by John Helmer - Dances with Bears
Moscow - Fifty years is enough time to tell the difference between a journalist whose memoir of growing up in Winnipeg failed to notice there were any Ukrainians in Canada; and another whose memory of growing up Ukrainian in Alberta failed to notice Canadians.
The first was Melinda McCracken (lead images, left and centre) whose friendship I first made in Montreal in 1967, when she was a reporter for Montreal and Toronto media. She died in Winnipeg almost twenty years ago, but left behind Memories Are Made of This – a memoir of Winnipeg in the 1950s. The other is Chrystia Freeland (lead image, right), whose entire career, including time at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, has been spent promoting an idea of Ukraine for which she has advocated a war for which Canadians will go on paying into the future without end.
I didn’t so much meet McCracken as I was met by her.
It was late morning in Montreal’s Westmount Park, a few hours after I came in on the overnight Greyhound from Toronto. A demonstration against the US in the Vietnam War was assembling in the park. In a crowd of thousands McCracken stood out. She was tall, strikingly beautiful, and carried herself like noone around her. I managed to get in her way. She spoke first, asking how I happened to be there. She started in French, so I replied in the same. When I said I was a reporter, come to Montreal for the World Expo, our friendship began.
That afternoon she took me to meet her friends at the apartment of Irving Layton, then the Canadian poet next to Leonard Cohen in popularity. Layton and Cohen were in France at that moment.
One of McCracken’s friends at the party said he was moving into the downtown apartment of his lover for a while, and offered me a loan of his uptown house for as long as I was in Montreal, or for as long as his lover would have him, whichever came first. McCracken drove me uptown in her red Morgan roadster.
I had been counting myself pretty unhappy in Boston, where I’d spent the weeks before; and so I fled north. Montreal was civilization at last, I thought. With McCracken I thought my luck was about to change. Much more than luck, though, McCracken was the first to teach me what changes after you cross the frontier, and what is very different about Canadians. The second to teach me that was Glenn Gould. But that’s another story, and there have been only two lessons, two stories. Since McCracken and Gould have left this earth, Canada is not as it was. Freeland is a big reason for that. Russia has nothing to do with it. The Ukraine and the US, everything.
The gentle irony towards the country McCracken represented starts and ends her book. The first line is: “Winnipeg is one of the flattest cities anywhere.” The last line is: “It was as cold as it ever was.” In between is a display of wit that defies the two great enemies of Canadian culture preoccupying McCracken when I knew her – and which she has put down in print. The enemies weren’t the topography or the weather – they were things Canadians had to accept because they were unchangeable. The enemies were Great Britain and the United States. They could be resisted, or so McCracken thought.
McCracken had a very full experience outside Canada, so she knew plenty of flatness and coldness with which to compare Winnipeg. Born in 1940 into a middle-class family of school teachers – her father gave that up to sell life insurance – she attended Riverview School and Churchill (yes, him) High School, and it’s her time in both that comprises her book. By the standard of Marcel Pagnol’s autobiography of childhood and schooldays around Marseille – two volumes, 510 pages in all — McCracken’s 118-leaf memoir is slim. But then compared to the south of France, Winnipeg was very flat and very cold.
After McCracken graduated from high school in 1957, she went on to get her B.A. Hons. from the University of Manitoba. From there she started in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, but dropped that to go to Paris in 1962 and then on to London. When she returned in 1964 she lived and worked in Montreal. When we met in 1967 she was reporting on Montreal for the Toronto Star, as well as for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) TV. The next year she moved to Toronto, where she wrote for Maclean’s and the Globe and Mail. In 1976 she returned to Winnipeg, and died there.
Remembering from the year 1974, when the Ontario Arts Council gave her a grant to write her book, to the quarter-century before, McCracken never mentions the summer. If there’d ever been one, and if she had gone swimming, she doesn’t think it memorable to report.
Protracted winter was one enemy; spring flooding of the Red River was another. But loss of job or income, family breakup, local violence, fatal accidents, lethal disease, war or threats from outside the country – they go unreported in the book, uncontemplated by McCracken’s peers, apparently unheard of. For the Canada which McCracken describes provided security, health, social stability, the promise of prosperity. And in exchange there was hard work and strict compliance with the authority of parents, church, school.
“In the world we lived in, things were generally seen as being hierarchical. God was the supreme authority. People respected God and trusted in him. This trusting respect for authority was transferred to authority at all levels. Authority per se was good. It helped one live the good life. You obeyed the rules, and goodness followed naturally.”
“As things stood in the hierarchy, many groups were considered to be lower in respectability than middle-class families of British stock or native Canadian ancestry. The poor, Jews, DPs [Displaced Persons, refugees from World War II], Uker-ainians, and Roman Catholics were discriminated against. These prejudices were in many ways the mark of respectability. Blame was big. People in authority blamed the powerless, and the powerless were expected to respond by feeling guilty.”
That’s the only mention of Jews in the book. Nor is there one of the indigenous Canadian peoples. Blacks were not met except on the radio or jukebox. The phonetic spelling of Uker-ainians is indicative. There had been a first wave of newcomers from the Russian empire at the start of the 20th century. There were more after World War II. But McCracken never encountered them.
The population of Winnipeg doubled to 136,000 in the first decade of the 20th century, and continued growing to 236,000 by 1951. Another 30,000 arrived by birth or immigration during the decade covered by McCracken’s story. But who they were, where they had come from, what they were like, or what they believed – that was another story; one McCracken didn’t tell because she couldn’t. Winnipeg stopped growing in the 1960s. It didn’t begin to revive until the late 1970s.
Nowadays Winnipeg has a population of just over 700,000. Its British comprise 39%; white Canadian, 16%; German, 16%, Irish, 13%; French, 13%. The city also has the largest concentration of First Nations, Inuit and Métis of any Canadian city, 11%; plus 9% of Filipinos. The Ukrainian minority is almost 100,000 (15%); not as numerous as the Germans, but there are more Ukrainians now than either Irish or French or First Nations.
In McCracken’s time and tale just a handful of family names reveal Ukrainian origins, but they weren’t recognized as such. One Ukrainian word in common use was “babushka”: to McCracken and her generation that meant a silk scarf tied over the head and under the chin – in winter, of course. A single Polish name, that of the owner of the Kozy Korner, a sweets shop, was “rumoured…by virtue of his Slavic origins [to be] a communist. Anybody who let his sentimentality show by naming his store Kozy Kroenr must be suspect.”
After winter, communism was the only dark force McCracken’s generation recognized, but not often.
“People didn’t run the risk of being considered a kook or a square or a communist, by taking a chance with odd behaviour. Nobody rocked the boat. People were really afraid of communists, not because they understood communism or capitalism, but because they were being programmed to be afraid. Communists stood for the dark forces of anarchy, disorder, degeneracy, lack of structure, and were thought to be infiltrating everywhere.”
Cold war, nuclear war, Soviet Union – these terms don’t appear because they were never mentioned.
“Life was stuffed with security. It filled the air around you like cotton batting. You had no idea of what it felt like to need something. You knew only good; you had no idea of what was bad at all.”
But McCracken herself, and possibly some of her friends, suspected there was a much darker force threatening Canada. That was the US — everything that came from south of the border. Particularly television, kitchen machines, soft icecream, fast food, clothing, music, comic books. But when the American dark force arrived, it was so bright, it seemed “something of a miracle”. How to resist Howdy Doody (pictured below, left), Davy Crockett, Hopalong Cassidy (centre), Dragnet and I Love Lucy?
“Before television, American culture had been tantalizing and magical; we couldn’t get enough of it. After television we were overexposed to it… except for Elvis Presley (right) on the Ed Sullivan Show, there was nothing to jar the sleepy status quo.”
With examples of what she and her friends ate, wore, read, and played, McCracken describes the rapid takeover of the British Canadian way of life in Winnipeg, and the uncomplaining, unnoticing compliance with which the American occupation was greeted. Later on, work and money, about which the McCracken family code had been puritanically strict, also played into the occupation authority’s hands.
“The world of leisure, frivolity and illusion [the Americans] offered threatened the serious values of hard work, home and family, school and church, which had been supported and given form by Britain… Canadian nationalism didn’t exist when people were making the choices that determined their lives.”
McCracken concedes there was no resistance, no contest. She was alone in expressing regret, though not then, later.
“We viewed the slightest change with dismay…for in our eyes change always hurt, and things were always better before.”
Chrystia Freeland was a reporter to start with in Kiev, Moscow, and then Toronto. At 49 years old, she is too young to have known or worked beside McCracken at the Globe and Mail. Freeland is now a member of parliament for a Toronto riding, and since January Canada’s foreign minister. In the little story-telling she has published about her Ukrainian family, she has lied – and those lies have become a national controversy over her fitness to continue in office. For the investigations under way of the role Freeland’s family and she have played in one brand of regional Ukrainian nationalism, plus the murder of Jews, Poles, Russians and “communists”, click to read this.
Freeland has been more reticent, possibly not more truthful about her Canadian family. According to an authorized biopic by the Toronto Star, “Memories from Alberta’s Peace River country make Freeland’s heart soar.”
“I had a wonderful childhood,” Freeland told the newspaper about a farm 500 kilometres north of Edmonton, Alberta.
“I remember coming home from working in the fields with my grandfather one day in the summer and he stopped and said to me: ‘You know, what I love most about the farm is that every field has a different view and every one is beautiful.’ “He loved the Peace River so much,” she says of John Wilbur Freeland. His father was John, so he became Wilbur — wartime flyer, rodeo bronc rider, boxer under the name “Pretty Boy Freeland,” lawyer and farmer.”
Omitted from the Freeland story is that Grandfather Wilbur was the lawyer whose firm gave Freeland’s mother her first job as an articled law clerk. By then she had married Wilbur’s son Donald, also a lawyer, and Chrystia’s father. Donald Freeland remains a darker secret in the Freeland biopic than the Nazi career of Freeland’s Ukrainian grandfather, Michael Chomiak. One thing that’s certain about Father Freeland is that he is dead although his eponymous law firm is alive on the internet.
Another certainty is that Chrystia Freeland’s Canada has nothing to do with the Anglo-Canadian Freelands.
“All my grandparents loved Canada,” She told the Star, “but my Ukrainian grandfather was the most passionate…I remember his kids once saying something mildly critical of Canada. He pounded his fist on the table and said he’d lived in six countries and Canada was the best in the world.”
Six is a peculiar number for Chrystia Freeland to remember her grandfather saying. As Michael Chomiak rose in the ranks of the German military occupation, and then as he fled with the retreating German Army, he lived in Ukraine, Poland, Austria, and Germany, where he went to work for US military and spy services conducting operations against the Soviet Union. Although he eventually was allowed to emigrate to Canada in 1948, that would make only five countries. The sixth country Chomiak has kept secret, as does Chrystia Freeland. It is likely to have been the US. But if so, during the time between 1946 and 1948 when Chomiak was employed as a US agent; and if Chomiak wasn’t allowed to stay in the US, the real reason for his move to Canada has yet to come light.
Freeland’s Canada turns out to have been the opportunistic choice of a war criminal on the run; and also of a western Ukrainian, a Galician, whose passion – Freeland’s word – was to return to the land he had helped the German Army create by trying to murder everyone else who didn’t share Chomiak’s ethnic origin, national ideology and race hatred.
That is now Freeland’s passion too. She and the Ukrainian population of Canada have arranged for the rest of Canada to pay for it, and to send Canadian soldiers and weapons to see to the job. Not much persuasion has been necessary, and no political contest. As McCracken’s story explains, Canadians don’t think much about it because it has been programmed into them as part of their bargain for the delivery of US prosperity. Memories of Canada as it was are now made of this.
[Update: Following yesterday’s story, I received two interesting additions. One, from Peace River, Alberta, confirms that Chrystia Freeland’s father Donald Freeland is alive, farming, no longer lawyering. This makes his silence and the determination of the Canadian media to ignore him even more curious. The second comes from Gerold Rupprecht who grew up in Winnipeg a decade after Melinda McCracken, and whose brief memoir I’ve added. Here’s the revised text of the story: