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Canadians knew about Ukrainian Holodomor genocide: expert

News release details

Canadians knew about the Holodomor famine-genocide as it was occurring in Ukraine in the early 1930s because of extensive media reporting at the time, according to new research by an expert who will speak at a free public event at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) next week.

The research, by Jaroslaw Balan of the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, contradicts modern notions that the truth about the Holodomor was successfully hidden through propaganda and denial until 50 years later, when Ukrainian Canadians and others undertook an awareness campaign.

"It is shocking how much information was being shared through the Canadian media at the time about the agricultural situation in Ukraine, the starvation and the Soviet government policies that were intended to cover it up," Balan said.

At the same time, however, an orchestrated media campaign influenced by the Canadian business sector and agricultural exporters downplayed and cast doubt on the nature of the genocide, which saw millions of Ukrainians starve to death, Balan said. 

An original film produced for the CMHR's Breaking the Silence gallery, about the international media's role in covering the Holodomor, emphasizes the power of freedom of expression, and the importance of speaking out when confronted with injustice, said CMHR researcher-curator Dr. Jeremy Maron. The 10-minute-long film will also be screened at next week's event. 

"The film tries to help visitors consider breaking the silence as a human rights act," Maron said. "It is a way to drag violations from the shadows to raise awareness, expose truth and also pursue justice, reconciliation and recovery that can re-establish the dignity and voices of the victims."

Balan said that a series of famines caused by the policies of the former Soviet Union – in 1925, 1928, 1929 and the mass starvation of 1932–33 – were widely reported in the Canadian press by agricultural analysts and mainstream journalists such as Rhea Clyman, Moscow-based correspondent for the Toronto Evening Telegram, who was ejected from the country in 1932.

"It was like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion. The Canadian public of the time was not ignorant about what was going on. There were many Canadian agricultural scientists, technicians and engineers who witnessed what was happening and warned about the inevitable result. There was an incredible amount of information."

Yet amid public pressure for a major and lucrative trade deal between the Soviet Union and Canada – and the subsequent diversion of media attention to the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany — the truth about the Holodomor fell into relative obscurity. It was not until 2008 – after much work by the Ukrainian Canadian community – that the Government of Canada officially recognized these events as genocide and named the fourth Saturday of November as Holodomor Memorial Day.

Balan will join a discussion panel with CMHR researcher-curator Jeremy Maron at the Museum on February 4 at 7 p.m. The free event – to be held in Bonnie & John Buhler Hall – will also feature the first Canadian showing of a new travelling exhibit from the national Holodomor memorial museum in Kiev, courtesy of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress' Manitoba Provincial Council. 

As the first Wednesday evening of the month, entry to CMHR galleries is also free between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first museum in the world solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights. Using multimedia technology and other innovative approaches, the CMHR creates inspiring encounters with human rights for all ages, in a visitor experience unlike any other. 

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Maureen Fitzhenry