From its beginning in pioneer times, The Porcupine Camp has attracted immigrants. Political strife and the aftermath of two world wars brought many new Canadians to the north.
It helped the city grow, while creating a mosaic of culture. Ukrainians were one of many ethnic communities drawn to the area.
Orest Lawryniw was born and raised in Timmins, but his parents immigrated from Ukraine. They didn’t arrive in Timmins by accident. Immigrants’ work skills were matched up with their new communities.
“In the case of the group who came to Timmins, they were escaping the war, the Second World War,” Lawryniw said. “When they arrived in Canada, they were pretty much predestined to where they would go, based on where they were needed.
“In the case of my parents, and a lot of the people who came to Timmins, it was because they needed miners. A lot settled out west because they were farmers. Whatever skills they had at the time.”
Life wasn’t easy for new immigrants. It was important for groups like Ukrainians to have each other’s back in their new home.
“Because of such a close-knit Ukrainian community, they pretty much supported each other,” he said. “I remember the term DP, which meant displaced person. It was a derogatory term at the time. So, some people would say ‘you’re a DP, we don’t want you here.’ It’s a form of racism.
“But they didn’t let it bother them. They went on doing what they wanted to do.”
The Ukrainians proved themselves to be industrious and community minded.
“They built a church. In Timmins, the men would come home from the mines, have supper, and then go and pour the foundation for the church, build benches and so on,” Lawryniw said. “That’s how the church got started in Timmins.
“One thing about the Ukrainian people, they are a hard-working people. We’re a peace-loving nation, but don’t stir the pot.”
The June 24, 1948, edition of The Porcupine Advance described the start of a new church, while reflecting on the struggles experienced by the Ukrainian community.
“New Canadians joined with the old on a day-long celebration reunion to meet Bishop Isadore Boreckey of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Eastern Canada,” the story reads. “Men who had been a few months ago identified as Displaced Persons in Europe and now called New Canadians joined with their Ukrainian brethren in Timmins to rejoice over their new found liberty and worship in a traditional manner. Priests and members of the Knights of Columbus branch of the Roman Catholic Church joined with the Greek Catholic Church in celebrating this great occasion.”
A two-hour high mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart kicked off celebrations. Then the Bishop dedicated the new site of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on Cedar Street. The procession wound its way to the cenotaph, where a wreath was laid by the Bishop in commemoration of all war dead. Other activities included a football game at Hollinger Park, a banquet at the McIntyre Community Centre and a concert.
The Advance reported one citizen spoke to the crowd about the journey from war-torn Europe.
“Petro Kolosnyk spoke for the New Canadians. Mr. Kolosnyk said that he had had his family killed by the Reds and spoke bitterly of the slaughter of the Ukrainians by the Communists. He said: ‘The new crusade of peace and brotherhood will sweep the world.’”
Bishop Borecky, a priest for 10 years, had left Ukraine just before the war. He lost two brothers in the Second World War.
Borecky said he was delighted with the way the whole community of Timmins had turned out to make the day so memorable.
Lawryniw, a volunteer with the Ukrainian Cultural Group of Timmins, has many memories of growing up in the community.
“We had at one time here a Ukrainian Hall here on Fifth Avenue, where a lot of people gathered,” he said. “We had a church group. We used to have weekly Sunday picnics after mass in the summer time and all the families came out.
“If we weren’t gathering there, I can remember have five, six, seven families at our place for a night of games or cards, or something like that. It’s a very close-knit community.”
Over the decades, their numbers shrank in Timmins.
“A lot of the people have moved out of Timmins to southern Ontario and so on because basically the kids grew up and moved out,” he said. “So, the population dwindled quite a bit in Timmins here.
“But with what’s happening and the influx of immigrants, that number is going to go back up.”
Going through old editions of The Advance, many have references to Ukrainian activities in Timmins. Concerts, choirs, dance performances, picnics, special church services and other events were mentioned in the social pages. In September 1927, the local Ukrainian community made it a project to raise funds to help victims of flooding back home.
The May 27, 1926, newspaper included a front-page story about one special concert at the New Empire Theatre. Lily Popovitch, frequently referred to as the “Ukrainian Nightingale” performed and “music lovers who heard this gifted vocalist described her as wonderful — a beautiful voice, perfectly controlled with magnificent range and striking sweetness of tone.”
She sang in Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish, Italian, French and English, “every number being a gem.”
Lawryniw said Ukrainians take pride in their heritage.
“We like to show off our heritage, but we don’t push it on anybody,” he explained. “I can remember many concerts and church functions, Ukrainian dancing, Ukrainian singing, St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 18. We’d invite anybody in just to be with us and see what our culture is like. Most people when they get into it, they like it.
“The perohy (perogies) are the big thing. It’s a national food, that and cabbage rolls. When it comes to the Timmins Multicultural Festival, people line up for an hour before it’s open.”
In 2013, the local Ukrainian community came together to reinvigorate Kobzar Park, established in 1981. The project included a new statue of Taras H. Shevchenko, a Ukrainian artist and poet.
“It had become quite rundown,” Lwaryniw said. “We take pride in our heritage and didn’t like the way it had turned out. Somebody destroyed the statue. So, we had a new statue commissioned, made out of bronze and bolted down.
“We’re a very proud people, a very happy people.”
Ukraine is a resource and agriculturally rich nation. Throughout history, its riches have been targeted by others.
“Ukraine goes back to the fourth century,” he said. “It always seems to being attacked by somebody. At one time it was Polish rule then it was free. Then it was Russian rule, then it was free. Then the Russians took it over again, and it was free again.
“This 31-year stint that we’ve had now has probably been the longest that Ukraine has been independent. The past 30 years, we have a younger community of people in Ukraine. They want their country. They do not want to let it go.
“The older people have been under Russian rule. The younger people have been under Ukrainian rule and they don’t want change. They’re going to stand up and fight.”