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Free Admission


Mary Skrypnyk, Celebration of Life

Sunday, December 9, 2012, 12:00 pm

AUUC Cultural Centre, 1604 Bloor Street West, Toronto

A pioneer first generation Ukrainian Canadian, a progressive self-educated social activist through perseverance and labour, Mary Skrypnyk became a competent editor and journalist, a poet and was an internationally recognized and celebrated translator of Ukrainian folk and classic literature into English. That was her priceless contribution to the origins and development of Canada's unique and democratic multicultural policy.

We salute the memory of the long-time AUUC activist and translator, Mary Skrypnyk, who died in Toronto on 27 May 2012 in her ninety-seventh year. Born on 11 December 1915, in Timmins, Ontario, where her father was working in the Hollinger Gold Mines, Mary was introduced to labour and left-wing politics from a very early age. Her parents were both members of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party, after which her father, Teodor, joined the International Workers of the World (popularly known as the “Wobblies”) and in 1922 the Communist Party of Canada. Her family was active in the Timmins Ukrainian Labour Temple that was constructed during Mary’s childhood, participating in plays and holding executive positions while their first-born daughter attended Ukrainian school, took Ukrainian dance classes, and recited poetry at concerts put on at the hall. Canadian Communist leader, Tim Buck, always brought her candy and bounced her on his knee during his visits to the family, while at the urging of her father Mary recited poems to Buck in Ukrainian, a language he didn’t understand.

In fact, at the time that the Skrypnyk family moved to a farm in the Niagara peninsula in 1923 and Mary began attending public school, she still did not speak any English. But after some tears on her first day she quickly adapted to the challenge, her resilience and determination becoming a defining feature of her character. When she was only 12 years old her mother passed away, compelling Mary to end her formal education so that she could care for her father and three younger siblings while helping to run the farm. She was relieved of these adult duties two years later when an aunt and uncle moved in to take over management of the farm and household just as the Depression began. Lying about her age, when she was 15 she got a job at the Tuckets Tobacco factory in Hamilton, working there for the next seven years. She was already active in radical politics, having joined the Young Communist League at the age of thirteen. Through her connections with a fellow YCLer who was studying to be an airplane mechanic, Mary arranged to take flying lessons and a year and half later soloed after 12 hours of instruction, becoming the first licensed female pilot in Hamilton. Soon afterwards she also learned to parachute-jump, subsequently volunteering with the famed Dr. Norman Bethune to go Spain to fight in the war against Franco, only to be turned her down because he thought she was too young.

 In 1938, Mary was sent by the Hamilton ULFTA?where she held an executive position, worked with children and taught Ukrainian dance?to the six-month Higher Educational Courses for leadership development offered in Winnipeg. There, she began writing articles for the English page of the newspaper, Narodna hazeta, but her journalistic debut was soon cut short with the seizure of ULFTA halls by Canadian authorities following the outbreak of the Second World War. She then returned to her job at Tucketts Tobacco in Hamilton, but was fired after she was brought in for questioning by the RCMP. Mary rebounded from this setback by finding a job making Bofor anti-aircraft guns at the Otis Fenom Plant, where she became a member of the United Electrical Workers Union and eventually served as a shop steward and a union representative on the management committee. While working at the plant from 1940–1943, she wrote a special column, “Women’s Work in the War Effort,” for Ukrainske zhyttia / Ukrainian Life, a pro-Soviet weekly that began publishing in August 1941. 

In 1943 Mary moved to Toronto to take a job as a linotype operator for the newspaper, at the same time becoming involved in rebuilding the youth branch in the city and holding executive positions in the organization, while also teaching folk dancing. In 1947 she became the editor of the children’s pages in the newly established semi-monthly, The Ukrainian Canadian. In 1950 she was elected to the National Committee of the AUUC, working full time as one of the editors of The Ukrainian Canadian and serving as the director of the Ukrainian Children’s Camp in Palermo, Ontario, during its first year of operation.

In 1951 Mary attended the Berlin Youth Festival, the Film Festival in Karlovy Vary, in Czechoslovakia, and visited the Soviet Union for the first time. In 1954 she was sent to the Higher Party School in Kyiv for two years, greatly improving her Ukrainian and signing a contract with Dnipro Publishers to do translation work before returning to Canada. Thus began her remarkably productive career as a literary translator, rendering not only folk tales but classics by Ukrainian authors into English, among them works by Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Lesia Ukrainka, Olha Kobylianska, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky and Vasyl Stefanyk. While continuing to co-edit and write articles for The Ukrainian Canadian, she also translated historical works by Soviet Ukrainian historians and literary critics, as well as speeches, articles and books by Peter Krawchuk. Among the latter were such important works as Our StageShevchenko in CanadaOur History, and The Unforgettable Myroslav Irchan.

In 1976 Mary was invited by the Writers’ Union of the USSR to the International Translators’ Conference in Moscow, where she was awarded the Maxim Gorky Prize, and in 1986 the Writers Union of the Ukrainian SSR named her a Laureate of the Franko Literary Prize. A lifelong political activist, Mary participated in many anti-nuclear and anti-war demonstrations, attended a Peace Congress in Berlin, and was a member of the Voice of Women. She even met Che Guevera and Fidel Castro during an international socialist womens’ conference that she attended in Cuba. Mary, who never married, lived in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood, where she was a familiar figure walking the street well into her nineties. Predeceased by her younger siblings, Ann, Alec and Nick, she is survived by nieces and nephews, their children and grandchildren.

This article was reproduced from the Field Notes from Ukrainian Canada are compiled and distributed by the Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta. Vol. 9, nos. 3–4 (Summer–Fall 2012)