Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival made a triumphant return to the stage this weekend in Dauphin.
Festival board member Cory Lafontaine said planning for this year’s event in the western Manitoba city was unique — it marked not only the first in-person festival since 2019, due to pandemic cancellations, but also the first since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February.
“We really want you to appreciate Ukrainian culture and everything that it has to offer,” Lafontaine said. “There’s a lot of history there and with our festival, we try … to do a really good job of getting that message across.”
The festival, which started in 1965, offers an immersive experience of Ukrainian culture for visitors to Dauphin — a city of around 8,400, including many people of Ukrainian descent.
Walking through the festival’s gates can be a “magical” feeling, Lafontaine said, that takes visitors back to their Ukrainian roots. Food, music and dancing capture the heart of Ukrainian culture and help people feel like they are part of a big community, he said.
“The atmosphere is fantastic this year.”
Welcoming Ukrainian refugees
Lafontaine said he cannot speak personally about the war in Ukraine, but has connected with refugees who have relocated to the Parkland region of southwestern Manitoba.
“Here at our festival we’ve welcomed them with open arms, and we have some that are actually volunteering with us and we have some that are planning on coming,” Lafontaine said.
Organizers were thoughtful in planning festivities because they wanted to respect the ongoing war efforts in Ukraine, he said. The goal was to bring people together and help family and friends connect in person.
Ukrainian newcomers from Brandon, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan have joined that celebration, said Lafontaine.
Carol Ripplinger, president of St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Candiac, Sask., traveled four hours to attend the festival.
She made the journey with a group of more than 30 people. Their campsite has been decorated to celebrate Ukraine with flags, ribbons and a giant flower crown.
“It’s a fellowship. It’s … being part of something bigger than what’s out there and being with ‘stand with Ukraine,'” Ripplinger said. “It’s important.”
This year marked her second time attending the festival, and it feels different because of the war in Ukraine.
It is sad knowing what is going on in the besieged country, she said, but she has been inspired by the resilience of newcomers displaced by the Russian invasion.
“If we lose our culture — the food, the culture the folk dances — then we lose … that in every nationality,” Ripplinger said.
She cherished the opportunity to unabashedly celebrate and be immersed in Ukrainian culture, a rare opportunity outside of her church.
“There’s something for everybody” at the festival, Ripplinger said. “If you’ve never experienced it, come out and see. People are friendly and you don’t have to be Ukrainian to come here and enjoy.”
The festival, which started Friday, continues until Sunday.
‘A wonderful atmosphere’
Third-generation Canadian Ukrainian Kathryn Kuzyk danced in the grandstand show with the Winnipeg-based Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble.
She performed on the festival’s mainstage for the first time Friday, after attending the show for 25 years.
“It’s just such a great environment with all the Ukrainian music, Ukrainian culture, the people that just feel so strongly about bringing Ukrainian heritage to Canada and keeping it alive,” Kuzyk said. “It’s just a wonderful atmosphere and environment to be in.”
Dancing in the show, and feeling the energy from the audience, along with the bond with others over the pride in Ukrainian culture, has been a powerful emotional experience, she said.
Each Ukrainian dance is layered with meaning, she said, and these experiences have been enhanced by the war in Ukraine.
When Kuzyk dances, she thinks about keeping Ukrainian culture alive in Canada. That feels different now, as there is a drive to show Ukrainian culture thriving during the Russian invasion, she said.
Its teachings and history span many generations and hold great meaning to people across the world, said Kuzyk.
“We know what’s at stake and how … we sort of take for granted those sorts of things. It just means a lot to try and preserve the culture in Canada and internationally just try and keep it alive.”