Mary Prokop tells the story about her family's first years in Canada.


The early outdoor ovens in which the settlers baked bread
Manitoba, Canada

Kobzar Publishing


I am the daughter of early pioneer immigrants - poor, landless and illiterate peasants from the village of Bovdury, Brody District, Lviv Province. My father Onufrey Michalchuk (immediately rechristened "Fred" in the new world) arrived in Canada in 1899 or 1900 from Western Ukraine which was then under Austro-Hungarian rule. He found shelter with former village compatriots at Mundare, Alberta. My mother Kateryna, with my eldest, then four and a half year old sister Rosie, came in the spring of 1902.

On arrival in Winnipeg, the "Gateway to the West", my mother decided to work for a farmer until fall in order to earn a little money. When it was time for her to join my father, she went to the railroad station where she was approached by a friendly "our Ukrainian man" who sold her a ticket and even gave my sister a bag of candies. However, it turned out that the ticket was worthless and my mother and sister were forced off the train at the first stop. The conductor threw their baggage out after them. With these bundles, all her worldly possessions, and a small child in tow, she trudged many miles back along the tracks to Winnipeg. There the immigration authorities supplied her with food, shelter and a ticket on the next train to Edmonton where my father met her with a borrowed wagon and team of horses.

At first, my parents settled on a homestead a few miles out of Mundare. With the help of friends, my father had built a log cabin with a lean-to shed or barn against it. It had a door, gunny sacks filled with hay for windows and some rough hewn furniture. Mother was disappointed; she had expected better. With the few dollars that Dad had and what was left of Mother's earnings from Winnipeg, they bought a milk cow and some other necessities. Father then went off to work in the bush.

That first winter was the very hardest mother had ever experienced and, as she later told us children, at least in the old country, though food was scarce, they had always been warm. Here they were cold and isolated in the unfinished house for the entire severe winter.

After nine or ten years, during which my four brothers Peter, Paul, Nick and Mykhas, and my sister Annie were born, my parents for some reason traded the homestead for a farm at Slava, also a Ukrainian settlement, where I, the youngest of seven children, was born on August 7, 1914.

From the time I can remember, we had farm buildings built of logs and thatched with rye and wheat straw, two teams of horses, a few cows, pigs and fowl, and some farm machinery. Unfortunately, much of this had been bought on credit.

The house was small, consisting of a kitchen and family room, with clay floors. The interior and exterior log walls, as well as our outdoor peech (a homemade baking oven), were plastered with clay and whitewashed with lime. Our furnishings were primitive and, in summer, the children slept in the granary or the hayloft. Our house looked like it had come from the village in the homeland.

While patching or sewing, my mother used to tell us of the national and socio-economic oppression the peasantry had suffered under Austro-Hungarian rule and their local servants, the Polish gentry. Coming from a poor family, she and her sisters had been forced to work for local landlords. She told us how hard she had to work as a maid for one pan Lisnychyi, a forester, for miserable wages. The only good thing about this work was that she was able to tell her sisters and friends when he would be away so that they could pick berries and mushrooms and gather firewood in the master's forest. Those caught doing this were fined or imprisoned. She described Bovdury so well that when I visited it with my husband in 1973 it was I who was the "guide" instead of the one from Intourist.

Life for the pioneers in Canada was no bed of roses either. Stores and post offices were far away. In our case, the thirty-five mile trip to Vermilion along country roads to sell grain or livestock took the better part of a day. Vermilion was also where the nearest doctor was.

I remember this well because of the accident my brother, Paul, then thirteen, suffered. Following the seeder as my father was putting in the wheat, he caught and mutilated three fingers. I remember Mother running to the trunk for white sheets which she kept "in case of death in the family" and wrapping Paul's hand tightly to stop the bleeding. Then there was the long trip to the doctor in Vermilion, my brother screaming most of the way in feverish pain.

I also remember that my brother Mykhas, two years older than myself, had to be taken to see doctors in Vermilion, Vegreville and Innisfree to try to treat an illness the doctors couldn't even diagnose. His death at age twelve was shattering for me as we, the two youngest children, were always together. There were many serious accidents on the farms around us which were fatal because of a lack of available medical attention.

Our family lived a life of poverty and was constantly in debt for machinery, taxes and even food when the crops failed, which seems to have been often. I remember three years in succession that our crops were destroyed by frost, drought and hail. Even the thatched roofs had to be fed to the livestock in a vain effort to keep them from starving. Everything was bought on credit and often my father, being illiterate, was taken advantage of. Mail always brought bills and threatening letters. Visits from debt collectors were common and there was no way of shielding even the smallest children from the stress of poverty.

My father and brothers found work off the farm in an attempt to deal with the increasing debt load. But even this wasn't enough and the farm was put up for auction. The family pooled its resources, sold some livestock and scraped up what it could and, thanks to the solidarity of the farmers around who refused to take advantage of our plight, my eldest brother Peter was able to purchase the farm back. But life was no longer the same.

I had been attending the Zorya School for three years but, with a change of teachers each spring, we all had to start over at the beginners' level. When I was twelve, my sister Annie and her husband Tony took me to live with them in St. Paul and I was able to attend school there while helping with the housework and my little nephew. The schools in St. Paul, which was 90% French with about twelve Ukrainian families, were under the complete control of the Roman Catholic Church. I was forced to learn catechism and attend mass regularly. When I protested that I had been baptised in the Greek Catholic faith, I was told that unless I complied there would be a fifty-dollar tuition fee, an impossible sum in those days. Under the circumstances, I had no choice.



Ukrainian settlers threshing
Stewartburn, Manitoba

Kobzar Publishing