Natalia Khanenko-Friesen | Ukrainian-Canadian Studies are an Exploration of the Ukrainian-Canadian ‘Legacy’ from a Given Disciplinary Perspective

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen

St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan



NATALIA KHANENKO-FRIESEN is a professor of Cultural Anthropology at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. Among her publications are three essay collections, most recently Reclaiming the Personal: Oral History in Post-Socialist Scholarship (2015), and two monographs, Ukrainian Otherlands: Diaspora, Homeland and Folk Imagination in the 20th Century (2015) and The Other World or Ethnicity in Action: Canadian Ukrainianness at the End of the 20th Century (2011).
Dr. Khanenko-Friesen is the founding director of the Oral History Program at the Prairie Centre for Ukrainian Heritage at the University of Saskatchewan and an inaugural editor of Engaged Scholar Journal: Community-Engaged Research, Teaching and Learning, a Canadian scholarly journal on community-university collaborative scholarship.



I will first present my general understanding of the field of Ukrainian-Canadian studies. Then I will discuss the challenges and dimensions of the field; and finally, I will focus on the pursuit of Ukrainian-Canadian studies in Ukraine, given the presence of experts in the field there.

Parameters of the field

As an anthropologist, I cannot escape my own disciplinary lenses as I consider Ukrainian-Canadian studies. To me it is a unique cultural phenomenon, a social field with its internal dynamics and agents. A short definition can be offered here: Ukrainian-Canadian studies are an exploration of the Ukrainian-Canadian “legacy” from a given disciplinary perspective. This legacy can be defined differently, narrowly or broadly. We can follow up on at least two possibilities here. We can speak about Ukrainian studies or the Ukrainian legacy, culture, history in Canada, and that is often the pursuit of so many of us. But we can also think of the Ukrainian-Canadian legacy in broader terms and operate with the adjective “Ukrainian-Canadian” through the hyphen, [as applied to] Ukrainian-Canadian ethnicity, culture, heritage, history, and society.

In my opinion, this second perspective opens new opportunities for us that involve comparative analysis and dialogue with other areas, such as regional studies, diaspora studies, ethnic studies, and so on.

An important point is that Ukrainian-Canadian studies is always a multidisciplinary pursuit, unfolding within various scholarly domains, such as history, folklore, geography, arts, sociology, anthropology, political studies, and so on. In addition to the list, which is more extensive than presented here, we work at intersections of such fields as public history and local history, and that brings a lot of uniqueness into what we do, especially when it comes down to dialoguing and conversing about what we do with colleagues outside our field.

We can continue working on the most suitable definition of our field, but all in all, Ukrainian-Canadian studies are about Ukrainian-Canadian content and an interdisciplinary approach, angle, methods, and perspective used in the analysis of such content.

This positions us as scholars in a unique way, because oftentimes as discipline-bound scholars we have responsibilities and obligations lying outside specifically Ukrainian-Canadian study areas. When considered in the context of university-based academic studies, I dare say that Ukrainian-Canadian studies are actually on the margins of both: on the margins of Ukrainian studies and of the disciplines in which we pursue our research. I do not foresee in the near future in my university, for example, a program focusing singularly on Ukrainian-Canadian content as such. When we have resources on campuses, we build Ukrainian studies first, and within Ukrainian studies we work on other topics housed under the umbrella of Ukrainian studies in general. This structural marginality presents various challenges to scholars engaged in the pursuit of Ukrainian-Canadian studies. Not to sound too pessimistic, I would like to add that being on the margin also presents opportunities.

At the same time, in spite of this marginal status in our academic settings, in public universities, this field of scholarship is extremely important to the Ukrainian-Canadian community, which financially supports this area of studies and is interested in its continuity and outcomes. That ultimately defines what we do, how we do it, and how we also navigate the two domains, the university and the “community.”

This brings me to an important point. This field, Ukrainian-Canadian studies, is an excellent example of what nowadays scholars call community-engaged scholarship. Community-engaged scholarship is being actively pursued these days in the established academia, especially in the social sciences and humanities. It is a broad and multidisciplinary area of exploration and a growing field. Over the last two or three decades it has grown to become a recognized field, with a mandate to pursue scholarship and research in partnership and collaboration with communities. Ukrainian-Canadian studies grew precisely out of this agenda, therefore our field can be considered a precursor of this “novel” direction in contemporary scholarship. We, as scholars of Ukrainian-Canadian studies, are in the avant-garde of such scholarly pursuits in Canada. This has not yet been yet discussed in the fullest sense in the field of community-engaged scholarship—something for us to do.

Ukrainian-Canadian studies are shaped at the intersection of both academia and community, not only in terms of who orders the music and who plays it, but rather in a complex synergetic relationship between these two fields. It is academy-based scholarship on one hand, and on the other hand it is community-based scholarship. We understand that we pursue our scholarship very much in collaboration with and dialogue between these two fields. Oftentimes it is very hard to draw a line between them, something that puzzles our university administrations from campus to campus. And sometimes we actually manage to enlighten our administrations, especially when they also embrace this rich formula of scholarly pursuit referred to as “community-engaged scholarship.”

At the University of Saskatchewan, we also teach in the field of Ukrainian-Canadian studies, perhaps more than on some other campuses in Canada where Ukrainian studies are being pursued. It is in teaching that we recognize the importance of the bridge between community-based and academy-based scholarship. Not only do we benefit from the community because we research it and bring students into it, but we realize that what we do and whom we teach at the university can be of benefit to the museums, archival institutions, and local cultural Ukrainian-Canadian organizations.

Where are we, geographically?

We speak of Ukrainian-Canadian studies predominantly as unfolding in Canada, but they are also pursued elsewhere. Interestingly, we have a burgeoning field of Ukrainian-Canadian studies, though maybe not conceived exactly in those terms, in Ukraine as well. I will return to this point later.

In Canada, when it comes to research topics, we also see a certain divide between western and central/eastern Canada. When I talk to my students, I often begin exploring complex ideas with the question, “What comes to mind when you hear such-and-such a concept or notion?” So, what answers might come to our minds when the same type of question is asked with respect to the phrase “Ukrainian-Canadian studies”? For Ukrainians in western Canada, the answer might focus on the “founders” or early Ukrainian settlers, the so-called “pioneers.” Their history is predominantly what has been intriguing people in western Canada and Ukraine. But the Ukrainian-Canadian legacy is larger than that. Whenever I travel to the eastern parts of Canada and have an opportunity to present my own understanding of what Ukrainian-Canadian studies are, I get to hear how oftentimes what is pursued in Canada’s west excludes the experiences and reflections on what it means to be Ukrainian-Canadian in the east. This divide needs to be dealt with.

Our audiences

Another important question for us to ask is, “Who are our audiences”? Obviously, we work to fulfill the needs of certain categories of people out there. Students come to mind first, at least in my world, and the Ukrainian-Canadian community is next. Different approaches are required to communicate the complexities of the field to one group, such as students, and the findings and products of our work to Ukrainian-Canadian community audiences. Then there are other scholars outside and inside Canada. We should remember that we also reach out to other audiences outside the Ukrainian-Canadian context. Our audiences are global these days, thanks to the electronic distribution of our research findings.

I recently had an opportunity to present a couple of my projects on Ukrainian-Canadian topics in Lisbon, Portugal, and I was surprised how much interest was generated by what I had to say at the University of Lisbon to the faculty and students at the Institute of Geography and Area Studies (IGOT), the people who research and explore diasporic/ethnic culture situations similar to the Ukrainian-Canadian one anywhere else in the world. As specialists in Ukrainian-Canadian studies, we have a lot to share cross-culturally, and we probably should be doing more in this regard.


We have challenges, of course. I have already mentioned the first challenge that we are dealing with—the marginality of our field in the academy. The second challenge is related to our job responsibilities. Some of us are full-time Ukrainian-Canadianists, but others, because of work obligations, are only part-time scholars of Ukrainian-Canadian studies, myself included. The Ukrainian-Canadian focus in my work is just one of several agendas I pursue as a scholar. How much time can someone like me devote to the pursuit of Ukrainian-Canadian topics? The third challenge has to do with the multidisciplinary nature of Ukrainian studies. Because we work in different disciplines, we face a certain dispersal of our scholarly outcomes. Someone in history may miss reading a sociological study, and someone in religious studies may not come upon work published in a folklore journal. The fourth challenge is the diversity of audiences I have already mentioned. We gear our work toward a particular audience, and this may affect an outcome message and its availability to those interested. We have the fifth challenge of record-keeping. It is easier to track works that focus exclusively on Ukrainian-Canadian topics. Comparative scholarship sometimes escapes our bibliographies and is not easily profiled in reviews and surveys of our field. The sixth challenge would be dealing with the ebb-and-flow nature of our self-reflection. Opportunities for shared conceptualization and joint reflection on what constitutes the field come rarely. It is at conferences like this—thank you, CIUS—that we have an opportunity to reassert our own identity as a field.

Next decade

So, what are the primary foci of Ukrainian studies in the next decade? The production of scholarly knowledge should continue in dialogue with various constituencies, institutions, and cultural groups. We should continue working in dialogue with Indigenous peoples and other ethnic cultures in Canada. We have heard from the director of CIUS that the Institute neighbours with Indigenous studies. Is there an opportunity to explore potential collaborative work between these two Canadian fields of study to reflect on ethnic/Indigenous relationships in Canada? For example, a comparative perspective is effectively embraced by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC). Within the field of Ukrainian-Canadian studies we should also be more open to comparative analysis and research.

The dialogue needs to continue with the community, as much scholarship takes place in non-academic settings. And we should recognize the validity of community-based scholarship as well. The dialogue also needs to continue between eastern Canadian and western Canadian visions of what the Ukrainian-Canadian legacy is about.

In addition, we need to be better at networking and capacity building. It is often challenging to maintain and sustain viable scholarly associations, but networking among research institutions engaged in Ukrainian-Canadian studies is important. An international Ukrainian-Canadian studies network with an active online presence would be very good to establish.

I believe we also need to continue attracting not just Ukrainian-Canadian students, who often gravitate to us because of their innate interest in what we do, but also students from elsewhere in order to promote comparative research. Such work has already taken place. What comes to mind is the thesis defended at the U of A some time ago by Aya Fujiwara, who compared, I believe, Swedes, Japanese, and Ukrainians—an excellent piece of scholarship. We also had examples of comparative scholarship in the folklore program at the U of A, to which Korean, Bulgarian, and other students came from far away to explore Ukrainian-Canadian culture. This is a good practice that helps us improve our capabilities.

In terms of knowledge production, we need to continue digging into all still accessible layers of Ukrainian-Canadian culture via folklore studies, ethnic history, public history, local history, oral history, and so on. We need to embrace the digital humanities in earnest, not only as a tool for the digitization of our archival sources but also as a method of scholarly research that can be supported by various grants outside Ukrainian-Canadian sources. The digital humanities also offer unique opportunities to mine and explore data, as is done in literary studies. More research on the post-1991 Ukrainian immigration and its social mobilization would also be useful. Wsevolod Isajiw’s work was done some time ago, and this immigrant wave continues to grow. Recent events in Ukraine triggered significant mobilization within the latest wave of immigration, and this should also be explored and documented.

In terms of knowledge dissemination and field popularization, we need to publish not only in peer-reviewed printed and not generally accessible periodicals but also in open-access periodicals. Such periodicals are growing, and they allow us to disseminate our knowledge in the most effective way because it is easily accessible. Many of us habitually publish in scholarly venues that do not allow free access to our publications and texts. As a result, the field of Ukrainian-Canadian studies suffers from lack of access.

Ukrainian-Canadian studies in Ukraine

Though traditionally Ukrainian-Canadian studies have been unfolding in Canada, a lot is happening in Ukraine as well. A number of institutions in Ukraine are pursuing scholarship with a focus on Ukrainian-Canadian studies in one way or another.

For the purpose of our conversation today, I have gathered some information on the state of Ukrainian-Canadian studies in Ukraine. With the help of my colleague in Ukraine Tetiana Voropaieva and my graduate student Iryna Kozina, we mined the institutional and various online library resources to assemble and analyze scholarly works on Ukrainian-Canadian topics published in post-1991 Ukraine.

To understand the dynamics of Ukrainian-Canadian studies in Ukraine, it is useful to look at candidate and doctoral dissertations. Dissertation production in Ukraine is sui generis, and we can speculate that the quality of these works varies. Most dissertations may be expected to utilize secondary rather than primary sources. Of the forty theses produced in the last twenty-five years (1991–2016), two were doctoral, and the rest candidate-level.

Another way to evaluate the field would be to look at the production of monographs. What we have gathered so far, about twenty publications, includes not only scholarly monographs but other books as well. We see works on Ukrainian-Canadian topics appearing in periodicals. Some of this work is collaborative between Canadian and Ukrainian scholars. What is important is that all this writing is accessible to other local researchers. Works produced in Canada are commonly published in English, and work done in Ukraine is produced in Ukrainian. The distribution is probably very straightforward, but you also see the growth of the field and increasing interest in Ukrainian-Canadian studies outside traditional centres such as Lviv, Chernivtsi, and Kyiv. Ukrainian-Canadian topics are also explored in such places as Zaporizhia, Sumy, Kharkiv, and possibly others.

In addition to monographs and dissertations published in Ukraine that focus on Ukrainian-Canadian topics, nearly three hundred have appeared in various conference proceedings, periodicals, and collections. Every year brings a greater number of such articles.

All in all, Ukrainian-Canadian studies in Ukraine are very dynamic, involving many individuals. Some incorporate Canadian scholarship and collaborate with colleagues in Canada, but others rely solely on secondary sources.

In conclusion

Ukrainian-Canadian studies have been unfolding in Canada for a long time. This has proved to be one of the early forms of community-university engaged forms of scholarship. In the next decade, Ukrainian-Canadian studies should focus on comparative and collaborative forms of research involving other cultural groups in Canada and elsewhere. They should focus more on the latest wave of immigration and embrace the digital humanities as a new research tool. Over the last 25 years or so, the Ukrainian-Canadian studies have also grown as a field in Ukraine.

In the next decade and beyond let us continue what we are doing, but in dialogue with many other constituencies in order to better promote and disseminate our scholarship, and build a stronger position for ourselves in humanities and social sciences.