The homemade pierogy are spot on, and the borscht is rich with dill—just like Ukraine. But I am thousands of miles away from the old country, and more than a hundred years from the memories of the land so many left behind.
This patch of prairie just northeast of Edmonton, Alberta is still the largest Ukrainian settlement outside of Ukraine, and today, more than ten percent of Alberta’s population can trace their lineage to the early Ukrainian immigrants who settled in the province.
I admit that I am always wary of reconstructed old-time villages, where rosy-cheeked, calico-clothed employees play a scripted role of baker, blacksmith or kitchen wife, and ever refuse to slip out of their character. Method actors have nothing on these first-person interpreters of such outdoor heritage museums. Indeed, I would say they have perfected the art in Canada.
“What happens if you break character?” I asked one lanky, high-school aged actor, dressed in suspenders and corduroy cap.
“They beat us with a stick!” he joked. But when I asked him his name, he got a little confused.
“Jeffrey—no, Jack! Which name do you want?” he wondered. “My real name?”
But Jeffrey/Jack was very good at his job, pulling me into his lumber shop and engaging me in the theater of going back in time, offering me pig bristle paintbrushes to paint the new barn I had built on my homestead, and then taking me to the back where I could choose from a whole assortment of “galvanized steel” nails for a few pennies.
This is not ordinary summer job. To prepare for his role, Jeffrey/Jack had to take class at the University of Alberta, where he studied piles of background information and learned his character inside and out. His newfound Ukrainian-heritage identity is based on a real person who once lived and worked in a village like this.
But some staff don’t need to study nearly as much for their role. Walking through a rustling wheat field, I met Natalya Vanovska, who came to Edmonton from the Ukrainian city of Ternopil some four years ago. Natalya was dressed in the white linen shirt and skirt worn by peasants long ago, along with a woven belt over a heavy apron—or platya.
With her white kerchief wrapped around her head, she definitely looked the part of a Ukrainian immigrant fresh off the train, circa 1892. Yet she spoke to me in a fluid, modern Ukrainian—a language that is so soft and rounded and musical, I love simply listening to each word.
I wanted to know what that was like for Natalya—a recent Ukrainian immigrant to Alberta, now employed to act the part of a Ukrainian immigrant to Alberta from a century ago.
“Do you miss Ukraine?” I asked.
“Of course I do. All my family and friends, and the country itself. Everything, I miss.”
But she loves it here in Canada, as well.
“People her are friendly, always willing to help. And here in Edmonton there is such a huge Ukrainian community—so many of them speak Ukrainian and they are always there for you.”
In a way, nothing has changed. The first wave of Ukrainian immigrants traveled to Alberta after 1891, lured by the promise of land. Homesteaders received a contract for 160 acres, which they had to clear, cultivate, and maintain before receiving their title deed for their property. Like Natalya today, the immigrants of the past depended hugely on the surrounding community.
Going back into her role as a recently-arrived homesteader, she motioned to her humble sod home in the corner of the garden.
“We built it quickly—in just five days! My husband and all the others from around here, they came to help and we finished the whole thing in just five days.”
Inside the cool and spartan lean-to, I felt the heavy pine logs and noticed the handcrafted furniture, and the decorated wood chest “from the old country.” The attention to detail was impressive, so that as I sat there on the hard bed and breathed in the sod-scented air, I truly felt that for those few seconds, I was a ghost from the present, haunting the past.
Emerging from the low doorway, I was touched by how much this landscape resembles the Ukraine I know—endless wheat fields beneath a blue sky, the patch of birch forest, and the rampant vegetable gardens laden with all the ingredients for borscht. I was walking through a painting—a painting of the past—before Alberta was Alberta and this land was ready to be planted with seeds and dreams from the old world.
And this is the value of these village museums—to recreate these scenes from the past, and to make sense of the present. Though for Natalya, I imagine it’s a little bit different—how, after a long day spent homesteading in front of a live audience, she goes back home in Edmonton, where she changes back into her modern-day clothing and goes back to being Natalya, a recent Ukrainian immigrant to Alberta.