My family lost our ancestral language due to the assimilationist policies of the provincial government and the bigoted attitude of other Albertans in the mid-twentieth century. My father purposely forgot how to speak it, so I never learned as I child. As an adult I've been trying to recover this lost gateway to my culture. For this reason, my wife and I started taking курси (classes) at St. Andrew's, the last place left in the city that still offers adult evening classes in Ukrainian. My progress in the language wasn't great, but being part of that community led me to other discoveries in arts and culture. One of the instructors, Mr. Ludvik Marianych--one of Alberta's unsung cultural heroes--recruited my wife and I to be part of Чайка (Chaika) a youth orchestra that plays Ukrainian-language music. This was a big step because, although I could (barely) play the guitar I had never been part of a band (never mind an orchestra) and hadn't played in front of anyone in years. But Mr. Marianych made it seem totally possible that anyone could participate, even me: someone who could only bang out a few chords. The next thing I knew, not only was I the group's guitarist but I was volunteering to learn to play the mandolin as well, so we could add that instrument to the band. Mr. Marianych has the gift of making music accessible to everyone, and inspired me to believe I could do more.
From their I went on to singing with the Верховина (Verkhovyna) choir under the amazing Orest Soltykevych (of CKUA fame). I 'm not a natural singer--to put in mildly--but was again taken by the hand and told that anyone (even me) could sing. And not just sing, but sing both baritone and tenor, stay in tune with the choir, and do it all entirely in my third language, one that had only just started to learn (Ukrainian). Somehow I did it (or at least felt like I did).
The highlight of this cultural journey for me (so far) was appearing on the main stage during the "Svieto 25" celebration in Churchill Square in August of 2016, honouring the 25th anniversary of Ukrainian independence and 125 years of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. I was there twice: once to play with orchestra, and once to sing with the choir. It was something I wouldn't have thought possible just a few years earlier.
Since the birth of my second child, I've had step back from some of my commitments. But those years when I was actively participating in the arts were made much richer because of the involvement I did have: arts and culture made my life better. Soon, I hope, they will be doing the same for my children.
It matters that I learned that I could participate in the arts and culture through an ethnic community. That is not an accident. In our ethnic communities we find examples of true participatory culture: it's not about listening to or watching professionals. It's about having pride or curiosity enough that you to want to live out the community's traditions, whether they are part of your birthright or something you are learning along the way.
My vision for the arts in culture in Edmonton is that others will have a similar journey to my own: using one part of culture as ladder to reach for the next one, and being welcomed and included along the way. And I hope that the city as a whole can recognize the value of ethnic communities in that process. Having a thriving arts and culture scene should really mean that we have a cultural ecosystem that include niches for the ethnic arts.
And yes, I'm still working on that language! Language is the conduit through which the rest of culture flows. Any arts, culture, and heritage vision MUST include a language component or it is fundamentally incomplete.