By Mia Vujcic, Visitor Host
When we are asked to share something about our heritage or ethnic background, food is often the first thing that springs to mind. In a number of previous blog posts, I explored different aspects of the research behind Leaving Home Finding Home in Oshawa: Displaced Persons and Stories of Immigration (open now in Robinson House!). As the title hints at, this exhibit features some of the communities and institutions which made up the flourishing multicultural landscape in post-World War II Oshawa. Although they were far from family and the once familiar rhythms of their daily lives, newcomers to the city at this time would have had several options to shop for culturally specific delicacies and ingredients.
One such location was the well-loved and remembered Oshawa Bakery. The Oshawa Bakery was founded in 1920 by Fred and Mary Shelenkoff. The Shelenkoffs (who in one newspaper article are described as Russian immigrants) arrived from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to Montreal after World War I. Soon afterwards, the family moved to Oshawa where they opened the Oshawa Bakery on the corner of Stacey Ave. and Court St. There they had the space to keep a stable, for their delivery horses, and sheds full of other farm animals. Their five children each helped out in the bakery from a very young age, taking on more responsibility as they grew up. The business grew as steadily as the city did around them, necessitating a move to Olive Ave.
By 1930, at least another two local businesses in the city specialized in Ukrainian groceries. These co-operative grocery stores were located at 212 Bloor St. E and 598 Albert St. – close to the Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic churches respectively. During the period of the Great Depression, community-based resources such as these businesses would have been invaluable. Many recent immigrants in the city at this time had been laid off but did not wish to apply for welfare, as they were not naturalized and feared deportation. In order to get by, Oshawa’s Ukrainians (and many others) took on odd jobs, and a number of families grew their own fruits and vegetables. Additionally, the existence of these co-operatives hints at and can be better explained by the deep labour history in the city.
Despite facing hard times during the Great Depression and shutting down for a time, the Oshawa Bakery also introduced two initiatives to help individuals in need. Due to their store’s proximity to the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, impoverished travellers, or “hobos” as Shelenkoff daughter Leta remembered calling them as a child, would often stop in. They never turned one away, always giving them some fresh bread. The bakery also arranged to sell bread for six cents (below the cost of production at that time) for two hours each day at six other stores in areas of the city heavily affected by poverty.
Until the 1970s, the Oshawa Bakery had door-to-door delivery, for which they reserved eight wagons. Leta recalls that she and her sister “would get out [their] little red wagon on Easter Sunday and deliver hot cross buns” to each house. The business progressively expanded, employing 35 full-time and part-time bakers and office staff in the year 1980. Throughout the decades, the bakery was kept in the family. It closed in the year 1990 when two of the Shelenkoff children, Vera and Lida, were too old to be involved any longer.
A lot of nostalgia is centred around a community hub and neighbourhood landmark like this one – where generations of families worked, visited, and gathered for over half a century. As Leta remembers, “Children were always specially treated, and often sent home with a gift of a roll or sweet bun.” The bakery’s permanent location at Olive Ave. was just across from St. Hedwig’s Polish Catholic Church. The bakery became especially busy after Sunday Mass, as Helen Bajorek-Macdonald recalls from her childhood memories. The bakery would be “jam-crushed with bodies waiting their turn at the counter” in order to buy “bread in the Russian language, Ukrainian, English, or Polish.”
Today, of course, there are even more numerous options for getting a taste of cultural cuisines in Oshawa. These include multiple other ethnic-inspired bakeries and delis and others which are centered at the city’s multicultural halls – which of course make up the well-loved annual Fiesta Week festival organized by the Oshawa Folk Arts Council. Some of the regular Eastern European originating pavilions include: Lviv (connected to Lviv Hall, next to St. George the Great Martyr Ukrainian Catholic Church on Lviv Blvd.), Odesa (connected to the hall at St John’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Bloor St.), Krakow (connected to the hall at General W. Sikorski Polish Veterans’ Association at Stevenson Rd. N.), and Poznan (connected to the Polish Alliance Canada Branch 21 on Olive Ave.).
During times of celebration, just as in periods of hardship, preparing, consuming, and sharing traditional foods from one’s heritage is a source of comfort. As Ukrainians are again faced with war and displacement, we are reminded of the continued plight and resilience of refugees around the world.