Bohdan Kordan | Change, challenge, and purpose: The future of Ukrainian studies in Canada

Bohdan Kordan

St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan



BOHDAN KORDAN is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Studies at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. He also serves as director of the Prairie Centre for the Study of Ukrainian Heritage. His current research focuses on the politics of state/minority relations in Canada, ethnic conflict, and identity and minority rights issues. His publications in this field include Canada and the Ukrainian Question, 1939–1945: A Study in Statecraft (2001); Enemy Aliens, Prisoners of War: Internment in Canada during the Great War (2002); A Bare and Impolitic Right: Internment and Ukrainian-Canadian Redress (2004), and No Free Man: Canada, the Great War, and the Enemy Alien Experience (2016).


I. The state of Ukrainian studies: A context

In 1983, while working at CIUS as a research associate, I was tasked with writing a report on the state of Ukrainian studies in Canada. The report, “Ukrainian Studies Courses at Canadian Universities: Trends, Prospects and Implications,” conveyed a depressing picture. Academic programs were scarce, course offerings were inadequate, and enrolments vacillated wildly—but not unexpectedly, given the small numbers. I was hopeful that Ukrainian studies could and would survive despite the challenges, if only because there was a healthy crop of academics committed to instruction in this area of research and teaching. As long as there was a dedicated group of scholars and instructors, there was a future for Ukrainian studies, I thought—not a thriving future, but a future nonetheless.

I could not have predicted, however, the public policy shift in advanced education that would take place in the next two decades and its effect on post-secondary education. It was a policy shift that had as its goal increased institutional accountability in an age of public austerity, the consequence of which was the corporatization of universities and all that this entails. We have seen, as a result, the introduction of enrolment quotas, performance reviews, mission/vision statements, strategic and integrated plans, program evaluations, downsizing of faculty, tuition hikes, and the ballooning of administration, ostensibly to help streamline the delivery and effectiveness of teaching programs.

This new direction has had a profound effect on advanced education in general and Ukrainian studies in particular. We all know the story as it relates to Ukrainian studies. It is one that Professor Natalia Pylypiuk has eloquently described in her recent CAS/Facebook post regarding developments at the University of Alberta. At first blush, it seems unimaginable that this could occur at a place where, historically, Ukrainian studies excelled. But, quite frankly, it is to be expected, given the dynamics at work.

It is not just the field of Ukrainian studies that has suffered but, with few exceptions, the entire humanities and social sciences as well. Tenured faculty are being replaced with part-time sessional instructors. Courses are evaluated not on the basis of program needs but on their capacity to attract large enrolments that generate revenue. Programs and even entire departments are being eliminated. At the University of Saskatchewan, which I know best, the prospect of consigning modern-language instruction to the Division of Continuing Education as a community outreach activity was seriously discussed. Political theory in the Department of Political Studies is near elimination as one of four core competencies in the discipline— the result of a reduction in the faculty complement. What was once a proud department of fourteen is now a diminished department of nine, with its graduate program in jeopardy, given the reduction of resources.

These are distressing developments, sadly pointing to the corrosive effect of current conditions on academic programming. Sharing this predicament, the field of Ukrainian studies is now faced with competing for scarce faculty positions that are increasingly defined in terms of program relevance and needs. Instructors are hired according to university and departmental priorities, which necessarily precludes the possibility of a faculty appointment with a Ukrainian specialization. Such hires are seen as exotic and superfluous to programs that are looking to meet the core requirements of a discipline or simply struggling to survive. In a competitive environment, academics with a Ukrainian scholarly focus are neither a likely nor a desirable choice.

The teaching situation at the University of Saskatchewan is especially disappointing because local demographics suggest that, if anywhere, Ukrainian studies should survive and thrive in Saskatoon, where census figures indicate that one in ten individuals self-identifies as Ukrainian (single and multiple origin). The phrase that applies to New York, “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere,” has equal but negative billing when speaking of Ukrainian studies in Saskatoon: “If it can’t work here, it’s likely impossible that it would work anywhere else.” At least that is what we are inclined to believe.

And yet it is not an all-bad-news story. If it were, I would simply declare that we should all “get up and go home.” I do believe, in fact, that there are measures to help address the challenges. The experience at the University of Saskatchewan helps to illustrate what might be done.

II. Ukrainian studies at the University of Saskatchewan: Coping with change

When I first arrived at the University of Saskatchewan in 1993, austerity cuts were well underway. Departments were undergoing a 10-percent reduction in their budgets, and in 1995 departments were instructed to set aside an additional 10 percent for college-wide special appointments to be allocated in areas of designated excellence. This was followed by an additional “tax” in 1997 and 1998. It was clear that traditional programs would not survive this assault, including the existing Ukrainian language and literature program. It was also apparent that if a Ukrainian program were to continue at the U of S, it had to be reimagined on at least two fronts.

First, the circumstances highlighted the importance of creating a Ukrainian studies centre that would serve as a platform for Ukrainian scholarly activity on the University of Saskatchewan campus. Such a centre would guarantee that Ukrainian studies would survive in some form, serving as a backstop in preparation for the inevitable demise and loss of the traditional Ukrainian language and literature program on campus. Financially supported by the community, such a centre also would not be hostage—at least, not at the programming level—to the vagaries of administrative fiat, ensuring some control over the fate of Ukrainian studies on campus. The proposal would be realized in 1998 with the creation of the Prairie Centre for the Study of Ukrainian Heritage (PCUH) at St. Thomas More College (a federated college of the U of S).

Second, it was necessary to advocate for a reworking of the existing Ukrainian language and literature degree program on the U of S campus according to criteria that would recommend it: a program that would be innovative, effective, and sustainable. The PCUH made the case early on for a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary program that would draw on existing resources, be attractive to students, and remain flexible so that it could adapt to changing circumstances. The proposal met with resistance from those who were still committed to a traditional language and literature model and were prepared to fight a losing battle against senior administration in its defence. Without going into the particulars, the existing degree program was discontinued, instructors reassigned, and authority subsequently granted to St. Thomas More College (STM) to create and offer an interdisciplinary minor degree in Ukrainian studies—based on the original proposal. Supported by three faculty members who work under the umbrella of the PCUH, the Ukrainian studies minor follows in the great tradition of Ukrainian studies at the University of Saskatchewan, which in 1944 offered the first university-level Ukrainian language course in North America.

I will be the first to admit that the present situation is not an optimal arrangement. The Ukrainian studies degree, after all, is a minor. But this undertaking, even in its limited form, has prevented Ukrainian studies from completely disappearing at the U of S, as has happened elsewhere in Canada. It has also satisfied the objective of providing undergraduates with an opportunity to learn and study about Ukraine (and the Ukrainian experience generally), albeit in a different format. Consequently, enrolments are healthy and the immediate future is at least stable.

Circumstances, of course, may change, which invariably raises the question of uncertainty. Retirements occur, for instance. But it is precisely the existence of a Ukrainian studies centre that guarantees there will be replacements and potential jobs for future academics. As a functioning, self-sustaining unit that contributes to the scholarly and academic identity of the university, there are compelling reasons for the centre and the minor degree program to be populated with Ukrainian studies instructors/specialists.

This points to the strategic importance of creating centres, institutes, and chairs (broadly defined) across the country. These entities serve as support mechanisms for teaching programs, without which they could easily disappear. I would argue that the announced departure of the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa for St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto is St. Paul University’s loss. But it is also St. Michael’s gain. Ukrainian studies will disappear from the curriculum at St. Paul’s (despite recent claims to the contrary by the resident dean), while the curriculum at the University of Toronto will, conversely, be strengthened. The evidence is clear that centres matter. Who would dispute this, noting the importance of CIUS at the University of Alberta? Would Ukrainian studies be what they are in Edmonton without CIUS? It has served as the catalyst for the growth and development of Ukrainian studies at this fine university. Although today there are challenges at the U of A, the very presence of CIUS gives some assurance that they can be met with proper leadership and support.

III. Rethinking the teaching of Ukrainian studies

The PCUH has helped stabilize the teaching of Ukrainian studies at the University of Saskatchewan. It is considerably less than one would have hoped for, but even so there is potential for more. In this regard, I believe that it is necessary to think of alternatives and different possibilities as ways to provide a rich undergraduate experience that allows students to gain a better appreciation of Ukrainian culture and history while cultivating the next generation of graduate students and scholars. Specifically, what if the emphasis is not on teaching but on learning? Might not the same objectives be achieved? If so, then what needs to be done?

The PCUH is heavily invested in facilitating a variety of learning experiences that have aroused energy and enthusiasm among undergraduate and graduate students. The PCUH, for instance, provides partial financial support for a study-abroad program, “Spring Session in Ukraine,” organized by STM with its partner, the Ternopil National Pedagogical University. The centre also awards stipends for students to participate in this overseas experience. Meanwhile, the PCUH allots an annual operating grant to the Ukrainian Students’ Association to conduct activities on campus that reinforce their understanding and appreciation of Ukrainian culture, history, and identity. In addition, the centre supports and co-sponsors their events, which helps to validate the organization and strengthens the students’ collective sense of identity and purpose. The association currently has 58 members, one of the largest Ukrainian university student groups in the country. Recently, several of them have gone on to serve the community both locally and at the national level.

Learning comes in different formats. It is incumbent on us to recognize the potential of each and assist where we can. This is especially important at the graduate level. The PCUH supports and offers opportunities on a case-by-case basis. Aside from traditional faculty supervision, the PCUH provides funding for Ukrainian thesis topics—work that will define the future research and scholarly orientation of these students. The centre organizes graduate seminars and round tables and facilitates and supports a teaching internship program that sees the placement of a U of S graduate student at Chernivtsi National University in Ukraine. Graduate students are also involved in the centre’s various research projects, programs, and initiatives. These are opportunities that will define and potentially shape the next generation of scholars, without which their exposure to Ukrainian studies as a scholarly enterprise is greatly limited. But again, the emphasis at the PCUH is on learning and not exclusively on teaching, allowing Ukrainian studies to be relevant in the lives of our students in other but no less meaningful ways.

Our task is not simply to train the next crop of scholars but to create, with the resources at hand, a milieu and an experience that will help shape their consciousness and cultivate an awareness that will accompany them throughout their lives. This is possible only because of the creative, innovative, and supportive role that the PCUH has assumed. The PCUH does not describe itself as a “research centre”; neither is it a department or a teaching program. Rather, the PCUH is characterized as an “academic unit” at STM. This ambiguous designation was selected precisely because it allows the centre to do all of the above and more. It is an academic entity committed to research and the dissemination of findings conducted under its auspices. It supports teaching in the field, provides institutional and financial backing for student activities, facilitates and assists graduate work, and engages in outreach to help validate the community by connecting it to the university. This, I believe, is the practical face of Ukrainian studies in the university today, as well as in the future.

IV. Conclusion

Change is afoot. The need to adapt and innovate has now become imperative. The role and importance of centres, institutes, and chairs cannot be overestimated. The issue, however, is to use these as platforms to reimagine and rethink how Ukrainian studies as a learning experience might be delivered under challenging and demanding circumstances.