Belarusans are an East Slavic people who trace their origins to one of Europe’s newest independent countries, Belarus. For centuries Belarusans found themselves within the boundaries of several states, including Lithuania, Russia, Poland, and the Soviet Union. This is in part the reason why Belarusans never developed a distinct national identity. Whether at home or as immigrants they frequently identified with the countries they lived in, that is, as Russians or as Poles or even more often simply as “locals,” the people “from here” (tuteishyia/tutashniia).
Their designation in English has also varied. Some older sources speak of White Ruthenians and White Russians (not to be confused with the political descriptor that implies opposition to the Bolshevik “Reds”). For most of the twentieth century, the term Belorussian has been used, although since independence was achieved the name Belarusan (sometimes spelled Belarusian) has become increasingly widespread.
Beginning in the late ninth century, Belarusan territory was gradually brought under the political hegemony of a loose medieval federation known as Kievan Rus’. It was during Kievan times that the Belarusans received the Byzantine form of Orthodox Eastern Christianity. With Christianity came written texts in the Cyrillic alphabet which to this day is used for writings in the East Slavic Belarusan language. When in the thirteenth century Kievan Rus’ began to disintegrate, Belarusan territory was gradually annexed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Under Lithuania, the Belarusans retained their Orthodox faith and their literary language, called Ruthenian, which was also used by the rulers of Lithuania for the country’s governmental administration.
From the late fourteenth century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania together with Belarus gradually drew closer to its western neighbour, Poland, until in 1569 a joint state known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed. The new union brought with it Polish cultural and religious influences. After 1595 a portion of the Belarusan Orthodox populace accepted union with Rome and became part of a new Uniate, later renamed the Greek Catholic Church. Other Belarusans converted directly to Roman Catholicism.
When Poland-Lithuania itself ceased to exist between 1772 and 1795, Belarusan lands were annexed by the Russian Empire. The new tsarist administration divided the country into several provinces named after their chief cities: Grodno/Hrodna, Vilna/Vilnius, Minsk, Mahilioâ /Mogilev, and Smolensk. The Russian imperial government was intent on removing Polish and other non-Russian influences in Belarus. To achieve this, the Greek Catholic (Uniate) church was abolished, restrictions were placed on Roman Catholic activity, the Belarusan language was banned in publications, and the population was urged to identify itself as Russian. The local economy stagnated, even after the emancipation of serfs in 1861, so that by the last decades of the nineteenth century thousands of Belarusans began to emigrate to other parts of the Russian Empire (Siberia) as well as abroad to the United States and eventually to Canada.
In response to the tsarist government’s policy of russification, a small group of Belarusan intellectuals became active in the 1860s, and by the outset of the twentieth century they had formed a political party and were publishing the first newspapers in the Belarusan language. This national revival culminated during the Russian Revolution of 1917. In December of that year an all-Belarusan Congress gathered in Minsk, and in early 1918 it proclaimed an independent Belarusan People’s Republic. Although the new Bolshevik rulers of Russia quickly brought an end to Belarusan independence, in January 1919 they recognized a Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic which in 1922 became a founding member of the new Soviet Union. During this same period, about one-third of Belarusan territory was awarded to the restored state of Poland. Henceforth, those from Polish-ruled lands were commonly referred to as western Belarusans.
At least during the 1920s, Belarusan culture was encouraged and allowed to flourish in both Soviet Belorussia and Poland. For the first time, the Belarusan language was taught widely in schools and a whole generation of people was taught to have a clear sense of a Belarusan national identity. These promising developments came to an end during the 1930s, when both the Soviet and Polish governments placed severe restrictions on Belarusan culture and education. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Belarusan lands were to feel the brunt of the conflict. After Poland fell in September, that country’s Belarusan territory was annexed by the Soviet Union. Two years later, in June 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union and two-thirds of Belarusan territory was annexed to Nazi Germany as part of its Reichskommissariat Ostland. Under Nazi rule, the population suffered from the military battles on its territory as well as the systematic liquidation of certain elements in the population, most especially Jews, Communists, and other suspected Soviet sympathizers.
When World War II ended in 1945, the Soviet Union regained all of Soviet Belorussia, including territories annexed from Poland in 1939. Aside from enormous material destruction, hundreds of thousands of Belarusans were displaced during the war and many refused to return to their Soviet-ruled homeland. Postwar Soviet rule eventually restored the country to a modicum of prosperity. Although Belarusan culture and language were nominally recognized, Russian once again came to dominate most spheres of public life.
With the political changes that came about in the Soviet Union during the 1980s, a new Belarusan national revival took place and culminated with the declaration of an independent state of Belarus in August 1991. Since that time, the country has been a member of a loose political federation of former Soviet states known as the Commonwealth of Independent States, and it maintains especially close economic ties to Russia.
The first known Belarusan immigrants to Canada settled in the Red River colony of present-day Manitoba in 1817. Michael Bardovich, Jan Miron, and John Vasilkousky were Roman Catholics from western Belarus who fled their homeland to avoid arrest for participating in anti-Russian activities. They joined the De Watteville regiment in England and were taken from Montreal to Red River by Lord Selkirk, who gave them land in exchange for services.
Belarusan immigration to Canada in 1905 came from the western and central regions of the Russian Empire – namely the provinces of Brest, Grodno, Minsk, Mogilev, Smolensk, and Vilnius. Early immigrants, many of them Jews, provided the Belarusan peasants with an incentive to emigrate. They portrayed Canada as a land of opportunity; if something was very good or valuable, people would say: “That’s Canada.” Abundance of land and work and similarity in geography and climate attracted Belarusan immigrants to Canada, where they hoped to become wealthier before returning to Belarus. Unmarried male immigrants did not study English or purchase homes. World War I and the Russian Revolution, however, forced them to realize that they were in Canada for good. A number of the male immigrants married women of Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian descent, as well as German and Finnish, and many did not marry at all.
Intense oppression in Polish-ruled western Belarus and severe economic depression caused the next wave of immigration to Canada, from 1925 to 1928. These immigrants, unlike their predecessors, possessed a national consciousness, strongly expressed in the radical peasant group Hramada (Union), which Poland outlawed in 1927.
By 1944 the annexation of all Belarusan territories by the Soviet Union launched more emigration to Canada. As well, Belarusan prisoners of war from German camps were fleeing the new Soviet regime. Immediately after the war, 800 western Belarusans arrived in Canada with other members of the Polish Second Corps and signed contracts to work on farms in Ontario.
Belarus was not listed as a source country in Canadian immigration statistics and many Belarusans were identified as Polish, Russian, or Lithuanian; available data suggest that some 12,000 to 15,000 arrived immediately after World War II. Some sources suggest that as many as 100,000 emigrated from Poland, with one-third settling in Canada. The term “White Russian,” sometimes used to refer to Belarusans, in practice became a synonym for Russians, especially those opposed to the “Red” (Bolshevik) Russians. Fear of being repatriated under the terms agreed to at Yalta also made many Belarusans reluctant to claim their country of origin, particularly among the peasant class.
The 1991 census indicates 1,015 Belarusans by single response in Canada and 1,815 by multiple response; Soviet sources estimate as many as 100,000. The actual number is probably 50,000 to 70,000, with half residing in Ontario and a majority of those living in Toronto. Large numbers are found in Hamilton, London, Oshawa, St Catharines, Sudbury, and Thunder Bay. Others live in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Montreal, Rouyn, and Winnipeg. Smaller numbers are found in British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.
Many Belarusan immigrants found it difficult to earn a living in Canada. The early immigrants of 1910 worked in the industrial regions in Timmins and Cochrane, on railway and road construction, and in the mines and lumber camps of northern Ontario and Quebec. The majority of post-1945 immigrants settled in urban areas and became carpenters, plumbers, and painters or entered medicine, engineering, or teaching.
Toronto became the centre for cultural activity; Belarusans in small towns did not have their own community life and had minimal contact with one another. Early post-war immigrants did create small, informal, mutual-aid organizations, which assisted needy compatriots in France and Belgium. Because of limited mutual aid and inadequate institutions, Belarusans depended on the institutions of fellow Slavs – Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians – and in so doing were aided by familiarity and intermarriage with these nationalities. Belarusans frequented stores and restaurants, conducted business, and purchased homes in Slavic areas.
Family ties were strong, and Belarusans of peasant stock or of the intelligentsia emphasized education and extracurricular, cultural activities for both male and female children. Both sexes were encouraged to seek higher education.
After 1945, two Belarusan governments in exile were established in Europe. The Belarusan National Council – Rada – was composed of the Belarusan Catholic intelligentsia under Mikolai Abramchik, first based in Paris and then in New York. It was perceived as being funded by “the Vatican and the London-based Polish government in exile.” Its rival, the Belarusan Central Council, under its president, Radoslaw Ostrowski, had been allowed to exist during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Belarus. After the war, it functioned in the British zone of Germany and then transferred to New Jersey. Both councils considered themselves legitimate heirs to the Belarusan People’s Republic, which had come to power in March 1918 but was later absorbed by the Soviet Union. Neither council, however, represented the majority of Belarusan immigrants of peasant stock who had accepted Canadian citizenship and permanent residence in Canada.
Two major Belarusan organizations emerged in Canada. In 1948 in Toronto some thirty Belarusan veterans of the Polish Second Corps set up the Byelorussian National Alliance, later renamed the Byelorussian Canadian Alliance (BCA). It was headed by Kastus Akula, Michael Pashkevich, Janka Pitushka, and Timothy Solonovich and published Bielaruski emihrant (Belarusan Emigrant; Oshawa, Toronto, 1948–54). The Belaruski Vydavetski Fond (Byelorussian Publishing Fund in Canada) was established in 1949 in Toronto and managed the printing of the Bielaruski emihrant. Another large group of immigrants arrived in 1949 from the United Nations Refugee Relief Administration camps in Germany and Austria. Among them was a group of writers and journalists, known as the Khmarovtsi, led by Serhei Khmara (pseudonym of M. Ziniak) and including Vasil Verbina and Vasil Vir. In Toronto in 1952 they founded the Belarusan National Association (BNA), which was strongly opposed to the two governments in exile.
The BCA sympathized with Abramchik’s government in exile, while the BNA favoured an independent position, advocating active participation in Canadian life. In 1952 this conflict resulted in exclusion of BCA supporters from the editorial board of the Bielaruski emihrant, which was renamed Bielaruski holas/Byelo-russian Voice (Toronto, 1952–92), with Khmara as editor. Vasil Vir of Toronto was co-editor of the paper and wrote extensively in it. The Khmarovtsi initiated a political journal, Narodnym shlakham (People’s Pathway; Toronto, 1951–58), which examined events at home and in Canada.
A Belarusan literary association, Bayavaya Uskalos (Kernels of Struggle), was formed in 1949 in Toronto. The same year it issued a literary magazine, Bayavaya uskalos (Militant Ascent), compiling the works of Belarusan writers and poets in exile. The first editor was Mikalai Pankov, who had immigrated to the United States, and the first five issues were published bimonthly in New York. The remaining twelve issues were produced in Toronto by the next editor, Serhei Khmara.
In 1952 the BNA began to sponsor political and cultural events. Concerts with Belarusan dance groups and choirs took place in Toronto, some conducted jointly with other ethnocultural communities at such events as the Canadian National Exhibition. Participation in Canadian political life was demonstrated by involvement in Dominion Day (Canada Day) parades and other public celebrations. The BNA annually commemorated proclamation of Belarusan independence on 25 March 1918 with celebrations in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg. It also initiated the Mutual Co-operation League in Toronto (1955), which encompassed twenty ethnic groups and organized multicultural events to mark Canadian holidays with plays, veterans’ parades, and other demonstrations. The league was dissolved in 1965.
Distinct Belarusan cultural organizations began to form in Winnipeg, Montreal, and Saskatoon. In Winnipeg the Belarussian National Committee (1950) and the Belorussian Arts Society (1951) coordinated cultural projects involving drama, choirs, and art exhibits on Belarusan and Canadian national holidays. A group in Montreal in 1952 formed the Association of Belarussians, which organized a male choir and a drama group that performed also in Toronto and set up Canada’s first Belarusan-language school in 1952. Two issues of Pales’e, a journal of literature and art, appeared in 1955, also in Montreal. Saskatoon had an active Belarusan Baptist group, whose religious choir performed across the prairie provinces.
Serhei Khmara began two literary supplements – Syhnaly (Signals; Toronto, 1957–61) and Malanka (Lightning; Toronto, 1957–62). Joseph Babrosky of North Bay was editor of the critical review Dyatsel (Woodpecker; Toronto, 1951–52); Adam Mashchonsky of Burlington contributed items on Belarusan-Canadian youth; and Yanka Moroz of Windsor wrote poetry about the homeland and its struggle for freedom.
Yasep Taupa was a Yukon poet whose work was descriptive of the Canadian tundra, where he worked as a prospector; he also wrote about the Belarusan pioneers on the prairies. Kastus Navitsky of Winnipeg wrote poetry about the homeland. Vasil Verbina of Toronto in 1951 became editor of the satirical tabloid Puha (The Whip).
In 1952 Serhei Khmara, Mikalai Pankov, Ianka Stasevich, and Vasil Vir founded the Kastus Kalinouski Research Institute, with branches in Toronto and New York. The institute published the periodical Dokumenty i fakty (Documents and Facts; Toronto, 1952– ), which explored recent research on Belarusan history. Also in 1952 Khmara formed the Belarussian Insurance Society, Pahonia (Knights), as an independent branch of the Ukrainian Workers Union. He also formed that same year the Committee for Free Byelorussia, which included international membership. Associated with the BNA in Canada, the Belarussian Women’s Committee was created in 1965 in Toronto and participated in the annual multicultural exhibit at Toronto City Hall, “Easter around the World.” It collected funds for the purchase of a 300-piece collection of arts and crafts that was donated to the Museum of Civilization in Hull.
In 1960 the Belarussian Canadian Co-ordinating Committee (BCCC) was formed in Toronto to organize joint celebrations between the BNA and the BCA. The new co-ordinating body published in two parts a language text, Fundamental Byelorussian (1974–78). The BCA’s women members formed the Belorussian Canadian Women’s Association in 1965. In 1967 Pahonia, the Belorussian Publisher’s and Arts Club, was founded by Anton Markievich, with the objective of publishing Belarus-related material. Second-generation Belarusans in Toronto formed the Belarusan Youth Association, which helped set up a Belarusan pavilion, Miensk, at Metro International Caravan.
In 1977 Serhei Khmara founded the Canadian Ethnic Journalists and Writers Club (CEJWC) in cooperation with the Toronto Press Club. By 1995 the CEJWC consisted of some 200 members, reflecting 43 languages, from print and electronic media, who meet monthly.
Byelorussian Voice, maintained by subscriptions, paid advertising, and donations, was published until Khmara’s death in 1992. It was the only surviving Belarusan newspaper in Canada. Readers included Belarusans in Australia, England, South America, and the United States. Its editorial position advocated Canadianization through integration and cultural retention.
Religion has played an intrinsic role in retention of the Belarusan language and culture. The pre-1914 immigrants were influenced in their identity by the clergy and joined either Polish (Roman Catholic) or Russian (Orthodox) churches in Canada. The shortage of Belarusan clergy hampered the emergence of organized groups. Families in Lethbridge, Rouyn, Toronto, Windsor, and Winnipeg were absorbed by Russian Orthodox or by Catholic churches, and many soon lost whatever Belarusan national consciousness they had. In the homeland, the Orthodox archeparchy in Belarus was part of the Russian Orthodox Church under the patriarch in Moscow. Those Belarusan Orthodox who were opposed to jurisdictional subordination to Moscow formed in 1922 the Belarusan Autocephalic Orthodox Church. The Soviet regime destroyed the autocephalous church in the 1930s, although it was restored in 1942 during Nazi German rule and it later continued its existence abroad.
In Canada, the Belarusan Orthodox were organized under two jurisdictions. The Belarusan Canadian Alliance initiated in 1954 the establishment of its St Cyril of Turov parish in Toronto as part of the Belarusan Autocephalic Orthodox church. The year before, and also in Toronto, the Belarusan National Association established the church of St Euphrosinia of Polatsk under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The parish complex, housed in a new building after 1957, included the church as well as the headquarters of the Belarusan Canadian Alliance, its Social Assistance branch, and Saturday Belarusan-language classes.
Between 1910 and 1912 Belarusan members of evangelical religious groups fled tsarist oppression and arrived in groups to settle in the prairie provinces. They organized churches in Biggar, Saskatchewan, Benito and Russell, Manitoba, and Garth, Alberta. Because of the tsarist government’s restrictions against the Belarusan language, many pastors could not speak fluently and so delivered sermons in Russian. Nevertheless, the church was the key to Belarusan identity in Canada, and Belarusan-speaking clergymen were later found in England and Belarusan territories in Poland.
Immigration of Belarusan Adventists, Baptists, and Pentecostals continued after the Russian Revolution. The leader of the Slavic Pentecostal Assemblies, Protopresbyter Eugene Potipko, settled in Toronto. Members of these Protestant churches consisted not only of Belarusans but of Russians and Ukrainians (especially from Volhynia) as well. The Slavic Evangelical Alliance in Canada was led by a Belarusan from Toronto, Presbyter Ivan Huk, who edited the monthly tabloid Khristianyn (The Christian; Toronto, 1951- ), printed in Russian and Belarusan. In 1952 in Toronto the Slavic Evangelical and Baptist Church in Canada was formed.
Belarusan Roman Catholics and Greek (Byzantinerite) Catholics do not have their own churches; rather they attend parishes which have a significant number of other Slavic peoples, such as Poles in Roman Catholic churches and Ukrainians in Byzantine-rite Catholic churches. For the most part Belarusan Catholics in these parishes have lost their ethnic distinctiveness and have adapted to the more dominant Polish or Ukrainian groups.
Although some Belarusans dreamed of going back to the homeland, few actually did so. Anti-Soviet sentiment, the struggle for an independent state, and pursuit of language and cultural retention in Canada propelled community life for post-World War II immigrants. The minimal size of the activist group, and consequently smaller membership in organizations, necessitated cooperation with other ethnocultural groups, such as the Mutual Co-operation League, in the attainment of similar goals.
The growing number of Canadian-born Belarusans who had only a poor understanding of Belarusan heritage, a tendency to identify with Slavs in general, and lack of awareness on the part of Canadian society influenced Canadian-born Belarusans to submerge their heritage. Group identity has, however, been fostered by the traditional celebrations of Easter, Christmas, and other holidays as well as christenings, funerals, and marriages. Family and religion continue to serve as a conduit for language and cultural retention.
The emergence of Belarus as an independent and internationally recognized state in 1991 has launched a renaissance. Canada’s Committee for Free Belarussia announced: “We sincerely congratulate the Belarusan nation with the declaration of an independent Belarus and wish stability and strength to her as well as the unification of the independent Belarusan state and all Belarusan ethnogeographical territories. Long live a free, independent, and unified Belarus.” Unhampered exchange of printed material on Belarus, ability to travel to and from the homeland, reconstruction of Belarusan history with the use of accurate material prepared in Canada, and relief efforts have escalated involvement and mutual ties. Batskaushtchyna (World Association of Belarusans) held the First World Congress of Belarusans in Minsk on 8 July 1993, with the primary purpose of uniting and consolidating Belarusans internationally to promote the spiritual, political, and economic renaissance of Belarus.
Though Belarusan ethnocultural identity in Canada was dulled by historic complexities, Belarusan organizations and publications maintained its profile. The main challenge for the community, as its activist core shrinks through mortality, is to preserve and expand the Belarusan identity in Canada by encouraging younger generations to embrace their heritage. The intense dedication of the post-war immigrants to a free and independent Belarus cannot be reproduced among their Canadian-born descendants, but the emergence of an independent state has provided new incentives for maintaining a Belarusan-Canadian identity. The achievement of independence has created a more identifiable national consciousness and thereby increased the possibility of the survival and evolution of the Belarusan community in Canada.
The Belarusan homeland and its history are well described in Nicholas P. Vakar’s Belorussia: The Making of a Nation (Cambridge, Mass., 1956); John Stanley, “The Birth of a Nation: The January Insurrection and the Belorussian National Movement,” in Béla K. Király, ed., The Crucial Decade: East Central European Society and National Defense, 1859–70 (Boulder, Colo., 1984); and Jan Zaprudnik, “Belorussia and the Belorussians,” Handbook of Major Soviet Nationalities (New York, 1975), and his Belarus at a Crossroads in History (Boulder, Colo., 1993).
There is limited material available on the Belarusan experience in Canada. A useful introduction is John Sadouski, A History of Belorussians in Canada (Belleville, Ont., 1981). Raisa Zhuk-Hryshkevich, Zhyt Vintsenta Zhuk-Hryshkevicha (The Life of Vincent Zuk-Hryskievic) (Toronto, 1993), is useful for information about Belarusan community life in the Canadian context. These works can be supplemented with V. Kaye, “Canadians of Belorussian Origin,” Revue de l’Université d’Ottawa, vol. 30, (1960), and V. Zuk-Hryskievic, “Belorussians and Canadian Statistics,” Slavs in Canada ([Toronto], 1968).
The newspaper Bielaruski Holas/Byelorussian Voice (Toronto, 1952–92) is a useful primary source. Although published in the United States, Bielarus (New York, 1957– ) systematically documents Belarusan life in Canada. A number of original documents housed in the manuscript division of the National Archives, Ottawa, are also valuable.