May Day: Ukrainians and the labour movement in Canada

May Day Celebrations at the Ukrainian Hall on E. Pender, 1932, AUUC Vancouver Archives

May Day. For many, this conjures maypoles, ribbons, and the ancient pagan rites of Beltane.  For others, May Day is a symbol of progressive human rights – workers’ rights – and the struggle of people throughout history who asked, demanded, and fought for provisions many of us today take for granted: like the 8-hour work day, minimum wage, workplace safety, job protection and employment standards. We in Canada have Labour Day in September, but the calls to action, calls for peace, and the strains of “The Internationale” can still be heard around the world on the first of May.

 

“Coming out of war and internment camps, we knew we needed a meeting place for mutual support. There was no welfare or social services – we had to do it for ourselves…. We didn’t know how to build a hall, we just did it – built it with our own hands in 1928, then paid off the mortgage in three years, paid it off in pennies, nickels, dimes.” 

Quote above is from Bread & Salt: A tribute to the East End’s historic Ukrainian Community (Produced by Vancouver Moving Theatre and Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival in partnership with the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians).

The photo of Dovbush Dancers, at right, is taken at the 2013 performance of Bread & Salt.

Although our hall at 805 East Pender Street was built in 1928, there were five years, from 1940 to 1945, when the Federal Government invoked the War Measures Act and confiscated and sold or gave away our Ukrainian Halls, across Canada. Our hall in Vancouver was given to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, on the pretext that we were involved in subversive activities; the government never did charge the Ukrainian Labour Farmer Temple Association (the original name of the AUUC) with any specific infringement of any law concerning wartime security. (Watch the 2018 Celebration100 video to hear more)

Ukrainian-Canadians were interned in Kananaskis, Alberta, Petawawa, Ontario and in Hull, Quebec. Other activists – from ethnic, labour and progressive organizations – would also suffer the same fate. And as we all know, the most heinous of these preventative measures was the internment of Japanese Canadians. When our Ukrainian-Canadian leaders were released from these internment camps in 1942, a campaign was launched to have our halls returned to us. With the help of the Civil Liberties Association, justice was finally served.  These halls, built with donations and volunteer labour, became our homes again in January of 1945. 

“We do not worship the past for its own sake, but the past is the price of what we are today. To know the road by which our Ancestors travelled is to know the road along which we arrived and upon which we will continue to move to our future.”
 
- Ukrainian Canadian Newspaper
AUUC Mandolin Orchestra, 1938

Our involvement in the labour movement is part of that road we travelled. We may take for granted achievements like minimum wage, social security, collective bargaining, workers’ compensation and paid sick leave, but these were all hard fought battles. Our Ukrainian Hall in Strathcona was often a gathering place for the labour movement.

In 1935, some 900 dock workers were locked out on the Vancouver waterfront as a result of having been organized into the Longshoremen’s Union. When a thousand workers marched on Ballantyne Pier, they were met with unprecedented brutality by the local police and the RCMP. The casualties, some clubbed and some with gunshot wounds, made their way to a makeshift hospital at the Ukrainian Hall. Our women came with whatever they could spare to help the injured: rags for bandages and food for the hungry.

 

Our hall would again serve as a makeshift hospital in the aftermath of the 1938 Post Office Strike.  At the height of the Great Depression, thousands of unemployed men were sent to relief camps. When these relief projects were cut off from federal grant money, thousands of unemployed men flocked to Vancouver to protest. Over a period of six weeks, some 600 demonstrators staged a sit down strike in the main Vancouver Post Office. The women at our hall immediately set to work, feeding 600 men with food that for the most part, had been donated.

On June 19, on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, the police entered the Post Office. The demonstrators, who were sitting on the floors singing protest songs, were then tear-gassed and beaten with truncheons. Hundreds of beaten and injured men were brought to the Ukrainian Labour Temple and this time, our women would have the assistance of volunteer doctors with medical supplies.

AUUC Vancouver Peace Float in the annual PNE Parade
Image above, ca. 1970s
Image at right, ca. 1950s

Peace work has always been a significant part of our organization’s work. Many remember the Peace Marches in Vancouver in the 80’s, where sources estimated over 100,000 marchers. The Cold War and nuclear threat was front of mind during the 1980s. The Peace Marches, typically held Saturday, meant the young dancers would finish class, parents would feed them hot dogs in the lower hall, and then the members of our organization would go to the Peace March and march under the AUUC banner, calling to End the Arms Race. In 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

The work of the Ukrainian Hall in Vancouver continues in ways that help support families and our elders in our diverse neighbourhood, that make the arts and Ukrainian culture accessible to all, and that continue our involvement in thought-provoking endeavours that we hope will contribute to building a strong social fabric in our communities and across Canada.  We no longer celebrate May Day, but the role of Ukrainian-Canadians in the struggle for equitable working conditions, for social services and ultimately, ideally, for peace, remains an important legacy.

 

Adapted from a speech by Libby Griffin, 2018

In 2018, Dovbush Dancers staged "We Remember" which is a moving piece of choreography evoking the hardship and sorrow of war. Click this link to watch the video.

Photo: Scott Alpen

Ukrainian Hall, ca. 1940s

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