Home away from home

Ukrainian Festival brings together community amidst troubled times

Though it may not be known within the McGill bubble, Montreal has a large and vibrant Ukrainian community ­– large enough to sustain the Montreal Ukrainian Festival for the past 15 years. This year’s took place last weekend in Le Parc de l’Ukraine, a pillar of the Montreal Ukrainian community.

Coming from Ukraine myself, I’ve heard Ukrainian citizens express their uncertainty and dissatisfaction with the whole concept of celebrating, whether in the country or outside of it, at this turbulent time. There is, to put it gently, a certain tension floating in the air of our communities due to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Many Ukrainians are not quite sure if it is appropriate to call anything a festival right now, amidst the military action in the Eastern part of the country. There is no official prohibition of festivals or celebratory events in the Ukraine, but a lot of Ukrainians, especially those whose families are directly involved in the conflict, prefer not to participate in big parades and not to ‘celebrate life’ while many are at risk of losing it.

Organized by the Montreal Ukrainian Festival Executive, the festival incorporated many traditional Ukrainian activities. During the three-day-long event, attendees enjoyed folk dances, music, and delicious food. Although the festival itself was not very spacious, the organizers did a great job of installing plenty of food stalls, little arts and crafts shops, and most importantly, a large stage with ample seating area so that no one missed out on the non-stop lineup of folk dancers and singers. In Ukraine, everything begins with a song, and at Ukrainian events or parties, it often feels like the singing never ends – at least not in people’s hearts. The festival organizers did a perfect job of representing the importance of music in Ukrainian life, as there was never any silence throughout the festival. The intense dances, colourful embroidered clothing so enthusiastically worn by the guests, and folk songs performed by both Ukrainians and artists from the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, all combined to evoke the spirit of home.

The purpose of this beautifully organized gathering wasn’t solely to make people like myself feel at home. The festival also acts as a means of introducing Montrealers to Ukrainian culture in an accessible and fun manner. Many of the attendees were not Ukrainian, but could still be seen enjoying their servings of borsch (a traditional Ukrainian soup made with beets), eagerly listening to the folk songs from the stage, and inquiring about the Ukrainian symbols sold in souvenir shops. The festival had a welcoming atmosphere, a comfortable home for a community of many backgrounds, where each performance was announced in three different languages – Ukrainian, French, and English. Those with a connection to Ukraine were happy to share stories about their home with anyone who was willing to listen – myself included.

Despite the success of this cultural coming-together, at the festival’s long-awaited concert from popular Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy, the issue of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ was brought up again. On the day of the performance, a reporter from the Ukrainian news service TNS inquired whether the band thought it was appropriate to have that kind of a celebration at the moment. With confidence and respect, band member Svyatoslav Varachuk replied that he didn’t consider the concert a celebration – it was a gathering of people who had one goal, one hope, and lots of love for their country. He thought the concert was a way of being together and holding hands in support of Ukraine.

Personally, I’m inclined to agree. While there were visitors who disagreed, their mere presence at the festival was encouraging. The festival isn’t performed year after year out of some necessity to organize an event related to Ukraine. It is a sign of cultural acknowledgment, the sunlight amidst the dark clouds reigning over Ukraine.