Q. Let's start with some of the sociological questions. Where and when you were born?
I was born in Edmonton, Alberta, on January 26, 1913, into the family of John and Helen Boychuk; I was the first-born. My maternal grandfather, Todor Popowich, came to Canada with his family in 1899 from the province of Bukovyna in the region of Western Ukraine that was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He came with his second wife (his first wife died while giving birth to my mother). My mother was then five years old; her brother was ten.
My grandfather was a tall, handsome and strong man who had served in the Austrian cavalry. He was given a homestead of 160 acres and worked very hard at clearing the land until 1918, when he was stricken by rheumatoid arthritis. He spent 25 years in bed crippled by the disease they didn't have penicillin or antibiotics in those days and died in 1943 at the age of 83.There were no males in the family, so the farm had to be run by his wife and four daughters. They lived in poverty all their lives and never ever reached a well-off status.
My father came to Canada in 1908 at the age of 23. He came from the Western Ukrainian province of Halychyna (Galicia), then likewise a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To work his way to Canada he worked in a coal mine in Germany, so when he landed in Canada they sent him to work in a coal mine in Hosmer, B.C., where he worked for two years.
By the way, Todor Popowich was not related to Matthew Popowich, the Ukrainian Communist leader. Just as my father, John Boychuk, was not related to the John Boychuk who was a leading Ukrainian Communist in Toronto and one of the eight Communist leaders imprisoned in the 1930s. Boychuk and Popowich are common Ukrainian names. My mother's maiden name was Skoreyko; there was a Skoreyko in Alberta whowas elected as a Liberal Member of Parliament in the 1920s and was apparently a distant cousin.
My father active in politics
My father was very active in politics all his life. Back in the old country his parents managed to send him to school, and while he didn't get much beyond the elementary grades, he did get to read and write well. During his teen years he used to read newspapers to the illiterate peasants in the village library and became involved in radical peasant party politics and the struggle against national and economic oppression. So when he came to Canada, he was already quite politically minded. In Hosmer, he was active in the miners' union and helped to organize a Socialist Party branch.
In 1911, he left Hosmer and came to Edmonton, where he and his cousin, John Semeniuk, opened a grocery store. They were doing fairly well, but in 1912 there was an economic recession and they went bankrupt. But he got to like working as a store clerk and got a job in a general store in the town of Vegreville, which served the local population and farmers in the surrounding area. The store was a co-op run by Peter Zvarich, who later became a prominent leader in the Ukrainian community. Father was a very good clerk, so Zvarich kept him on in spite of his socialist politics.
An ardent proselytizer
He was an ardent proselytizer. He would wrap up a farmer's purchases in a socialist newspaper, then talk about the articles with him on his next visit. Indeed, my father was a proselytizer all his life; he spent all his spare time reading, agitating and selling left-wing literature and did so right up until his final years.
In Edmonton and Vegreville he was very active in the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party, often attending regional and national conventions in Edmonton and
Winnipeg. Incidentally, William Rodney in his book, Soldiers of the International, wrote that the John Boychuk in Toronto had been active in the mining town of Hosmer, B.C. He mixed him up with my father. The other Boychuk was a tailor.
My mother was a very strong-willed woman. Since my father spent a great deal of time in politics, she had much to do with keeping the family together. In the very early years, before we moved to Ontario in the mid-1920s, she was quite active politically: during World War I she helped to distribute anti-war leaflets illegally. But after the 1930s she ceased to be active, except for taking part in some of the cultural and social activity of the Ukrainian community. She wasn't alienated against the movement on political grounds but because my father's involvement caused him to give -less time to the family than she thought he should have. He worked very hard, both at earning a living and at outdoor jobs around the house. But he did not spend much time with the family.
In politics from childhood
As you can see, I was exposed to politics at a very early age. My father and mother used to get me to recite poems, in Ukrainian, when I was only five or six. They always picked radical and socialist poems, so I imbibed them even before I knew what many of the words meant. I recall two coloured posters I saw in our home when I was about five. One showed ordinary Russian workers and peasants with ropes tied to a statue of the tsar, which they were pulling down. When I asked my father what it meant, he said it depicted the February Revolution in 1917, when the people first rose up against the tsar. The irony is that some 40 years later I saw a news photo from Budapest showing Hungarians pulling down a statue of Stalin.
The other poster showed a coloured painting featuring four huge plates. On the top plate stood the Russian tsar and his family and entourage. It was held up by members of the aristocracy standing on a slightly larger plate, which in turn was held up by a larger group made up of bankers, merchants, manufacturers, landlords and leaders of the church. That plate was held up by a still larger group of teachers, doctors, nurses, clergy and other professionals. At the very bottom, on the ground, holding up the entire structure, were scores of ordinary men, women, and children, grimy workers and peasants. My father and mother explained that to me also. It was my introduction to the class system of society. So as early as five and six I became aware that the rich were supported by the poor.
Father jailed and "exiled"
During World War I, my father was very active in the anti-war movement, especially among the farmers, for which he was arrested and sentenced in 1918 to three years in prison. I remember visiting him in jail when I was about five, his hands manacled to a chair. A few months into his sentence, Matthew Popowich came to Vegreville from Winnipeg, together with Joe Knight, one of the leaders of the Socialist Party in the United States. They hired a lawyer and got my father off on a suspended sentence, but with the proviso that he leave Alberta, which meant he was exiled from Alberta. He left his family in Vegreville and went to Vancouver, where he found' Work and spent all his spare time peddling socialist literature.
In the 1920s, besides belonging to the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party, my father also joined the "Wobblies" (the Industrial Workers of the World). To this day I remember seeing the red IWW membership card and asking him to explain to me what it was.
My father and my mother didn't get along too well in their personal lives. They split up many times, but got together again mainly for the sake of the children, which was the norm in those days. So when my father went to Vancouver, my mother took the children and went to Fernie, B.C., to work as a cook and general housekeeper for a group of bachelor miners living in a co-op.
Started school at seven
It was in Fernie, in 1920, that I first went to school, starting Grade I at the age of seven. I never went to a kindergarten, or any pre-school program, but I had been taught to read and write in both Ukrainian and English by my parents, so I was able to cope. I stayed in that school for only three or four months, because by then my father had come back from Vancouver and the family moved to the village of Lavoy, not far from Vegreville, where my father got a job as a clerk in a general store. We had a small home across the street from the store, with a cow and a few chickens, and lived there till 1923, when my father lost his job. Unable to find any work there, he took a cattle train east. When he got to Kapuskasing, Ontario, he learned that a paper mill was being built there, so he stopped and was hired as a labourer.
When that job was finished he went to Montreal. He didn't have much luck there but found out that jobs were available in the town of Thorold, in the Niagara Peninsula, where they were digging a new Welland Canal and where there were three paper mills. He did get a job in one of the paper mills and then asked the family to join him. So in late fall of 1923, my mother took her four children myself, my sister Natalie, my brother Ronny and my brother Terry, who was still an infant and traveled by train across already snowbound prairie provinces and down through Ontario. I vaguely recall that it was a pretty rough trip, in one of those old colonial coaches with wooden seats, that lasted four days.
In Thorold, I had to resume my studies in a new school. And this is where I had my first experience with discrimination. While the town had quite a few Ukrainians and Italians, who lived largely in separate neighbourhoods, almost like ghettos, its population was largely of Anglo-Saxon origin. And although I lived in the Ukrainian part of the town, I was assigned to a school that was attended almost exclusively by children of Anglo-Saxon descent, and while I was a very good student I stood first in class every year and every term socially I wasn't accepted. Because of my ethnic name and my father's reputation as a socialist "Bolshevik" was the term used then I was ostracized by some of the teachers and most of the students. Later, when I went to high school, I felt that prejudice even more.
Elected branch president at 13
But I was also very active beyond the school. I attended Ukrainian language classes and learned to play the mandolin and violin (I recall playing Beethoven's Minuet in G on the violin at a concert in front of about 50 or 60 people). Through all my teen years I was the leading player in the mandolin orchestra and leading male dancer in the Ukrainian folk dance group.
These activities took place in the local Ukrainian Labour Temple, a community centre run by the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA). After World War II, the name was changed to the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians (AUUC).
In 1926, when the ULFTA organized a youth section branch, I joined and became its first chairperson. At that time there was also a Communist Party branch there and its leaders were also told to organize a branch of the Young Communist League. They did and it was made up entirely of Ukrainians.
Because I was politically very keen and active, they wanted me to join also. But I was only 13, and the YCL constitution said you had to be 16. So they took the matter up with Stewart Smith, who was then national secretary of the YCL, and he came down from Toronto and ruled that an exception be made in my case. So I joined both the ULFTA Youth Section and the YCL and was active in politics and in the cultural field. I also did very well in my high school studies and even played quarterback on the school's football team.
In the spring of 1930, the high-school authorities decided to organize a unit of military cadets and made it compulsory for all the boys to join. When I said I didn't want to join, it caused quite a hubbub. The school principal called me in and I said I had no choice, that if I continued to refuse I would be expelled, even though I was one of the top students. I had decided to take a stand and make a "cause cιlebre" of it, but it never got that far.
To political school at 17
By sheer coincidence, the ULFTA was then organizing what they called a Higher Educational Course, but really a national political school, to be held in Winnipeg. In subsequent years these ULFTA courses were only partly political and mostly cultural (teaching Ukrainian language and music to prepare teachers for their Ukrainian schools), but this first one was mainly political. The ULFTA branches across the country were asked to nominate students and the Thorold branch suggested me. Although I was only 17, I was accepted. So midway through Grade 11, early that spring, I left school. Throughout my early high-school years I had my heart set on eventually going to university, but I also knew that if I stood my ground I would be expelled. At the same time, the prospect of going to a political school appealed to me very much. In retrospect, maybe it was the wrong thing to do; I don't know. But it definitely changed my life.
Going to Winnipeg also meant leaving home, most likely for good. It was my first trip away from home, but fortunately I was accompanied by John Navis and John Stokaluk, who were traveling from Toronto to Winnipeg at the time and decided to take me along. The school was held in Parkdale, not far from Winnipeg, and lasted six months. It was led by Matthew Popowich. The curriculum included Ukrainian grammar, history and geography and, of course, political economy and Marxism. It wasn't Marxism-Leninism yet, that came a few years later, a concoction of Stalin. But it did include some works by Marx and Lenin and books on history and political economy.
To give you another example of how early I was involved in political ideas, when I was only 15 years old I read Bukharin's Historical Materialism, in Ukrainian, and Engels's Origin of the Family in English. I was so taken by what I found in them that then and there I decided that I would spend my life working for socialism. My father was then subscribing to and peddling lnprecor, the monthly bulletin of the Communist International, which carried articles and speeches by such prominent world Communist leaders as Bukharin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, Ercoli, Thaelmann and Palme Dutt and reports on revolutionary movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I was fascinated and ate it up. That's why I jumped at the chance to go to a political school. Attending that six-month course further strengthened my resolve to become active in the Communist movement, at that time the Ukrainian sector of it.
Now I should mention something that happened at the conclusion of that course. After the course was finished, the leaders of the ULFTA decided, obviously in agreement with the leaders of the Communist Party in Moscow and Kyiv, that they would send four of its graduates for advanced study in Ukraine three-year courses in politics, as well as Ukrainian language, literature and history. Without my knowing about it, they had chosen Peter Prokop, Tom Chopowick, Bill Zinkevich and myself. But they first had to have their decision approved by the Party leadership.
The Party says "No"
When they did, they got a telegram from Bill Kashtan, who was then national secretary of the Young Communist League, saying I should not be included, that I was still very young and should get more experience in the movement before being sent abroad. When Navis and Popowich replied that they didn't agree and insisted on including me, Stewart Smith and Tim Buck came to Winnipeg soon after and put additional pressure on them. This time they didn't use the argument that I was inexperienced; they said they wanted me for work "in the Anglo-Saxon field." And they added that "he'll get his chance for political education later; we'll send him to the Lenin School in Moscow." The Ukrainian leaders finally gave in. They proposed to send Michael Korol instead, but the Party leaders said they wanted him for Anglo-Saxon work too. So then they finally settled on Michael Seychuk.
I knew nothing about this at the time. Nobody had discussed it with me. I found out about it much later from John Navis. It was quite an eye-opener for me on the methods the party leaders used, how they shifted and moved people around without even discussing the matter with them.
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