New Canadian Media

Understanding My Ukrainian Grandparents

Written by  New Canadian Media Tuesday, 21 July 2015 14:24
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The Sunflower Project -- Michelle Loughery Murals
The Sunflower Project -- Michelle Loughery Murals

by Michelle Loughery (@mlougherymurals) in Vernon, British Columbia

Thousands of Canadians originating from Eastern Europe were imprisoned within the barbed wire fences of internment camps across Canada between 1914 - 20. For decades, their stories have been buried under fear and shame.

As a testament to their strength and resilience, I decided to paint the Sunflower mural to honour First World War Canadian internees.

My first human rights mural depicts a Ukrainian immigrant standing next to a 150-foot sunflower and a twisted barbed wire fence. He was arrested and interned in Calgary and moved by cattle car to the Vernon camp. His crime? Being an unemployed immigrant looking for work.

Like many Eastern Europeans that came to Canada with the promise of opportunities, he had responded to an invitation by the Canadian government. At the man’s side in the mural is a woman who represents the women who were forced to enter internment camps with their children. “With this mural, I feel like generations of people are speaking through me,” she says. “I didn’t understand my Ukrainian heritage before. I didn’t understand why my Ukrainian grandparents were so harsh. Now I understand.”

“With this mural, I feel like generations of people are speaking through me... I didn’t understand my Ukrainian heritage before. I didn’t understand why my Ukrainian grandparents were so harsh. Now I understand.”

Drawing inspiration

I drew inspiration from my great-grandfather, Michael Sanyshyn, who was interned in the camps with his son, Stephen. When he finally returned from the camps, he was ill and couldn’t work, making it impossible to clear the land as promised to the government under its immigrant invitation.

As a descendant of internees, I heard stories of my grandfather spending his entire life looking for his brother who had been working in a camp and then disappeared. While researching a heritage mural in Vernon, I found a letter to my grandfather in response to his inquiry about the location of his brother.

The response was he was last seen in an immigrant construction camp in Vernon. My great uncle was finally found in a document, Roll Call, as POW#47 interned at Banff/Castle Mountain, Alberta: among the harshest of camps.  It is not known what happened to him after he was sent there. And my grandfather never found him.

Social issue murals

This mural is the first of my series of social issue murals, which consists of a number of paintings across Canada that will draw on the same theme but will focus on injustices endured by all nationalities.

The murals, which will combine multi-media, traditional and digital art storytelling as well as historical photographs and personal video stories from the families directly affected, are slated to appear in the affected communities across Canada over the next several years.

My team plans to provide educational workshops in each community. These events, focused on information and story collection, will engage all generations and affected groups within the community. The goal of each workshop will be to share the cultural history of the people featured in the mural, and to create opportunities for societal healing and the turning of human wrongs into human rights.

All of my murals are created with help from youth artists who have encountered some form of barriers, in a unique skills and “Learn to Work” employment program that bridges youth and their communities together. Each mural will include the stories of the local people affected.

Inclusive healing

But my murals are more than just a painting on the wall -- they are an inclusive effort to heal the wounds of past and present injustices.

I have spent 25 years painting murals in  communities, including mural healing work with First Nation families who have survived residential schools. The fact that my own family had been marginalized makes this project a personal journey to help educate future generations about the past failings on Canadian soil. As it is only in learning from the past, using art to equalize all nations, can we wear the wings to a better future.

This Community Art is only the start of a conversation. Through the Sunflower Project Murals, my charity is making efforts to bring Canada’s dark chapter in history into the school curriculum. The average Canadian and youth still know very little about immigrant internment in Canada’s history.

While historic injustices are not a proud point in Canada’s history, I hope that through art people can learn about each other and through similar artistic journeys come together as a nation.

Our Canadian workforce is diverse in every way. Employees come from many backgrounds that cross ethnic, generational and economic differences.  Community art projects provide opportunities for employees to become more familiar with their co-workers. Art is a tool to bring diversity and inclusion programs to communities, companies, and education and skills institutions.

While historic injustices are not a proud point in Canada’s history, I hope that through art people can learn about each other and through similar artistic journeys come together as a nation.

I hope to bring artists together to help Canada heal and bring all nations together in reconciliation, as Canada is a multicultural community and the combined strength of all nations are the first people of today. Let’s hope we can not only learn from past injustices, but also celebrate our cultural differences.


Michelle Loughery is an award winning international artist and art educator who has been creating large scale community art for 25 years.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

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