SHEPTYTSKY: A UKRAINIAN SETTLEMENT IN ABITIBI
by Zonia Keywan
Because Ukrainians in Quebec live mainly in Montreal, few people are aware that a rural Ukrainian colony once existed in this province - in the remote northwestern region of Abitibi.
The colony was primarily the work of one man - Father Josaphat (Francois Joseph-Victorien) Jean, who, after being ordained in 1910 as a Roman Catholic priest, switched to the Eastern Catholic rite to minister to incoming Ukrainian immigrants. Since 1985 marks the centenary of Father Jean's birth, in St. Fabien, near Rimouski, and the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Abitibi colony, this seems an appropriate time to look at the story of that little-known settlement.
The story, had it ended as planned, would have seen thousands of Ukrainian peasants taking up homesteads in Abitibi and turning them into productive farms. Instead, the story ended unhappily, with plans gone awry and good intentions unfulfilled.
In April, 1925, Father Jean arrived in Canada after an absence of twelve years, charged with a special commission: to find a site for a monastery for Studite monks, a Ukrainian religious order to which Father Jean himself belonged. According to the plan of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, Catholic Primate of Western Ukraine, the monastery was to have around it a colony of Ukrainian Catholic farmers, who would benefit from the spiritual care of the monks and, at the same time, help support the monastery and serve as a source of new vocations. The settlers were to come from Bosnia, Yugoslavia, where Ukrainian Catholics were being oppressed. Some would also come from the Ukrainian province of Galicia, which was, at that time a part of Poland.
As a possible site for the colony, Father Jean first considered the Peace River Country of northern Alberta. But because of the region's distance and isolation, he declined an offer of land there. Instead, he turned his eyes to Abitibi, an area touted by the Quebec government of the day as having enormous agricultural potential. After discussions with the Ministry of Colonization, Father Jean was promised a bloc of land of 250 square miles near Lac Castagnier, some thirty miles north of the town of Amos. Fifty selected Catholic families would be allowed to settle there immediately. In subsequent years, more would be let in. If the scheme proved successful, more lands would be reserved to accommodate up to 10,000 Ukrainian families.
In July 1925, Father Jean went to live on the colony site, on the shore of Lac Castagnier, a beautiful body of clear, northern water, three miles wide and dotted with islands. He named the site Sheptytsky, in honour of his ecclesiastic patron. With the help of local labourers, he put up a cabin and hacked an ox-trail through the bush.
Early in 1926, three Studite brothers arrived from Galicia to join their abbot, Father Jean, and a young local novice. But the rigours of life on the colony, the poor health of some of the brothers and the lack of financial support from the Galician Mother House doomed the monastery project to a speedy death. After a few unhappy months at Sheptytsky, the brothers left and the plan to found a Canadian Studite community was written off by the Galician hierarchy. Still, long after the brothers' departure, Father Jean continued to hope that more Studites would come. He even erected a large lakeside monastery.
The agricultural colony got off to a slow start. On Bosnia, no mechanism was ever put into place to recruit suitable settlers. Some colonists eventually did come, however, from Ukrainian provinces in Poland and from among Ukrainians already living in Canada.
The first settlers on the colony were the Borshchevsky family - Matviy and Vasyl, who registered their lands in September 1926. Like the colonists who would follow, the Borshchevskys were each granted 100 acres - long, thin allotments, laid out side-by-side in typical Quebec fashion.
By 1928, a few more settlers had drifted into the colony. Upon arrival, they set to work clearing land and erecting crude shelters. At times they also found employment cutting timber and building roads, for which the Quebec government paid then $2 per day.
Life at Sheptytsky was hard. Isolated from roads and railways by miles of dense bush, the settlers had to cart supplies in by oxen, or bring them in on foot. The harsh winters seemed endless. The long-awaited summers brought plagues of mosquitoes and black flies. The growing season, from mid-June to the end of August, was too short for the wheat and varied garden crops the Ukrainians were used to cultivating. And the sandy soil in the region did not live up to the promises of optimistic government officials. No schools had yet been established and medical help was many miles away. The settlers lived largely off the land, on what they could grow in their gardens, catch in the lakes and streams or hunt in the bush.
Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that few of the Ukrainians who came to Sheptytsky, remained. Some tried their luck on the land for a year or two, and then left for the mining towns opening up in the area. Others stayed just long enough to see how the colonists lived, and departed immediately, without even taking homesteads. Only the onset of the Depression, which severely cut job prospects in the cities, kept a handful of families on the colony, eking out an existence as best they could.
By 1935, it was clear that Sheptytsky was not going to grow. Lands once reserved for Ukrainians were now distributed to French colonists from cities, sent into the district by government officials in an attempt to solve the problem of massive urban unemployment. Father Jean left the colony for Montreal. The Sheptytsky post office was renamed St. Georges-de-Lac Castagnier. Records of the Roman Catholic Church reveal that, in early 1937, nine Ukrainian families, and perhaps a few bachelors, still lived on the colony site.
Although the French colonists had government assistance, they too proved unable to maintain themselves at Lac Castagnier. After the 1930s, the population steadily dwindled. Schools and other government services were gradually curtailed. In 1983, when I visited the former Sheptytsky site, I met the last Ukrainian still living on the land - Tony Kurello. He had been on the same farm since 1935 and was married to a French Canadian.
Marcel (Vasyl) Lesyk, now the Mayor of Amos, was born on the Sheptytsky colony. In his view, the colony failed because it wasn't studied in advance; they just sent people in and expected them to survive. People didn't have the help they needed to open up such a district. There was no market in the area for what they produced. And their children weren't prepared to stay and work as hard as their parents did. The people who stayed a long time, like my parents who stayed almost 20 years, felt they wasted their lives there. When they left, they couldn't sell their land. No one wanted to buy it. They had nothing to show for all those years of effort.
Looking back on the plan for the Sheptytsky colony, one can see it was unrealistic. The harsh climate of the region, the isolation, the distance from other Ukrainian settlement, preordained the colony's failure. Furthermore, the onset of the Depression put a stop to all emigration, depriving the colony of potential settlers. But the founder of Sheptytsky, Father Jean, never lost his faith in the project. Decades later, he still remained convinced that, had they had more financial assistance and a more systematic method of selecting settlers, the monastery and colony would have thrived.
Whether his assessment was correct will never be known. The Sheptytsky colony is a closed chapter of history. The homesteads on the site, cleared at such effort, are now growing back to bush. The monastery building has long since burnt down. All that remains near the lake is a small cemetery with some stones bearing Ukrainian names: Mokry, Sup, Andrusyshyn. But if the traces of the colony are fading away, its story should not be forgotten, for it embodied such high expectations, so much sweat and toil and so many disappointments.
This article appeared in The Quebecer 1985