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.