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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Ontario parliamentarians honour memory of Ukrainian Canadian legislator

A Personal Tribute to
John Yaremko (1918-2010)
By Borys Wrzesnewskyj, M.P. Etobicoke Centre

On November 24, 2010 in the Legislative Assembly in Toronto, Ontario together with numerous representatives of the Ukrainian Canadian community, I had the privilege of witnessing MPPs from all three parties put aside partisanship to pay fitting tribute to former Ontario Cabinet Minister and Member of Provincial Parliament the Honourable John Yaremko who passed away on August 9th of this year. The poignant tributes on the passing of John spoke to the loss felt by elected public office holders in the Province of Ontario and especially in the Ukrainian Canadian community in Ontario and beyond.

John dedicated twenty-five years of his life to elected public service at Queen’s Park. Everyone spoke with tremendous respect for what he accomplished as a parliamentarian and Minister of the Crown in Ontario. However, his active public service continued for decades after he retired from elected office. Together with his late wife Mary, the Yaremko’s envisioned and funded legacy projects in a string of institutions of higher learning in Canada and in his parents' ancestral homeland of Ukraine.
On a personal note, my first recollections of John were when I was a young boy of 6 or 7. I remember well John’s annual visits to my grandmother in the apartment above our bakery. Every Christmas John would arrive with poinsettias and every Easter he would arrive with a bouquet of Easter Lilies for my grandmother.

He often retold to me the story of his very first election campaign in 1951 and how my grandmother’s steely principles played a crucial act in that campaign. One of the first to put up “Yaremko” campaign signs with the “alien” name Yaremko was my grandmother. She agreed to place John’s signs across the 60 foot fence fronting her business on Queen Street West even though there were those who said she risked her just-opened neighbourhood bakery business.

Sure enough, on the first night a group of hooligans knocked down the fence along with the Yaremko signs. The next day a dejected John came to my grandmother to apologize saying he would remove the signs and offering to build a new fence. My grandmother said: " No, let the fence and signs lie there throughout the campaign.” It proved to be a pivotal decision. Even those who considered the Ukrainians and Poles in the neighbourhood “DPs” [Ed: a pejoritive term for displaced persons] were shamed by this hooliganism and it mobilized the New Canadians, in fact, the entire immigrant neighbourhood, to vote. It became a seminal election in which for the first time a Ukrainian Canadian, a so-called “DP”, was elected to public office in Ontario’s Legislature.

I will also remember fondly, and will always be thankful for, the innumerable encouragements I received from John as I contemplated embarking on my pursuit of elected public office. A couple of months before his death, I had an opportunity to speak to John. At that time he again offered encouragement and reminded me that I carried an additional political responsibility in that I also represented our ancestral heritage and culture. I am convinced that just as John Yaremko played a role in our family’s integration into Canadian politics, there are innumerable other families in Toronto and across Ontario with similar memories.

As well, John will also be fondly remembered by Hungarian Canadians who considered him an honourary member of their community. During the 1956 Hungarian uprising, he immediately travelled to Ottawa to forcefully and successfully make the argument to the federal Minister to put in place special processes to bring the desperate Hungarian refugees from the failed anti-Soviet uprising to Canada.

The tributes to John Yaremko on the floor of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from MPPs representing all three political parties more than half a century after his first election attests to John’s impact as a legislator.  His good acts will continue to resonate for decades through the many Yaremko educational initiatives.

Вічная пам`ять! (Memory eternal.)

MPPs Gerry Martiniuk, Donna Cansfield and Cheri DiNovo join members of John Yaremko’s family, community leaders and Borys Wrzesnewskyj, MP, on the main steps of the Ontario legislature after the tribute to John Yaremko. (Photo: Myroslava Oleksiuk)

Two excellent articles about John Yaremko were published following his death in the Toronto Sun (article by Ted Woloshyn here) and Toronto Star (article here).

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