher”, answering the call to serve as a civilian in the schools where regular teachers were serving in the Canadian armed services. He taught at Morranville School (1944-1945) and Belle Creek School (1945-1946). Later, he attended the Manitoba Normal School and worked as a teacher and principal at St. Germain School (1949-1951) and Lavallee School (1951-1953). He also spent a year teaching at Assiniboine School (1953-1954).
In 1954, he transferred to the Winnipeg School Division and served there for thirty-two years, first as a classroom teacher at Margaret Scott School (1954-1955), Lord Selkirk School (1955-1962) and Sisler High School (1963-1969), then a specialist in Ukrainian and Department Head in Special Education. In 1969, he was appointed Assistant Coordinator of Languages with particular responsibility for languages, other than English and French, where he was instrumental in laying the foundation for what would become the Ukrainian Bilingual Program in Manitoba schools. After a change in the system he became Consultant for Multiculturalism and Modern Languages, serving until retirement in December 1984.
While working in the Winnipeg School Division, he returned for further education, receiving degrees in Arts (BA 1956) and Education (BEd 1957, MEd 1960) at the University of Manitoba. In the second year of his Arts program, he was awarded a prize for proficiency in the Ukrainian language. After receiving his Masters degree, he studied Slavic languages in Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Munich, receiving a PhD in Slavic Philology from the Ukrainian Free University in Munich in 1965. He continued his studies and later was awarded the degree of Doctor Habilitatus (1971).
In direct connection with his work, Dr. Bilash served for twenty-five years as member and later Chairman of the Ukrainian Curriculum Committee of the Manitoba Department of Education, preparing programs without which the teaching of Ukrainian in Manitoba would have been impossible. When the teaching of Ukrainian was being extended to the junior high grades, he was Chairman of the inter-provincial committee in charge of the preparation of the materials known as “Ukrainian by the Audio-visual Method”. When there was rumour that Ukrainian would be extended to the elementary level, he co-authored “Ukrainska Rozmova – Pochatkowy Kurs” Volumes I & II, and when it seemed to be moving to the primary level, he prepared “Ukrainska Mova – Ochyma Dytyny”. His weekly series “Ukrainian with Ease”, published in the Ukrainian-Canadian newspaper Postup-Progress, was authorized by the Department of Education as an introductory text in junior high grades on condition that it be printed in book form.
Dr. Bilash also served on the Advisory Board to the Manitoba Minister of Education. During the summer of 1962-1964, he took time out to depict the Canada-wide Higher-Education Courses of the Ukrainian Cultural and Education Centre. He was also Vice-Chairman of the Curatorium of Ukrainian Catholic School and Chief Inspector of such schools. Later, he was a founding member of the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) International Educational Coordinating Council (IECC) serving as its first chairperson and president of the National Centre of Ukrainian Educational Councils of Canada. For several years he served as lecturer in the Faculty of Education of the University of Manitoba, providing instruction in the Methodology of Teaching Ukrainian and in Ukrainian Curriculum Development. Working with Paul Yuzyk and Jaroslav Bohdan Rudnyckyj, he promoted the cause of multiculturalism in Canada as a sociological fact. In 1964, when Canadians debated if Canada was a bicultural or multicultural nation, Dr. Bilash drew attention to the narrow view of bilingualism and biculturalism and was quoted in newspapers across Canada as saying: “To a Ukrainian in Manitoba, bilingualism means the use of Ukrainian and the dominant language, English”.
Besides Ukrainian language materials, he wrote such works at “Bilingual schools in Manitoba 1897-1916, “Canadianism and their Stylistic Functions in the Language of Ukrainian Canadian Authors”, “English-Ukrainian Education in the Public Schools of Manitoba”. His work was not limited to promoting the Ukrainian language, but supported German and other heritage language development as well. He co-authored “Polska mova – Oczyma dziecka. Vol. I & II”, and “Polska Rozmova – Poczatkowy kurs, Vol. I&II” and a wide variety of articles on topics related to language, culture, Ukrainian-Canadian history, language methodology, etc. He spoke on these topics at conferences in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Ukraine, Netherlands (Leewarden), Germany (Munich, Baden-Baden), Mexico (Acapulco), Detroit, New-York, etc. He was editor of the Manitoba Modern Language Journal for 25 years, Manitoba Heritage Review, Ukrainian Students Review, and Ukrainian Teacher in Canada.
In coordinating the work of teachers, Dr. Bilash helped to form and served on various language associations. He co-founded the Manitoba Modern Language Association, the Canadian Association of Teachers of Ukrainian, and the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers, of which he was honored as a life member. He was a member of a number of professional organizations, including the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Canada and the Shevchenko Scientific Society. He also served on the Advisory Committee to Manitoba Parents for Ukrainian Education (MPUE) and was a director of the Canadian Foundation for the Ukrainian Free University. His interest and activities were many and they did not ease with retirement. They included languages, multiculturalism and etymology, onomastics, genealogy, and Ukrainian Canadian history.
In recognition of his contributions to the promotion of Ukrainian language and culture in Canada, he was described in 2007 by the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada as “the patriarch of the Ukrainian language in Canada.” He received a Prix Manitoba Award (2002), Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012), Shevchenko Medal from the National Executive of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, New Millennium Multiculturalism Award, and Bulava Award from the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Manitoba Chapter (2018). He was appointed an Honorary Member of the Senate of the Ukrainian Free University at Munich, Germany.
While attending the Manitoba Normal School, he met fellow teacher Dorothy Agnes Ukena (1927-2023) and later married her. They had four children, all of whom grew up speaking Ukrainian as their first language. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren have continued this practice.
“Engagement notices [Mr. and Mrs. Frederick W. Ukena],” Winnipeg Free Press, 21 August 1951, page 12.
“St. Vladimir and Olga choir attends bridal,” Winnipeg Free Press, 14 September 1951, page 17.
“Ukrainian rebel at biculturalism,” Ottawa Citizen, 31 January 1964, page 37.
“Ukrainians want equal rights for language in Manitoba schools,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 3 February 1964, page 10.
“Canadian Multiculturalism and the Teaching of the Non-Official Languages in Manitoba,” The Quality of Life: Systems Approaches Proceedings of the International Congress on Applied Systems Research and Cybernetics, 1981, pages 350-355.
Vertical Development - A New Generation of Ukrainian Canadians, Volume 1, by Michael Ewanchuk, 2000.
We thank Dorothy A. Bilash and Borislaw Bilash II for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 11 March 2023