The sweet sweet time when students return to their studies! The scent of new backpacks and coloured pencils hangs in the air amongst the sound of honking buses and parental high-fives! It truly ‘takes a village’ to make this coveted ninth month of the year a success, and the Bloor West Village shops and businesses are a flurry of activity doing so.
Another telltale sign that September is in full swing in Bloor West Village is the annual three-day Ukrainian Festival! Oooo… I love the food, the music, the dancing… did I mention the food already!? The cultural merriment typically diverts traffic from a 6-block stretch along Bloor Street West starting from Runnymede Road all the way down to Jane Street! Ukrainian food vendors set up shop; kiddie rides are erected overnight; and tents suddenly appear offering traditional pours and sips: local businesses showcase their wares under canopies; and several event stages dot along the strip hosting a multitude of globally renowned, as well as local celebrated Ukrainian singers, dancers, storytellers, and musicians.
This year, yours truly, was asked by our wonderful Bloor West Village BIA to be part of the festival weekend.
Yup, I was the local judge for the festival’s ‘Window Display Contest’ (or was it celebrity judge? Tomato, Tomahto!)
(Oh man, I love Schitt’s Creek!!!!)
Participating local businesses were asked to ‘bring it’ by showcasing Ukrainian culture, tradition, and creativity, in their best window displays! The winner would bring home $500!! Before I share the tale of my cutthroat judging experience, I’d like to talk a bit more about this fab fest!
The celebratory weekend was established to commemorate the 1995 ‘twinning’ anniversary between Toronto, Ontario and Kyiv, Ukraine. Since that time, this festival has hosted more than half a million guests (that’s a lotta perogies!), making it the largest Ukrainian festival in North America.
Sure, this year marked the 25th anniversary of the festival, but the Ukrainian roots in Toronto run much further back than that timeline. Waves of Eastern Europeans began settling in Bloor West Village during WWII, many of whom were from the Ukraine. It wasn’t long before Ukrainian businesses – clustered together in pockets where those with similar ethnic descent had settled – began enjoying success, which naturally drew more Ukrainian families and entrepreneurs to those areas.
One report on immigration to Toronto calculated pegged the number of Ukrainians that settled in this particular enclave of Toronto a close to 16 000! The Ukrainian community in Bloor West Village & Swansea remains close-knit and supportive, sharing a mutual love and respect of their roots and diasporic journey to this country. This means that long-established Ukrainian businesses continue to thrive; there’s always a crowd enjoying Amber European Restaurant (they’ve served up traditional dishes for over 40 years!) or Janchenko Bakery where you can enjoy a wealth of sweet treats!
Local programs and schools continue to teach the language, traditions, and cultural practices of this vibrant community! Just like the festival, these programs allow the new generations – who are inheriting an amazing legacy – to remain connected to the storied familial past.
In anticipation of the beloved event, the aforementioned window displays that I had the honour of judging were quickly and lovingly transformed. Flowers of every size and shape were welcome explosions of colour; Ukrainian flags of blue and yellow were displayed proudly; clusters of nesting dolls or ‘matryoshka’ (translating to ‘little matrons’) gathered in lines; the most beautiful ‘vinok’ (painstakingly festooned with ribbons and flowers as talismans of hope) were worn as crowns by young women; and everywhere you could see the traditional ‘vyshyvanka’ outfits: traditional garb embroidered with geometric shapes and patterns that are meant tell a story that is as unique as the wearers themselves!
Talk about a tough decision! In contrast to my previous ‘cutthroat’ jest, it was truly difficult to choose a winner, especially as the celebratory atmosphere was palpable, and all the business owners were so supportive of each other!
The 2nd place winning window display was rightfully awarded to The Cake Smith, but the top prize was awarded to JC Salons whose presentation truly captured the vibrant spirit of the Ukrainian festival! And in true ‘village style’, JC Salons pledged to donate the $500 prize money to the, ‘Help Us Help Ukraine Foundation’, saying they wanted to thank their Ukrainian clientele for their patronage, loyalty, and friendship. “You supported us even during the closures and this is a way we reciprocate our loyalty!”
The festival had to take a different approach than years prior due to the pandemic, whose shadow we are only now emerging from. Coordinators adopted a hybrid model of virtual and live events, including enclosed stages, food vendors, and displays within a large parking area at the base of Jane Street, as well as limited capacity live events. The weekend was a huge success! In fact, all shows, on all three days were completely sold out almost as soon as became available to the public!
Here’s the Mayor enjoying the festivities!
Thank goodness for our new normal, where we embrace live-streaming! It allowed the whole world into our world-class village!
Learn more about the Ukraininan Festival in Bloor West Village here or check out some of the photos on their Facebook page here! Want to find out more about the all the cultural festivals and events happening in Bloor West Village? Be sure to visit: The Bloor West Village BIA.
Thanks for reading!
Wouldn’t it be lovely to have sweet Swansea as your family’s community, with the awesomeness of Bloor West Village just a 10 minute walk away? This enclave is particularly sought after for it’s tree-lined streets, spacious lots, wealth of park and water access, and it small-town vibe! Love!
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