“I sometimes don’t sleep at night thinking about injustice,” Canadian education curriculum reformer and author Valentina Kuryliw explains. “I’m the kind of person who’s not afraid to speak out. In the Canadian setting, I deal with controversial topics and I don’t shy away from them. Every time a new curriculum comes out, the new textbooks are written–and the textbooks don’t include information about the Holodomor unless it’s also included in the educational curriculum. So I made a point that I wasn’t going to buy their books unless it was in there. I’ve been doing workshops across Canada in different provinces for different organizations since I became involved with the Holodomor.”
As of June 2015, the Holodomor is now being taught in at least 12 of 27 courses in the Ontario curriculum thanks to Kuryliw’s efforts over the past 3 decades.
Both of Kuryliw’s parents survived the Holodomor famine-genocide unleashed on Ukraine by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1932-33 killing millions. Her father Ivan Michajlowskij was 21 and her mother Nadia Menko was 10. Its legacy is interwoven with Russia’s war on Ukraine over the past two years and echoes across the lives of many diaspora children of Holodomor survivors globally. Valentina Kuryliw is one such child of survivors, an award-winning teacher, curriculum reformer and Department Head of History with over 40 years of high school experience in Ontario. I interviewed her for the Children of Holodomor Survivors Speak oral history project run by the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre (UCRDC) in Toronto. Kuryliw also changed how history is taught in Ukraine where she did teacher training for 16 summers with her groundbreaking course and textbook: A Methodology for Teaching History. Her book, Holodomor in Ukraine: The Genocidal Famine 1932-33, A Workbook for Teachers and Students was just published (Spring 2016) as a resource for engaging students interactively in critical thinking about the Holodomor in numerous curriculum classes in Canada. She is currently finishing up curriculum connections in both the federal and Ontario proposals of the Holodomor Awareness Tour and Mobile Classroom project and is in charge of the educational component and learning activities aboard the high-tech bus which travels across Canada this year.
“I think the Holodomor is the single most horrific thing that the Ukrainian nation has lived through; people don’t appreciate how horrific it was. A child starving to death takes at least 3 months to do so–it’s a lot of pain. And the best people died first because they were targeted specifically. It’s a loss of intellectual and educational potential, of your cultural life. And what’s happening to Ukraine today is a reenactment of the same thing. You know, history shouldn’t be repeating itself. And the only way to stop that is to make sure that the history is known,” she says.
Kuryliw studied history at McGill University. She is currently the Director of Education for the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC), Chair of the National Holodomor Education Committee of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), and was Vice President of the Ukrainian Canadian Immigrant Aid Society. She has won an Excellence in Education award from the Ministry of Education in Ukraine, received the Shevchenko medal from the UCC for education, and is the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Award for making a significant contribution to the development of Canada. For Kuryliw, raising awareness about past atrocities that show the present consequences of hate and genocide through the lens of the Holodomor matters, because education empowers students to stand up against intolerance, hate, dictatorship and encourages the Canadian values of democracy, civility, tolerance, equality, inclusiveness, human rights and social justice, thus uniting students of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
Her mother Nadia witnessed the Communists taking away food and using the grain for alcohol in the local distillery while people were brutalized, killed and starved to death around her. Valentina was born in 1945 in a Displaced Persons camp in Mannheim, Germany; the family immigrated to Canada in 1950.
“We came to Canada and landed at Pier 21 in Halifax. We have a bronze brick there for our family.” They lived in Montréal where she grew up in a parish of Ukrainian political émigrés. “Everyone there had a story to tell about what happened to them in Ukraine, and growing up in that type of atmosphere you were saturated with the political, with the concept of injustice that permeated through all these peoples’ lives, it transferred to the children by osmosis,” she says. Their stories influenced her to work on a history degree.
“When we came to Canada, my father told us: ‘we don’t have a lot of money but I’ll work my hands to a pulp if I have to, so you get an education.’” Kuryliw went to Teacher’s College, moved to Collingwood then Sudbury to teach, met her husband and moved to Toronto where she taught history and politics with the Toronto District School Board, getting involved in curriculum omissions.
“I’m as comfortable in my skin as a Canadian as I am a Ukrainian. As a child, going to Ukrainian Saturday school classes was something natural–you had to know who you were. And I think that people who know their own culture as immigrants, become better Canadians. I like the idea of the mosaic in Canada–you understand who you are, that you’re part of the mosaic and that to appreciate other people’s cultures, you first have to know your own and then you can compare, appreciate and contribute. I felt anybody who had lost their culture had really been hurt by the fact they didn’t know.” And this is why it matters to teach our histories, especially here in Canada where we are free to learn and to share all the painful and resilient truths about those histories.