I was born in Toronto in 1936. I lived above a hairdressing and barber shop run by my mother and father, an aunt and two uncles, at Queen and Seaton streets, in Toronto. The smell of fingerwave solution and the unique odour of a permanent wave still trigger an eruption of memories of playing in the shop. I spoke no English until I went to Duke of York public school, nor did I need to. Playing on Seaton St., I wasn’t aware that English existed. There were enough Ukrainian families on the street that it was like a tribal village or circle of tents in the desert, so oblivious were we to the surrounding population.
Our Ukrainian community was so safe that I could play on Seaton St. all day while my parents worked. If I didn’t come home for lunch it hardly mattered. I simply ate with all the other kids at the home were we happened to be playing. Warm, wizened old babas shrouded in black seemed to be everywhere.
On Sundays and feast days, the Ukrainian tribe trudged to the Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church on King St., near the Don River. Today, forty-five years later, when I exit the Don Valley parkway from the Richmond St. Ramp and pass over the former site of the church, I’m flooded with memories of weddings, plays, christenings and religious celebrations. I swear the smells of incense, wax and the stale odour of the basement hall are still there twenty years after the church was demolished. I sometimes still hear the priest’s deep booming voice chanting Hos podi pomelui as he swings the cadillo of smoking frankincense on a golden chain.
At eight, I survived the terrors of Saturday Ukrainian school where I was threatened with life in eternal hell if I didn’t agree to become an alter boy. I remained steadfastly opposed under relentless pressure from two large nuns. My parents were never able to get me to return to Ukrainian school after the nuns forced me to try on the alter boy robes to show me how beautiful I looked in them. They promised me a life in heaven where, as one nun said, “You can have an apply any time you want one.” I can still see her bulbous, scrubbed face framed by her white habit as she leaned close to mine and whispered this holy secret.
When I was five, I was hospitalized with a serious case of strep throat. No one understood me as I whined and complained in Ukrainian and my condition deteriorated. Frustrated, my parents whisked me out of the hospital, vowing they would never speak Ukrainian at home again. They never did, except when Ukrainian visitors came by from the old neighbourhood. I slowly became aware that not all Canadians spoke Ukrainian.
I never realized what a poor student I was until just recently. After my dad’s death, I came upon some of my old report cards from grades four and five among his documents. Report cards then contained only rank in class, one subject after another; no grades, no marks, just rank in class, and a section at the bottom to indicate the number of students in the class. I noted that there were 44 students in the class and my rank for the academic subjects read 44, 43, 38, 41. While I was never required to repeat a grade, my parents were upset when the school wanted to put me into a special program for slow learners. But it was wartime and the placement never materialized.I’ve learned since it takes a second-language student seven to ten years to approach the level of his peers in the ability to use English. My poor reports in grade four represented my functional level after five years of learning English. By the end of grade eight, after nine years of English, my grades were sufficient to gain admission to, and eventually graduate from, Upper Canada College. Later, I completed B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from the University of Toronto.
I am amazed at how long it takes to learn and understand a lanaguage well enough to compete with one’s peers, even when one is born in Canada. The streaming of children of newly arrived immigrant groups into terminal programs or vocatinal programs repeats itself over and over again.
Neither my mother nor my father ever learned to read or write English. There were no newspapers or magazines in our home. I never had a story read to me nor do I recall being told any stories. Goldilocks, Winnie the Pooh and Hansel and Gretel became known to me only as an adult, and there are innumerable references to children’s literary characters that crop up in daily conversation that pass right over me. I remember two books that came into the house. One was a tattered old book of poems by the Ukrainian patriot Taras Shevchenko. The other was a second-hand book on the diseases of the eye – a medical book my father bought for my older brother Walter. He was told to read it because he was going to be a doctor, just as I understood that I was expected to be a lawyer. I never saw anyone pick up either book. But my father constantly proclaimed the importance of education. He never went to school in the Ukraine but he was determined that his sons would make up for his lack of schooling.
My father and eleven silent partners bought a beer parlour, the Riviera Hotel on King St. near Sherbourne. Our family moved in upstairs, and my mother and father ran the hotel singlehandedly. Frankly, it was a whorehouse and a hangout for the legendary Mickey McDonald gang. My father was granted a temporary three-month licence on the condition that if he could clean up the prostitution and get rid of the gang, he would get a permanent licence. I watched many a fight through the banister posts, and I’ll always remember the night my father locked the Mickey McDonald gang inside the hotel until the police arrived. He stood defiantly at the door, bloodied, shouting in his thick accent, “You wouldn’t leave when I asked you; now you stay till I let you leave!” He got his permanent licence.
Life started to settle down a bit. Like clockwork, my father opened the hotel doors every day at noon. The workers from the Christie Biscuit factory across the street poured in for lunchtime brews. One gentleman stood out. He wore a black homburg hat, a black overcoat, a black suit and black tie. Every day he ordered a draft, opened up his newspaper and read for about twenty minutes, finished his beer and left. One day my father, in his broken English, said, “Sir, you look like smart man. My son is in grade eight. I want to send him to good school. The best in Canada. Can you tell me good school?”
The man didn’t like being disturbed. Abruptly, he replied, “One of the best schools in Canada is right here in Toronto. It’s called Upper Canada College.” The newspaper snapped open between them.”Where is this school, sir?”
“On Londsale Road,” came a curt reply from behind the newspaper. My father arranged to make an application for my brother Walter to attend the school. In time, my father received a letter that Walter was not accepted.
Towards the end of June, as my father delivered the ritual draft beer, the man in the black homburg lowered his paper and said, “By the way, did you ever apply to have your son attend Upper Canada College?”
“Yes,” my father said, “but they say no.”
This piqued the gentleman’s interest and he questioned my father further. At his request, my father rummaged around in his cubbyhole of an office and produced the letter. One sentence said: “We do not feel your son would fit in well here.” The man asked my father if he would still like to send his son to Upper Canada.”Sure, if you think it’s good school, I send!” my father replied.
He asked my father if he could keep the letter for a few days, and then he left. About an hour later, the headmaster from Upper Canada College arrived in the men’s parlour of the Riviera Hotel to inform my father that an opening had just come up and the college would be delighted if Walter would accept the vacancy. The man in the black homburg turned out to be a governor of Upper Canada College, who took time out from his law practice to enjoy a beer and a quiet read at lunch. Though my father could ill afford it, we three Diakiw boys began fifteen years of roaming the hallowed halls of Upper Canada College. What a strange quirk of fate! What a bizarre shift in cultures! My five years at the college were a combination of joy, pleasure, boredom, humiliation and anger. I reveled in the sports and other extra-curricular opportunities available there. Despite the strong loyalty I still have for the College, the appalling boredom and monotony of my classes hardly justified its first-rate reputation. Parents paid exorbitantly for the reputation, and students didn’t dare question the teaching staff. Yet in many ways, away from the school, I acquired status. When adults learned about the school I attended, they gave me an unwarranted elevated social status, not unlike the deference they might have shown to an Oxford or Harvard graduate.
Until I entered Upper Canada College, I never realized how Ukrainian or, rather, how non-Canadian I was. Attending the college exposed the socio-cultural hierarchies to which I had been oblivious. For me, this privilege was not without its price. In 1957, two years after graduating from Upper Canada College, I served in the Royal Canadian navy’s summer training program (UNTD) for officer cadets. I arrived at the Officers’ Mess in Montreal, shouldered my duffle bag to my assigned quarters and introduced myself to my roommate, Milton Zysman, who was stretched out on his bed reading. “What kind of name is Diakiw?” he asked.”Ukrainian,” I said.”Ah! Another Black man,” he boomed. I looked at him – stunned – as lights flashed in my mind and memories tumbled and unfolded like a kaleidoscope. I had never thought of it that way, yet he had exposed a central truth about the way I felt and the experiences I had had. What did a Ukrainian and a Jew have in common with a Black man? Why did I find it so easy to identify with that statement? While the differences in experiences were vast, we had all known intolerance, prejudice and second-class status. For Milton and me, this status was confirmed by law. Our parents had immigrated to Canada at a time when the rulings under the Immigration Act of 1923 classified European immigrants as preferred (northwestern Europe), non-preferred (eastern Europe, including the Ukraine) and Special Permits Class (southern Europe and all Jews except British subjects, regardless of their nationality). The day that I arrived at the naval base in Montreal, I no longer spoke or understood Ukrainian. I was born in Canada and I had never visited the Ukraine. I had had no association with the Ukrainian church since the age of ten. I belonged to no Ukrainian club or organization, celebrated no Ukrainian holiday or festival. I was almost not a Ukrainian at all, except that my identity was defined and affirmed for me by English Canadians. They defined the group to which they had determined I belonged, and that group was somehow inherently inferior.
I was not aware of this inferior status until I went to Upper Canada College, where I was confronted with the impenetrable wall of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. I don’t recall being insulted personally, apart from one French teacher. He regularly kicked and pushed me out of my seat and onto the floor while shouting how I was born out of my mother’s deep black Ukrainian swamp.
Otherwise, I was treated as an equal and fully accepted into school life. No door or opportunity was closed to me. I was accepted by my classmates as one of them. And yet I felt like an alien. The culture of the college was English public school. This tradition was so highly guarded that the school always imported an English headmaster to guarantee that these central values were maintained. (A few years after I graduated, the school appointed its first Canadian headmaster.) In being accepted, I came to learn how my culture, my parents, my lifestyle, my past were not acceptable. I believe that I hid this knowledge well from my classmates – they just never knew. As such, they revealed their feelings and attitudes. Even today I can’t share with my close friends from those years the subtle and unconscious distinctions they communicated to me. They wouldn’t remember, or would suggest that I was overly sensitive – I’m sure they just wouldn’t understand. The distinctions were relentless: ethnic jokes, the derision about the way ethnics talked or dressed, their language about immigrants – “those bloody Dps are ruining this country” – the belittling of other cultures – “the only cultural achievement of the Ukrainians is the decorated Easter egg.” A remark about an Italian , a jew or Hungarian painted me with the same brush. They accepted me as one of them, but when they joked about ethnics, they defined me and it belittled me.
At the college, we were trained to emulate proper Englishmen. We were taught Latin and the classics. We committed to memory, during daily Church of England prayers in the chapel, such patriotic English hymns as “Jerusalem” – “Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” I learned about Empire and about all the “pink bits” on the map. Through the Upper Canada College Cadet Battalion’s affiliation with the Queen’s Own Rifles, I learned of that regiment’s gallant history in creating, defending and protecting the Empire. Prince Philip, our royal patron, made periodic visits to the school to affirm our connection right to the top. My classmates and I learned about power, and that power was in the hands of English Canadians; we were trained to be proper English Canadians. Many of those same classmates dominate in every corridor of power today.
This was not an environment in which I was able to talk proudly about my heritage. I retreated and assimilated as fast as I could. I was very ashamed of my background. I was particularly embarrassed about my parents. Compared with my friend’s parents, mine seemed ignorant and crude. Not one classmate ever met my parents or visited my home during the five years I attended the college. I visited in their homes but not until the end of grade thirteen did I invite any friends to mine. Only then did I begin to realize that despite the differences in culture and wealth, my parents were among the best.
To me, my mother and father were largely without prejudice. (My wife maintains that I delude myself.) But the one ethnic group that bore the brunt of slurs and castigation by my parents was that of English Canadians with English accents. My mother always felt embarrassed and humiliated in their presence. When one of us put on “airs”, acted overbearing, pompous, opinionated or domineering, they would say “Don’t act like a ‘Bronco.'” A “Bronco” was an English person, and in our house it was the most scathing insult you could make. As a youngster I never understood this hostility. But at Upper Canada College and in the years that followed, I began to understand the impertinence of “the dominant culture.” I came to understand and sympathize with angry Jews who stereotype gentiles, with Blacks who lash out against whites, with radical feminists who demolish men. Reverse discrimination, the slow-brewing reaction to inequality, is often accompanied by anger and hostility. I remember when my older brother Walter was dating an English girl my mother warned me not to marry a “Bronco” because “whenever you have a fight she’ll throw it in your face that are not a real Canadian.” (All three of us married “Broncos.”) How many times will I hear “Why don’t they just become Canadians?” uttered in dismay and frustration by a WASP who understands what a Canadian is. They want us to be like them.
Even a friend, who lives in Metropolitan Toronto where the majority of residents are from a non-English-speaking background, when discussing a draft of this memoir asked me, “Do you feel more Ukrainian or more Canadian?” The depth of misunderstanding revealed by this question staggers me, yet it typifies the suspicion and misunderstanding that English Canadians have of immigrants. Even my father, a Ukrainian patriot, born and raised in the Ukraine, a man who loved his heritage passionately, loved Canada foremost. He considered it an honour and privilege to be a Canadian. He would not have understood my neighbour’s question. It’s like asking someone if they are more white or more Canadian.
I still struggle to control and understand my own prejudices. Though I have few remaining traits normally associated with belonging to a cultural group, such as language, religion or customs, my pride in my Ukrainian roots runs strong and deep. I somehow feel connected to the men and women in sheepskin coats who settled the west in endless waves. I still somehow feel that a Ukrainian Cossack dance is my kind of dance.