Ukrainian Language in Canada

By: Nico Mjones, Student in Applied Linguistics MA and Certificate in Curatorial Studies / CLM Intern

Canada is home to the largest Ukrainian population outside of Ukraine and Russia. According to the 2016 census, 1.3 million Canadians claim Ukrainian ancestry. In addition to this, there are over 100,000 Canadians who speak Ukrainian as a mother tongue, making it the 20th largest mother tongue language in Canada. However, there was once a time when Ukrainian was the third largest language in Canada after English and French. The Ukrainian language in Canada also played a role in the development of multiculturalism in the country and provides a snapshot of Canada’s immigration history. Today many speakers and learners seek to maintain the linguistic and cultural legacy of Ukrainian in Canada.

Canadian and Ukrainian flags.

The History and Geographic Range of Ukrainian in Canada

Ukrainian immigrants to Canada were first recorded in 1892. There have been several waves of Ukrainian immigration. The first wave was from the 1890s until World War I (1914-1918), and these Ukrainians experienced internment in Canada as “enemy aliens” during the war. The second wave was during the interwar years (1919-1938), and the third was in the years just after World War II (1939-1945). The fourth and fifth waves have been smaller and include those who left Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) and refugees from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict (2014-present day). The earliest waves of immigrants to Canada were often farmers with lower levels of literacy. With each wave of immigration, the average education and professional skills of the immigrants rose.

Ukrainian immigrants mainly settled in the Prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. A significant number also came to Ontario and British Columbia. Smaller numbers have settled in Quebec, the Atlantic provinces, and the Territories. Today the largest number of Ukrainian speakers is in Ontario. However, a much larger proportion of the population speak Ukrainian in the Prairies.

Bilingual English and Ukrainian street signs in Hafford, Saskatchewan. Source.

The first Canadian census to collect mother tongue data was in 1931, and Ukrainian was the 4th most common mother tongue language, behind English, French, and German. Ukrainian remained in this position through the 1941 census. In the 1951 and 1961 censuses, Ukrainian was the largest mother tongue after English and French. In subsequent censuses, Ukrainian declined from the third largest and by the 2016 census had fallen to the 20th largest mother tongue. In the 2016 census, 102,485 people spoke Ukrainian as a mother tongue in Canada. In addition, there are almost 30,000 more people who speak Ukrainian than claim it as a mother tongue.

LocationUkrainian Mother LanguageKnowledge of Language
Canada102,485132,115
Ontario40,37554,615
Alberta21,83526,600
Manitoba14,50517,095
Saskatchewan11,27013,090
British Columbia8,63010,740
Quebec5,2109,015
Nova Scotia320425
New Brunswick170310
Yukon5040
Prince Edward Island4525
Newfoundland & Labrador40120
Northwest Territories3525
Nunavut510
Ukrainian language across Canada in the 2016 census.

Ukrainian Canadian Contributions to Multiculturalism

Ukrainian Canadians have contributed significantly to multiculturalism in Canada. Food like pyrohy, known in English as perogies, the Ukrainian church architecture of Philip Ruh in the prairies, and attractions like “the world’s largest pysanka”, or painted egg, in Vegrevile, Alberta, are all examples of Ukrainian culture shared with all of Canada. Ukrainians also played a role in the development of official multiculturalism in Canada and are especially recognized for their contributions in the 1960s to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The Ukrainian submissions helped to shape the commission’s recommendations beyond English and French, and laid the way for Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau making multiculturalism an official policy of Canada.

Vegreville Pysanka, the world’s largest Ukrainian painted egg. Source.

The Uniqueness of Canadian Ukrainian and Ukish

The Ukrainian language spoken in Canada differs from that now spoken in Ukraine as the two dialects have developed differently over the past century. As well, some Ukrainian Canadians speak “Ukish”, a Ukrainian influenced dialect of English.

The Ukrainian language is written in the Cyrillic script. Cyrillic differs from the Roman alphabet in several ways. For instance, while the Ukrainian letter “И” may look like the Roman letter “N”, it is actually pronounced more similar to “y” as in the end of the English word “carry”. Some letters that are shared between Roman and Cyrillic scripts have completely different sounds, such as “Р”, which in Ukrainian is pronounced with a rolled “r” sound! Other letters like “Д”, which is pronounced like the “d” in “dog”, do not exist in the Roman alphabet. Some letters in Ukrainian Cyrillic have complex sounds, like “Щ”, which is close to “shch”. This is like the sounds “sh” in “sheets” and the “ch” in “cheat” put together. Another letter like this is “Я”, which is pronounced like “ia” or “ya”, and sounds like the end of the word “Austria”.
Canadian Ukrainian can vary from the standard Ukrainian spoken in Ukraine for several reasons.

Ukrainians in Canada mostly came from western Ukraine where particular dialects of Ukrainian are spoken. Another significant reason is due to the exposure to English. Some recorded examples of English borrowings into Canadian Ukrainian are listed below:

EnglishCanadian Ukrainian
(transliterated)
Standard Ukrainian
(transliterated)
boxbaksynkukorobka
exhibitionartsybyshynvystavka
riverryverurichka
cookieskukisypechyvo
Julydzhulajulypenʹ
ChristmasKrismusuRizdvo
English borrowings into Canadian Ukrainian.

Names and grammar were also affected by exposure to English. Names like Ivan and Olena were sometimes changed to John and Helen. While the influence of English on Ukrainian in Canada is great, language contact is a two-way street. Ukrainian words like “zabava” (reception) and “baba” (grandma) are used in English among Ukrainian Canadians and in the communities where they have a large presence.

Ukrainian Canadian Literature

There is a great deal of Ukrainian Canadian literature and poetry. Much modern Ukrainian Canadian literature is written in English, exploring the identity and history of Ukrainians and their place in Canada. For a significant period, generally before the 1970s, most Ukrainian Canadian literature was written in the Ukrainian language. There are hundreds of authors, both born in Ukraine and in Canada, who have written in Ukrainian in Canada. Some well-regarded Ukrainian writers in Canada include novelist Illia Kiriak (1888-1955), an immigrant who arrived in Canada in 1907, and Myroslav Irchan (1897-1937), a communist novelist who spent many years in Ukrainian communities in Canada.

A frequent feature of Ukrainian poetry and literature in Canada is the reference to agriculture, and especially, wheat. Ukraine is one of the largest wheat producing countries, and the Canadian prairies produce wheat as well. As many Ukrainians were farmers, this agricultural relation between the “old country” and their new home became poetic inspiration. The following excerpt from a Ukrainian Canadian poet from Saskatchewan opens with a reference to wheat fields as a “golden sea”:

The sound of the golden sea has entered into our hearts, bringing yearnings of supreme beauty and radiance. It incites us to sing, but it has not betrayed its secret… The Ukrainian prairies gave us our souls, but the Canadian prairies have stirred us up to sing.

Ivan Danilchuk, Day Dawns, Svitaye Den, Winnipeg, 1929. Translated from Ukrainian.

Ukrainian sky and wheat field, reflecting the colours of the Ukrainian flag. Source.
Qu’appelle Valley in Saskatchewan. Source.

Maintaining Ukrainian in Canada

While the Ukrainian language in Canada has declined from its peak as the third largest language in the country many continue to use and learn the language. More than 100,000 Canadians speak Ukrainian, particularly concentrated in the prairies and northern Ontario. Many universities, such as University of Saskatchewan and University of Manitoba, have extensive programs studying Ukrainian Canadian heritage, culture, and language. In Alberta, a Ukrainian bilingual education program enrolls more than 700 children. The numbers of speakers of Ukrainian in Canada also continue to grow from more recent immigrants fleeing the conflict with Russia.

Mom, Talk to Me in My Mother Tongue: Socioeconomic Status and Heritage Language Maintenance of East and South Asian Canadian Community

By: Jingshu Helen Yao, BA, University of Toronto Scarborough

Over the past few decades Canada has fostered multiculturalism. However since the official language of the country is English and French, it is up to the individuals from different ethnicity backgrounds to decide whether and how to pass down their heritage language. Since languages connect closely with one’s culture and identity, the choice might be hard to make. Curious about the factors that influence heritage language learning, I conducted a study to analyze the connection between parental support for heritage language maintenance and the parents’ socioeconomic status.

Sociolinguists consider socioeconomic status an important factor in determining an individual’s language skills. Previous research suggests that the parents’ educational level and income is correlated with the children’s language development. Parents with higher education and more prestigious jobs might have better language skills themselves, more access to resources that facilitate language learning, and possibly more time to spend with the children. Consequently, the children would have more diverse vocabularies and learn to read and write earlier.

I collected the data for my study through an online survey. The participants were 80 East and South Asian immigrant parents from Toronto, the majority of whom had lived in Canada for more than 10 years. Their children were either born in Canada or had arrived prior to the age of seven. The survey gathered background information about the participants, including their heritage language use in daily life, their motivation to pass down their heritage language to the next generation, and whether they had registered their children in heritage language maintenance programs.

Mother and Child. (Photo: lain910)

One of the most important steps in this research was to determine the parents’ socioeconomic status. While income can be an indication of socioeconomic status, out of the consideration for the participant’s privacy, I did not ask for the families’ annual income in the survey. I am also aware that there might be a mismatch between income and job prestige. Therefore, I designed several questions to gather information about the parents’ educational background and occupations. Taking all the factors into consideration, I divided the participants into high socioeconomic status and low socioeconomic status groups. For example, parents who have a bachelor’s degree and work in business administration were considered to have higher socioeconomic status than parents who work in the same discipline but have a high school degree. In order to make the analysis easier to process, I ensured that both groups had a similar number of participants.

There were seven questions to determine the parents’ attitudes toward heritage language maintenance and the action they took to facilitate the children’s learning. I asked about the parents’ frequency of using heritage language with their children, whether they think learning heritage language has negative influences on the children’s English, whether they consider English more important than heritage language, and whether they sent their children to a heritage language program. All the parents responded that they are willing to have their children speak their heritage language but some of the low socioeconomic status parents worried that teaching the heritage language might confuse their children in an English speaking environment.

 I also asked the participants to choose from four possible motivations for teaching their children their heritage language. The four motivations are: “enable the children to communicate with the family members”, “benefit their career development”, “help them better understand their culture heritage”, and “build their culture identity”. The choice of motivation reflects what the parents expect their children to gain from heritage language learning: basic communication needs, long term benefits, or more abstract concepts and knowledge.

After analyzing the data, I drew the conclusion that parents from both socioeconomic  groups are supportive of their children’s heritage language learning but were motivated by different reasons. Parents with higher  socioeconomic status tended to emphasize the importance of the cultural value of education and literacy. Graph 1a shows that more of the high socioeconomic status parents (H) reported that they had registered their children for a heritage language maintenance program (HLM), compared to the low socioeconomic status parents (L). The biggest difference (20%) was between parents with and without a university degree; those with a Bachelor’s degree were much more likely to register their children in a heritage language program than those with a high school education (graph 1b). This suggests that the educational level of the former generation highly influences the education of their children.

On the other hand, the efforts made by low socioeconomic status parents are mainly seen in heritage language use in daily life rather than through formal educational  programs. Graph 2a shows that more than 85% of low socioeconomic status parents chose “enable my children to communicate with family and community members’ (Family) as the most important factor that motivated them to teach their children heritage language; 20% fewer of  the high socioeconomic status parents chose that same motivation. Some low socioeconomic status parents noted in the survey that they themselves don’t speak English very well so they have to teach their children heritage language in order to communicate with them. In addition, low socioeconomic status families are more likely to live in cultural enclaves where the children could practice their heritage language outside of their own homes. Therefore, heritage language learning for low socioeconomic status families develops out of daily communication needs and the children tend to have more opportunities to use the language in real life. This is also reflected by the frequency of the usage of heritage language at home. Many more low socioeconomic status parents reported that they always communicate with their child in their heritage language than the high socioeconomic status parents (graph 2b).

High socioeconomic status families tend to live in more culturally diverse neighbourhoods, and so do not use their heritage language as frequently.   Fewer than half of the high socioeconomic status parents reported that they always communicate with their children using their heritage language (graph 2b). These parents also chose “help building their culture identity” (Identity) as the top motivation for heritage language maintenance (graph 2a). The number of parents who chose “benefit their career development” and “help them better understand their cultural heritage” are also higher in the high socioeconomic status group (graph 2a). These would be reasons to send their children to heritage language programs, where not only language skills but also history and cultural heritage lessons are taught.

In conclusion, children from low socioeconomic status families are more likely to have good oral communication skills, because of daily use of their heritage language. Children from high socioeconomic status families, while more likely to be registered in heritage language programs, would be less skilled in communication and comprehension. On the other hand, they would have more formal instruction in their heritage culture and history. In future research, I am interested in investigating the motivations for heritage language maintenance from the children’s perspective.

Aside from these findings, the data also demonstrated some interesting phenomena that can be further explored in future research.

Ethnicity difference was not one of the factors that I initially planned to look into. However, as shown in graph (3), the number of East Asian parents (EA) who replied ‘Yes I have’ to the question of whether they had registered their children for heritage language programs was 20% higher than that of South Asian parents (SA). My current hypothesis is that the number of accessible resources (language schools and cultural institutions) are different for East and South Asian communities. However, an actual conclusion requires further data collecting and analysis.

Child reading. (Photo: Sofía López Olalde)