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Valentina Kuryliw, a historian and an expert in methodology of teaching history


Valentina Kuryliw (Valentina Myhajlowska) is a Canadian of Ukrainian descent. She has taught world history in the public schools of the province of Ontario, mostly in Toronto, for the past thirty years. In addition to teaching, she continues to work on the methodology of teaching and has prepared teaching materials on The Great Famine in Ukraine 19321933 and The Internment of Ukrainian Canadians in World War II. Ms. Kuryliw is one of the founders of the Institute for the Professional Development of Teachers at the World Congress of Ukrainians. For the past fourteen years, she has come to Ukraine as a volunteer every summer in order to conduct an additional qualifications course for teachers of history and social sciences. She has published a book in Ukraine, A Methodology for Teaching History (Metodyka vykladannya istoriyi) in Ukrainian for teacher training.


Ms Kuryliw was interviewed for Welcome to Ukraine Magazine by WU senior editor Maksym PROTSKIV


Ms Kuryliw, could we start with some facts about your life? Were you born in Canada?

No, I wasnt born in Canada. I was born in Mannheim, Germany in a refugee camp after World War II. My parents met in Germany during the war.

They were Ukrainians from Kyiv and Chernihiv, who were in Germany as slave labourers. After the war they decided that they would not return to the Soviet Union, but would try to make a new life for themselves elsewhere. Before the war, my father, Ivan Myhaylowsky had been an inmate in the Belomor Kanal (White See Canal) concentration camp in Russia. His illegal incarceration, and the destruction of his family, was the primary reason why he decided he was not going to return to Ukraine. Consequently, my parents ended up in a UN refugee camp. My sister, Lydia, and I were born in Germany and immigrated to Canada with our parents in 1950.

What was your life like at the time when you came to Canada?

My parents settled in Montreal, Quebec, where there are two official languages, French and English. The school system was organized according to religion. If you were a Catholic, you would go to a French school. As I was Orthodox, I was sent to a Protestant and English-speaking school. Although I grew up in an English-speaking environment in Montreal, I also learned French from the third grade. In Montreal, we were active members of the Ukrainian community, which organized its own churches, schools, theatre and dancing groups.

Why, do you think Ukrainians preferred to maintain their traditions and culture rather than integrate completely into the local community life?

Ukrainians in Canada wanted to preserve their identity as Ukrainians. I think it is very important that people know their roots and cultural traditions. In growing up and knowing our Ukrainian ancestry, we preserved a heritage that was very much an integral part of our identity. We spoke Ukrainian at home and continued our cultural traditions, and today, my children still speak Ukrainian. At the same time, we valued our Canadian citizenship and developed our ukrainianism within a Canadian framework or identity, meshing the two together.

Is it hard to live with this sort of double identity?

Its a bit like sitting on a fence. You are Canadian and yet you are different. For example, we used to go to a Ukrainian school on Saturday after attending classes at a regular English-speaking school all week. While our friends were playing, we were studying Ukrainian, language, history and culture.

Is it typical for other immigrants to maintain their own traditions and language?

No, it is not for all immigrants. Ukrainians are unique in this respect in Canada. And this is something that Canadians were always saying: How did you manage to preserve your identity? If Italians, for instance, want to study Italian, they could go to Italy. For us, growing up during the Cold War, meant almost no contact with Ukraine. We knew that the only Ukraine that we were going to have was the one we would create in Canada. So we created our own little Ukraine with its own structures and organizations, schools, and churches.

Do Ukrainian Canadians tend to marry into Ukrainian Canadian families?

Yes, they try. I married a Ukrainian Canadian who was born in Canada.

His father came from Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in 1928, and his mother in 1936. It was expected in my family that I would marry a Ukrainian. Differences in religion matter less, as, it was more important that he was Ukrainian. My husband runs a business, Bloor Travel Agency in Toronto. A good portion of his clientele are of Ukrainian background. My father-in-law, Wasyl, had come to Canada with almost no formal education.

Ten years ago, before he passed away, he set up a scholarship fund at the University of Alberta for Ukrainian ethnographic studies. This fund allows graduates to apply for grants to study and promote Ukrainian culture in Canada. He decided that he should give back to Canada some of the money he had earned in Mama Canada,  as his new country had been so good to him. He named this scholarship after Ivan Franko because Franko was his favourite poet.

Were your children also brought up in the Ukrainian spirit?

Of course they were! Both were baptized and attended a Ukrainian church while I taught at Sunday school and sang in the church choir. They attended Ukrainian school for 12 years on Saturdays, played soccer for a Ukrainian league, attended Ukrainian dance classes and even sang in a Ukrainian childrens choir in Toronto. This summer, my daughter, Ulyana, was in Ukraine as a camp counsellor in the Carpathian Mountains. It certainly helps that she speaks Ukrainian fluently and is familiar with the culture and traditions.

Were your children involved in Ukrainian community life as much as you were?

I would say yes. My daughter and my son did not speak English until they were five years old, as I thought that it would be the best way for them to preserve the Ukrainian language. In addition to a regular English-speaking school, they attended a Ukrainian school, which was organized by parents of Ukrainian ancestry. They played in Ukrainian sport teams, took part in Ukrainian dancing groups and also grew up with PLAST (a Ukrainian Scouts Organization) and the Orthodox Church. Because of my associations, they were also involved in musical activities and took part in some productions of the Canadian Ukrainian Opera Association in Toronto. My daughter, Ulyana, was active in the Ukrainian Students Club at her university and this summer she was in Ukraine as a camp counsellor for the Help Us Help the Children program in Vorohta, which runs summer camp for Ukrainian underprivileged children from orphanages.

You have your job and family in Canada and yet you keep coming to Ukraine with all kinds of different projects. Why is it so important to you to be and feel Ukrainian?

I guess feeling Ukrainian is part of who I am. My love for Ukraine must have come down to me from my parents, especially my father, Ivan. He always yearned for Ukraine and longed to return to his beloved Kyiv. He was not an economic immigrant  he was a political emigre. I think that longing, and that feeling that you have to do something to help the Ukrainian people get back on their feet was passed on to me. When I saw that Ukraine was on the verge of becoming independent, I came to teach in Ukraine. When Ukraine became independent, I felt I had to do something to help the people reeducate themselves. So, thats what I did. I am an educator. I knew I could be of assistance in efforts to reform the education system, specifically in the way teachers approached the teaching of history. I felt that I could share with them the approaches and strategies that I had learned and developed in Canada.

I know that you have written a textbook on the methodology of teaching history for Ukrainian schoolteachers.

That is correct. Originally, I had prepared a course of teaching methodology for history and social studies teachers. This course gives suggestions on how to teach history using interactive methods and critical thinking skills. After a number of years, I got the idea of writing a textbook for my special authors course and Metodyka vykladannya istoriyi was published in Lviv in the summer of 2003. I have been teaching in Ukraine every summer for 14 years as well as running seminars in methodology during the year at the National Pedagogical University of M. Drahomaniv in Kyiv. In my teaching experience in Institutes throughout the country (Lviv, Odesa, Lutsk, Chernivtsi, Ternopil, Khmelnytsky, Vasylkiv, Donetsk and Kharkiv). I noticed a significant need to introduce critical and analytical skills in the history and social studies classrooms. I also found that there was a need for teachers to understand how to democratize the classroom, and that the concept of recognizing the uniqueness of each student and his/ her individual approach and learning style was new for Ukrainian teachers. I believe that in this global information age it is important for history teachers to get away from the tradition of transmitting factual information, and instead, teach students how to think, analyze and interpret history, so they can be life-long learners. I use different methods of teaching including interactive methods, which put the child in the center of the educational process with the teacher as a facilitator in learning.

Which place did you like best?

I enjoyed Chernivtsi, but was excited by Donetsk and Kharkiv, maybe because my roots are from Eastern Ukraine and and they represented a challenge. My father came from Bilohorodka near Kyiv, and my mother, Nadia, from Ichnya, Chernihiv.

How was this book received in Ukraine?

Very well. Within a year all the 1,500 copies of the book that had been printed were sold out. I was really surprised and thrilled. I sent copies of the book to all the pedagogical institutes and universities that train teachers in Ukraine. I put my e-mail in the book; now, people that I have never met write to me and tell me that they find the book useful. In my book, I outline a theoretical approach on how to teach history and I describe various methods of teaching, providing specific examples (from Ukrainian history) of how to implement these ideas in the classroom. So, Ukrainian teachers find this book helpful. At the moment I am revising it as it is being considered for republication in the near future.

As a historian, what differences do you see in the identity of the Canadian Ukrainians and native Ukrainians?

In Canada, we have no problem of identifying ourselves as Canadians and Ukrainians. Our Ukrainianism stems from who we are, our roots, not from where we live or were born. Therefore, we have something in common with all Ukrainians throughout the world, who value their heritage and language and would like to come to Ukraine as a mecca of Ukrainianizm in the near future. In Ukraine, I feel that for some, Ukrainian identity comes from their citizenship and territorial living area. I was pleased to meet many patriotic Ukrainians in Eastern areas of Ukraine, who, regardless of their ethnic origin and language that they spoke, believed in this young country and its further development. I believe those, who were part of something so meaningful as the recent Orange Revolution, have no problem with their identity as Ukrainians. There is so much to work towards. The youth of Ukraine now are confident in their own abilities to bring about change in society, and will not be caught unaware of events unfolding in Ukraine.

For our part, we in Canada can be a part of the changes, by providing support and expertise to Ukraine.

I know that you have been involved in different activities and projects in the Ukrainian community in North America for many years. Could you tell us something about it?

I am the president of the Canadian-Ukrainian Opera Association. This organization was founded in Toronto in 1977 when maestro Volodymyr Kolesnyk, who used to be the Director of the Kyiv State Opera and Ballet Theatre, came to Canada. We formed an association to perform and stage Ukrainian operas and concerts on North American stages. We staged operas like Kupalo by Vakhnyany; Zaporozhets za Dunayem, Natalka Poltavka, and performed Roxolana by Sichynsk. We also organized a number of symphony concerts under the baton of Maestro Kolesnyk, recorded the oratorio Svyaty Dnipro, a patriotic new work composed by Valery Kikta and librettist, Sofiya Maydanska. Our Opera Association helped to organize the premiere of this work at the Kyiv Philharmonia in 2001. During our many years of existence, we performed a number of new works on Ukrainian themes, that have yet to be performed in Ukraine. Unfortunately, Maestro Kolesnyk died a few years ago and is buried at Baykove Cemetery in Kyiv.

Did your Association organize performances only in Canada?

No. Twice we performed in New York at the famous Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra. We performed in Toronto, Montreal, New York, Cleveland and Chicago at the Lyric Opera Theater. We were planning a trip to Ukraine, but Maestro Kolesnyk had become ill and passed away before we could complete this project. He had started work on something we would still like to see finished, an opera about the last Hetman of Ukraine, Kolynyshevsky. The libretto was written by Sofia Maydanska, and Valery Kikta started writing the music.

A couple of years ago I was also involved in putting on an exhibit of Legacy in Gold, Scythian Treasures from Ancient Ukraine at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the foremost museum of history in Canada. The famous Pectoral was included along with artifacts from four museum collections of Ukraine. I was part of an organizing committee from the Ukrainian Canadian community that helped make it a great success and raised a lot of money for this event. A hundred and sixty thousand people visited the exhibit in two and a half months. Part of what I am doing here in Ukraine at the moment is discussing the organization of an exhibit of the Trypillian Civilization in 2007, which would be a first for Canada and North America. The main idea is to show in North America that there was an ancient civilization called Trypillia on the territory of Ukraine that existed thousands of years ago.

You are doing a great job of making the roots of Ukrainian culture better known in the world.

Dont you think, that you should be interested in the culture of the people of your ancestry? I was always interested in archeology. The idea of promoting Ukrainian culture and heritage in Canada is very important, and we did this by performing Ukrainian opera and Ukrainian music, as well as working on projects like the Scythian Gold exhibit...

Did the attitude toward Ukraine change in Canada after the Orange Revolution?

The Orange Revolution put Ukraine in the contemporary global consciousness, which was a huge step. For the first time, news about Ukraine was on the front page of every newspaper worldwide. Everyone was excited about the events in Ukraine. The newspapers were covered with news about Ukraine. My students at the high school where I teach were very excited about the Orange Revolution. I wore orange to work during the revolutionary months. Along with other Canadian Ukrainians, I participated in demonstrations in Toronto to support the people on the Maydan in Kyiv. Some of my non-Ukrainian friends also wore orange in support of the Orange Revolution and everyone was very interested in the events that were unfolding in Ukraine. They were awed by the civility, organization and peacefulness of the revolution and expressed their opinion that the Ukrainian people were very special to have had this peaceful revolution. We, Ukrainians in Canada, have for years been educating Canadians, that we are not Russians and are different in our language, culture and history. When Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union, this was very difficult to do.

About a thousand Canadians came to Ukraine as international observers at the time of the presidential election in December 2004 and I was one of them. Five hundred came as representatives of the Canadian Government and five hundred as representatives of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. That was a huge number. They came from all parts of Canada and consisted of a wide variety of ages and professions. Most of those representing the Ukrainian Canadian Congress paid for their travel expenses themselves, which is pretty remarkable. They were willing to take time out from their work because they thought their help as observers was needed to prevent the falsification of the presidential election. I think this demonstrates that Ukrainians in Canada, care about what is happening in Ukraine. We came here and we were very proud of what we saw and the way the Ukrainian people conducted themselves. We couldnt take a direct part in the events because we were international observers and had to preserve our impartiality.

I know that its going to take generations for things to change in Ukraine. Canadian Ukrainians are willing to help. We wanted to help right from the start and we are still interested in helping with our expertise, not just our money.

Canada is a multicultural society, isnt it? And Ukrainian culture is part of Canadas cultural mosaic?

Yes, it is. Living in a multicultural society allows every person in Canada to have his/her own culture and language. There are a million and two hundred fifty thousand people who claim Ukrainian descent in Canada, most of whom have maintained their Ukrainian identity, regardless of whether they speak Ukrainian or not. Ukrainians have left their mark on the history of Canada and we are proud of it. We have made a worthy contribution to the development of the nation and throughout, have shown that Ukrainians are a people of dignity with rich cultural traditions. In Canada, we consider ourselves as mainstream Canadians, who have the full rights and privileges of Canadian citizenship. As you may recall, we had a Canadian-Ukrainian Governor-General, Ramon Hnatyshyn in Canada, a Supreme Court Justice, John Sopinka. Our Ukrainian recipes are part of Canadian recipe books. At the same time, we teach people in Canada to be tolerant and respect other cultures and nationalities. I think this is important for all peoples in all countries.


Photos are from Valentina KURYLIWs archive

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