Byelorussians

Byelorussians (Byelarussians, Belarusians) are an eastern Slavic people. From 1922 to 1991 Byelorussia was a constituent republic of the USSR. In the 13th century, Byelorussian lands formed part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Subsequently they fell under Polish influence after the 1569 Union of Lublin and were incorporated into the Russian Empire during the 3 partitions of Poland in the period 1772-95. In August 1991 Byelorussia declared independence from the Soviet Union, though under its first president, Alyaksander Lukashenka (elected in July 1994) it sought close integration with Russia. On 2 April 1996 the 2 countries signed a union agreement to co-ordinate their economies and foreign policies. Byelorussia today encompasses 207 600 sq km and has a population of 10.3 million.

At the beginning of the 20th century, according to Soviet sources, Byelorussians immigrated to Canada in large numbers. The majority of the immigrants were peasants and were considered, officially, as Russians. After WWI, western Byelorussia was temporarily under Polish rule. It may be assumed that Polish immigrants to Canada in 1927 included 3500 Byelorussians; in 1928, 3800; in 1929, 5100; and in 1930, 4200.

Among the first Byelorussians to immigrate to Canada after WWII were soldiers from the Polish Second Command who were recruited by Canadian agriculturalists as "agricultural workers." Of the 2800 recruited, 2200 were probably Byelorussians; in 1947 some 800 more Byelorussians arrived in Canada. It can be estimated that Byelorussians comprised 60% of Polish immigrants from 1948 to 1956, and it is probable that as many as 48 000 Byelorussians immigrated between 1946 and 1971.

The Byelorussians who immigrated in the postwar period varied in age and in socioeconomic, cultural and political background, and many possessed a sense of national consciousness. It was not until 1971 that Byelorussians were listed in the census. The 1996 census reported 4060 Canadians of Byelorussian origin.

Settlement and Economic Life

Byelorussians who arrived in Canada before WWI settled primarily in industrial cities, particularly in northern Ontario, where they worked as labourers. Many immigrants who arrived between the wars settled on the Prairies. In 1927 a group cleared land in Saskatchewan; both they and their children spoke pure Byelorussian.

The postwar immigrants (peasants, labourers, skilled workers, technicians and professionals) enjoyed better economic status and were geographically more mobile. Many Byelorussians are represented in medicine, engineering, broadcasting and academia. According to estimates, the majority of Byelorussians are in Ontario, followed by Alberta, BC, Québec and Manitoba.

Religious and Cultural Life

The majority of Byelorussians belong to the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox churches, but some adhere to the United Church, Anglican and Baptist faiths, among others.

After WWII, nationality-conscious Byelorussians in Canada established various organizations, including the Byelorussian Canadian Alliance (1948) in Toronto, the Byelorussian National Committee (1950) in Winnipeg and the Alliance of Byelorussians (1952) in Montréal, and several monthly newsletters have been published.

In 1969 the communal portion of a Byelorussian resort at Lake Manitouwabing, Ont, was opened, and it has become known as a Byelorussian village. "Byelorussian Week," first held in 1974, is now a tradition in Toronto.

After the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, about 70% of radioactive fallout in the former Soviet Union landed on the territory of Byelorussia. Subsequently Canadian organizations of Byelorussians became very active in the relief efforts, particularly the Children of Chernobyl Committee based in Ontario, which has hosted Byelorussian children on a regular basis during summer vacations.