Dr. Watson Kirkconnell

Picture found in UKRAINIAN CANADIANS 1967 BROCHURE [Rev. S. Tymciw Collection]

     When I think of all of the Ukrainian Baptist families, including mine, that have come to Canada from Germany, Ukraine, Poland, or England,  I think of these stirring and challenging words below, from Dr. Watson Kirkconnell, “the prophet of Canadian multiculturalism,” a master of more than 50 languages and dialects, who played an important role in the founding of the Ukrainian Canadian Committe (UCC - now Ukrainian Canadian Congress), and delivered an address at the UCC's first congress in June 1943 in Winnipeg, in which he attacked both fascism and communism.  He was a committed Baptist and chairman of the committee which prepared the plan for the first national Baptist body in Canada, the Baptist Federation of Canada (1944) and served as its fourth president (1953-1956), as well as the ninth President of Acadia University from 1948-1964. Dr. Kirkconnell also worked together with Prof. Constantine Andrusyshen to produce two volumes of Ukrainian poetry in translation: "The Ukrainian Poets, 1189-1962 (1963) and "The Poetical Works of Taras Shevchenko" (1964). 

I first came across this quote while reading Baptists in Canada, Search for Identity Amidst Diversity, Edited by Jarold K. Zeman, 1980., [B-94, page 81]. Dr. Zeman was teaching  Baptist Heritage, at Ontario Bible College during the summer of 1986. This was one of the best history courses I ever took, because it explained much of the historical background of where Ukrainian Baptists [1852] came from.  Dr. Zeman was perhaps the most significant Canadian Baptist leader in the last half century, president of the Canadian Baptist Federation for nine years and called the 'best church historian in North America' by Martin Marty. He established and directed the Acadia Centre for Baptist and Ababaptist studies.  I was so privileged during this two week comprehensive summer course to sit under Dr. Zeman, not realizing at the time his position in Canadian Baptist history.  I left that course with a binder filled with his life work on Baptists, and wished some day that I would be able to create a similar course for Ukrainian Baptists.  This UBHC website is part fulfillment of that dream.

In 1921 Mahatma Ghandi described the dream of global multiculturalism: "I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed.  I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.  But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any."

     In 1935 Dr. Watson Kirkconnell wrote these powerful words:

          "There is nothing so shallow and sterile as the man who denies his own ancestry.  The “100%” American or Canadian is commonly one who has deliberately suppressed an alien origin in order to reap the material benefits of a well-advertised loyalty.  There can be little hope of noble spiritual issues from such a prostituted patriotism.  Unfortunately, it is abetted by the ignorant assumption of many an English-speaking citizen that alien origin is a natural mark of inferiority.  He who thinks thus is a mental hooligan – whether he be a lawyer, a militia colonel, or a bishop of the church.  What we sorely need, on the contrary, is enough common intelligence to recognize both the rich diversity of racial gifts on this earth and the strength that racial roots can contribute to the individual... Prophetic hopes would envisage a future Canada in which every individual would be thus inspired to fuller citizenship by his realization of his origin, whatever that might be."

     Forgetting our spiritual heritage is very easy to do.  Remembering and preserving it is a much more difficult task. As someone once said, "If you don't know where you came from, how can you pass on your family history to your next generation?"

     What made Professor Kirkconnell fall in love with the Ukrainian people?  Sometimes, it takes a stranger from outside of our nationality, to show us what we possibly don't appreciate about our own Ukrainian heritage.  Dr. Watson Kirkconnell, was the ninth President of Acadia University and died in 1977. He was a Milton scholar and translator of many poetic literatures (Icelandic, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian amongst others).  He was also a founder of the Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Baptist Federation of Canada.

     He was born May 16, 1895, in Port Hope, Ontario (died February 26, 1977), a fourth generation Anglo-Canadian. His father, Thomas Allison Kirkconnell, was the headmaster of a local high school for over forty years and was acknowledged by his son as the major influence in his life.  Kirkconnell was baptized at the age of twelve and joined the fellowship of a local Baptist church. He was to remain a committed Baptist throughout his life and played an active role in denominational affairs.

     After graduating from high school, Watson Kirkconnell attended Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, graduating with an honour's degree in Classics, as a double gold medalist.  Following his discharge from the army, in 1919, Kirkconnell briefly stayed in Toronto studying Music at the Toronto Conservatory of Music, before being awarded a generous IODE scholarship in 1921, as the first overseas post-graduate scholar for Ontario.  His time at Oxford not only kindled a burning interest in human welfare and world history, but also proved to be profoundly influential in helping to shape his views with respect to race. It was during his tenure at Oxford that Kirkconnell found time to travel extensively to Europe and the Near East.  This added exposure to foreign cultures inevitably helped him to shape his appreciation of their value and worth.

     When Kirkconnell left Oxford in the summer of 1922, he was so broke that he was forced to sell his bike and a pair of German field glasses in order to cover the cost of his steerage ticket.  He recalled that while in the bowels of the ship as "a mess mate of hundreds of Ukrainian, Polish and Belgium immigrants," he soon came to realize that in spite of their dilapidated appearance there were amongst them rather cultured individuals.  Not only could these individuals speak several languages, but they were schooled in literature and "their musical talents were prodigious."

Kirkconnell maintained that this experience foreshadowed the life that opened up for him when he joined the staff of Wesley College, Winnipeg, in September 1922. It was during his eighteen year stay in Winnipeg that Kirkconnell championed the cause of immigrants and ethnic minorities in Canada.  Kirkconnell soon discovered that many of these new Canadians had been producing "a good deal of literature in their own mother tongues" and so in 1935, he produced a volume of poetry of Ukrainian and other nationalities, that revealed the experiences of these peoples in adjusting to pioneer life on the Canadian frontier - his Canadian Overtones.

Much of the poetry Kirkconnell translated was dedicated to showing the heartfelt thanks many of these immigrants felt to Canada, as well as their dedication and loyalty to the nation.  For example, Joseph Yasenchuk's "Thanks to Mother Canada", and Ivan Danylchuk's "To Canada."  When Watson Kirkconnell left Winnipeg in 1940 to become Head of the English Department at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, the Winnipeg Tribune paid him the following compliment:  "No man has done more to help the people of Winnipeg to live as neighbours...He will be able to interpret the life and thought of the new peoples who today are making some parts of Ontario as cosmopolitan as Winnipeg."

He was among the foremost Canadians of his age, and perhaps surprisingly given the usually conservative tone of Baptist thinking, he helped to effect an eventual concord between his own national heritage and those who had most recently arrived seeking new lives and a new land.  Watson Kirkconnell rightly deserves, in the words of the late George F.G. Stanley, to be recognized as the "prophet of Canadian multiculturalism."  He passionately believed that recognition of the cultural contributions of ethnic minorities would not only heighten their sense of belonging to Canada, but also strengthen national unity.  In the end, Kirkconnell was the true Baptist voice 'crying in the wilderness' - a wilderness unfortunately still dominated by discrimination and racism, and a wilderness inhabited by many, but by no means all, of Kirkconnell's fellow Baptists.

[Information above on Dr. Watson Kirkconnell's life is found in the following document:]


Canadian Baptists and the

Evangelization of Immigrants Refugees

1880 to 1945

Robert Richard Smale

A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements

for the degree of Doctor of Education

Department of Theory and Policy Studies in Education

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the

University of Toronto

@Copyright by Robert Richard Smale 2001




© Ukrainian Baptist Heritage Centre
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