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Ukrainian Tones on Canadian Soil

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THIS is a story about heritage, exile, adaptation, but mostly about catching sight of one's life in a fuzzy mirror. Like hearing oceans through a conch.

The words sound familiar, nearly recognizable. Yet I can't speak this language which, as I arrive in Winnipeg in south-central Canada, echoes around me. Like a softer version of the Russian my grandmother taught me: imperfectly learned, but mysterious, mystical, cherished.

I try to decipher four lines: Boritesia - poborete./ Sam Boh pomahaye;/ Za vas syla, za vas volya/ I pravda svyataya.

Ukrainians both at home and in the countries to which they have emigrated memorize this excerpt from "Caucasus" by Taras Schevchenko (1814-1861). When in the 1890s the first Ukrainian pioneers headed westward across Europe, the Atlantic, and North America, braving harsh climates and unforgiving environments to homestead in the wilderness, they brought little more than the clothes on their backs, cooking pots, and a few farm tools. With their Bibles they carried Shevchenko's poems in a volume entitled "Ko bzar.Kobzar" means a sort of troubadour who played an instrument like a bandura, which is rather like a lute.

Shevchenko's portrait hangs like an icon in this book-lined office in Winnipeg, and everywhere else here. His statues stand before the Manitoba Legislature, and in the Winnipeg park - and even in Washington D.C.

I memorize the quatrain, try to translate it. Easy: in Russian, syla means "strength." Volya means "will" and pravda "truth." Something about "holy truth?"

"No," says Professor Jaroslaw Razumnyj of the University of Manitoba's Slavic Studies department and president of the Winnipeg chapter of Canadian Friends of RUKH, the Ukranian independence movement. "In Ukrainian Volya means 'freedom.' Pravda here conveys a sense of 'justice.' 'Sacred' or 'holy' justice."

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