Rites of Spring: Ukrainian New Year in Strathcona

First in an occasional VO series on ethnic observances in multi-cultural Vancouver.

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Sadly, there may be no encores in coming years. Dianna Leschynsky Kleparchuk, president and undisputed doyenne of the Vancouver branch of the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians (AUUC), vetoes the idea of incorporating an annual replay as a new Malanka tradition. Fun is fun, she says, but there’s a legacy to maintain.

A capella chorus; braided harmonies. Photo: Hsu Mei-lang

On her bejeweled fingers (with silver glitter nail-gloss) she counts off the years she’s been coming to The Hall: seven decades, ever since she moved, at age four, with her family to Hawks Street, a block away. That year The Hall had just been returned to the community and rechristened as an AUUC branch, rather than its previous designation as a Farmer-Labour Temple.

The earlier name, with its lefty overtones, better captured the tenor of The Hall’s early history. Established in 1928, on the brink of the Great Depression, it served as a rallying hub for worker solidarity throughout the 1930’s. It was from The Hall that dispossessed squatters marched to occupy the Carnegie Library on Hastings and Main in 1935. Two weeks later, the Hall was where the hobo legions of the On-to-Ottowa Trek mustered for their trans-Canada train-hopping protest. That same year, and again in 1938, The Hall served as a field hospital for union pickets injured in melees with police and strikebreakers.

Such activism put the Ukrainian community on the government’s watch list – so much so that, with the outbreak of World War II, Canadian authorities used their emergency powers to intern Ukrainian leaders even before they rounded up Japanese. The Labour Temple was appropriated and sold to an Orthodox Church congregation. It took years of rallies and lobbying before the building was returned to the community in 1945, the same year Dianna Kleparchuk first set foot in The Hall.

Name change notwithstanding, the AUUC remained committed to labour and social causes, hosting peace conferences, refugee benefits and multi-cultural forums. Cultural exchange programs with the Ukraine went on throughout the Soviet era and beyond. Even the Association’s renowned dance troupe, the Dovbush Dancers, takes its name from a very class-conscious Ukrainian Robin Hood type outlaw who rather radically redistributed incomes in the Carpathian Mountains of 18th century Galicia.

With the decline of Strathcona under the brutalist redevelopment schemes of the 1970’s, much of the community moved on to Burnaby and other suburbs. Yet The Hall remains a rallying point for cultural expression. “We have one or another arts group rehearsing here every night of the week,” Kleparchuk reports. “And pirohy pinching bees all year round. The energy is fantastic.”

That energy was on full display in the grand finale of the Malanka celebration, the Kolomyjka circle dance. After all the feasting, the speeches, the silent auction and the concert performances, the lights dimmed and a polka combo took the stage. As the music  heated up, the crowd spontaneously formed a ring in the middle of The Hall. Some gyration at first, with linked hands, but soon the circle had grown too big and the perimeter too packed for anyone to move much. Onlookers could only stomp and clap in time to the beat.

People started standing on tables and chairs for a better view of the empty centre of the ring, where the Dobrush stars, now in “civvies,” took turns strutting and kicking their high jinks. The room got so steamy that the double front doors of The Hall had to be flung open to let in some rain-slicked night air and waft waves of frenzied polka out onto the Strathcona streets.

Before long, some Dobrush alumni took their turn in the centre circle, then enthusiastic amateurs, then antic children and oldsters, until finally the Brownian motion of it all burst the Kolomyjka bubble. So the revelers went on dancing in pairs late into the night.  





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