TORONTO – Mark Marczyk’s awakening that he wanted a different life came as he overlooked a South African shantytown while peering through the tinted windows of a tour bus. “I realized I wanted to experience the world,” the Canadian-Ukrainian says, sipping a coffee at one of Toronto’s offbeat cafes.

Poised for a promising career in rugby, Marczyk, then 19, took six months off from his studies, traveled Eastern Europe and ended up in Ukraine. There, he discovered a love for the Ukrainian language and culture, which he had previously ignored.

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Over the next few years, Marczyk traveled back to Ukraine several times, his longest stay lasting two years. He taught English at Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University and started to play with Ludy Dobri, a well-known city band, immersing himself in the country’s different musical sounds.

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By the time Marczyk finally returned to Canada, he had amassed a vast repertoire. Today, Marczyk is the driving force behind Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra, a popular group that calls itself a Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super-Band.

Marczyk’s journey is one example of how some Ukrainians in North America are defining for themselves what it means to be Ukrainian. For some, that identity is deeply rooted in cultural tradition, while for others such traditions are merely the starting point to explore new boundaries.

The one commonality is that no matter how they define being Ukrainian, community and a connection to Ukraine is important. Ukrainians in North America are still largely known through their traditional culture: food, dance, music and renowned painted Easter eggs known as pysanky.

Toronto’s annual Ukrainian festival, a cultural smorgasbord, for instance, is a much-awaited event. This year’s fair drew more than 600,000 people over a three-day period.

One of Canada’s best-known representatives of Ukrainian cultural identity is the women’s choir, Vesnivka. Now approaching its 50th anniversary, Vesnika’s mandate is “to bring Ukrainian classical, contemporary, sacred and folk music to life.” The choir was founded in 1965 by Halyna Kvitka Kondracki.

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Since then, Vesnivka has become Canada’s premier Ukrainian women’s choir. It has collaborated with leading Canadian choirs and ensembles. Kondracki, who frequently travels to Ukraine, says her choir is evolving.

One of her goals in recent years has been to use Vesnivka to raise the profile of Ukrainian composers. Kondracki has commissioned works by Ukrainians which are performed by the choir. Some of the composers Vesnivka has worked with include Hanna Havrylets and Myroslav Skoryk in Ukraine.

“The idea of our choir has changed,” says Kondracki, who was born in Lviv. “We saw that we needed to support Ukrainian composers.”

Kondracki laments what she sees as a general ignorance by Ukrainians in Ukraine of their cultural heritage. “How can people value their culture if they don’t know it?” she says.

Ukrainian-Canadians have been able to use culture to make changes. For more than two decades, Ukrainian-Canadians lobbied for changes in federal laws that would allow their elderly to live in ethnically-oriented nursing homes.

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The result of that effort is the St. Demetrius (Ukrainian Catholic) Development Corporation. It includes the Ukrainian Canadian Care Centre, a 152-bed care center.

It is located next door to the St. Demetrius Residence, a 15-story, 256-unit apartment building for the elderly and a church. Although English is spoken by staff, Ukrainian remains the primary language.

Giving a tour of the care center, employee Anne Denkova points to Ukrainian art that line corridors and walls: traditional village scenes with people clad in embroidered shirts, icons of the Mother Mary, and paintings of colorful dancers. Residents receive Ukrainian news while the daily menu posted on walls reads like those in a typical cafe in Ukraine.

The care center is so important that it has received donations from two of Canada’s wealthiest Ukrainians, Ian Ihnatowycz and Eugene Melnyk, who paid for the center’s magnificently decorated Byzantine-style chapel.

Maintaining cultural ties with her homeland is one reason why Tania Shchadrova opted to send her daughter a school in Toronto where part of the curriculum is taught in Ukrainian.

Hailing from Donetsk, Shchadrova admits that the Soviet Union was the fourth immigrant wave’s one great shared experience, rather than Ukrainian culture. Perhaps because so many immigrants from the fourth wave still have connections to Ukraine, the need to deeply explore one’s Ukrainian identity is less pressing than for previous waves of immigrants.

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Still, modern-day Ukraine and its culture is increasingly becoming a defining characteristic for people like her.

“Every year I go to Ukraine and I go with happiness,” Shchadrova says. “I go to the village, it is a mess, but I grew up in this.”

Back at the coffee shop, like Kondracki, Marczyk bemoans the large influence that pop culture has on Ukrainian society. Yet his interpretation of Ukraine seems to be hitting a cord in multicultural Toronto.

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra was recently asked to perform in the foyer of Roy Thompson Hall, one of Toronto’s most prestigious musical institutions.

For nearly an hour patrons swayed and rocked and hopped to the sounds of Ukraine, Poland, Serbia and more. Marczyk couldn’t stop smiling. “They’re just great,” noted a bartender.

Staff writer Natalia A. Feduschak can be reached at [email protected].

Next in Part 5: How diaspora community feels about Ukraine

Part 1: Ukrainian exodus to North America

Part 2: How America became home to Ukrainians seeking better opportunities

Part 3: How to be Ukrainian in a new, foreign land

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