Joanna Huska tells the story of her immigration and her first years in Canada.



I left my native village Repuzynets in the Horodenkiv District, Stanislav Region of Western Ukraine, on May 1, 1908, and on May 26 of the same year I was already in Winnipeg. It took 16 days to cross the Atlantic by ship and ten days to get to Winnipeg by train.

I'm Polish. My father was not a village landowner; he served as a forester on the estate of the big landowner Romanko, who held a great deal of land in the village of Dubkakh and 840 morgs of forest in Repuzynets. For this work father received 80 guilders in cash annually, ten bags of grain, and all the wood needed for our household! Besides this we were allowed to pasture our cow in the forest.

The 80 guilders was not enough for us to live in comfort and at the same time give my mother medical treatment for tuberculosis with which she suffered ten years. The aristocracy paid no attention to the fact that father was Polish, he was exploited in the same way as the Ukrainian workers and was called, at the same time, the "peasants' brother" because he supported and defended the rights of the poor peasants, didn't impound their cattle when they wandered into the estate forest.

After finishing the village school I worked on the estate land, helping my parents as much as I could. When my mother died I decided to go to Canada, for at that time there was a large emigration to Canada from Galicia. The peasantry left because of the promise of land and the town dwellers left to seek work.

Father sold our house for 300 florins ($120.00), gave me $52.00 for my fare and $7.00 for travelling expenses.

My voyage to Canada was interesting. I wrote down everything - every station we passed, where we stopped. Though my heart was full of sorrow at leaving my family and native village where I was born, went to school and grew up, I still had a great desire to travel into the wide world and seek a new life for myself.

I was met at the CPR station in Winnipeg by a number of fellow countrymen and friends from a neighbouring village wanting to know the latest news from home, having had no letters from their relatives for some time. My fellow countrymen took me out of the immigration building to old Mrs. Baricky on Barber St. where, I was told, I could stay until I found myself a job and a room. They carried my bags and I walked along with them, happy that I had so soon found my own people here.

It was the end of May, but there had been a fine snowfall and there was still no greenery anywhere. There had been a light frost that morning and it had hardened the mud on Barber St., which had not as yet been asphalted. After acquainting me with Mrs. Baricky, she gave me a cup of coffee and white bread and began to inform me that there was a great deal of unemployment in Winnipeg, but that there was going to be an election after which there would be lots of work. I had hoped that my fellow countrymen, having already been in Canada a few years, would have found me a place to stay, but I was convinced on this first night that they were not really concerned because they themselves were unemployed and slept wherever they could find a place.

Later that night Mrs. Baricky spread a blanket on the floor in the kitchen and said: "If you wish you can sleep here tonight on this blanket, but I have nothing to cover you with. You'll pay me 25 cents a night, but you can stay only a few nights until you find something permanent and a job. If the inspector finds out that you are sleeping on the floor I'll have to pay a fine."

I felt that I was not getting a very cordial welcome in Canada. I stayed with Mrs. Baricky six nights and on the seventh day I had to tell her I had no money to pay her. She answered by telling me to leave immediately as she never kept anyone on credit. I was helpless, cried a little, packed my suitcase and went out of the house. Where to go? I knew no one in the town. I went around to the back of the house where there was a pile of old boards overgrown with weeds. On them I spent the night, cold and miserable, as I had only brought summer clothes with me from home, as well as having nothing to cover myself with. In the morning I entered the house and begged a cup of tea to warm myself a bit.

"Where did you sleep?" asked Mrs. Baricky.

"On the boards, behind your house," I answered.

"Young woman, you mustn't do this any more or you'll get a cold." she warned me and advised: "Go to the immigration building, they may even find you a job. But be careful because it is a dirty place crawling with lice."

After this advice I was even more frightened. I stood there and didn't know what to do, where to go. A strange country and strange people, the few that I knew showed no interest in me any more, each going their own way. I went to the immigration building and there met a man who had travelled with me on the train to Winnipeg. His name was Tanchuk. He recognized me and asked me where I was staying, did I have a job, and so on. I told him about my hopeless situation. He thought a bit then said that he knew some people where he thought I could stay and as for a job, he suggested that I could probably get work with some Winnipeg Jewish family. They liked to hire immigrant girls for housework because they were obedient and good workers.

I thought about it and decided to go to the people suggested by Tanchuk. They accepted me as a roomer and so the question of a place to live was temporarily solved. It was not much better than the first, but that was not important. I thought. I would look around for a better place later. In the meantime I had to be patient and try to find a job.

I went to the immigration building every day to the immigration department, who was Ukrainian, found me a job at housework with a Polish family named Vizhikowski who owned a large store in the small town of Beausejour. I was delighted to find work with a Polish family, thinking that they would treat me well because they were my own people. But I was mistaken. I was treated like a slave. It was a large family; there were seven children and two hired help. I had to work from dawn to late at night for $10.00 a month. I stayed there four months and didn't, during that time, have a free moment to write a letter to my family in the old country.

Once I sang a Ukrainian song while at work. My mistress heard me and didn't like it, telling me that I had lied, that I wasn't Polish because I was singing a Ukrainian song. She ended by calling me a "peasant pig", offending me deeply. I told her I was leaving then and there and going back to Winnipeg. I continued working for two more weeks for nothing, however, and then returned to Winnipeg.

Two weeks later I got a job in the Pacific Hotel on Market St. by the City Hall. I worked there in the kitchen nearly two years. The owners of the hotel - English - respected me as a human being. I also learned some English there.

During this period I met a young man, William Huska, who had come to Canada ten years before me. We got married in 1910 and left Winnipeg for Montana in the United States where he had worked two years earlier, building freight cars.

Two years later my husband again decided to return to Canada. He took a homestead in Alberta in the fall and in the spring of 1913 we left the United States with our two small children to settle on his homestead where our miserable life began. From the tiny railroad station in Kitscoty, it took us three days to cover the 60 miles to our homestead in a wagon behind hired horses. There were no roads only so-called Indian paths through forest and swamp. A wet snow fell throughout the entire journey, the horses threw lumps of wet earth up at us with their hooves and a strong wind blew the snow in our faces. I raised an umbrella over my small children, but not for long, for a strong gust of wind broke it up and there was nothing then to protect us from the snow and rain. On the third day we reached another homesteader, William Saranchak, before noon. He was one of the first Ukrainian teachers in Manitoba. After teaching a few years there, he left teaching and a year before our arrival settled on this homestead in Alberta. We entered his small dwelling and looking about me, my heart sank. It was so small that there was barely room to move around. There was no ceiling; one could see the rafters of small logs covered with earth and grass, which was the roof with whisps of grass hanging here and there. A pile of wood stood against a wall with a handful of hay, which was probably used to start a fire.

Not only did I become depressed. I was also frightened at the thought that our beginnings on the homestead would probably be the same.

I had seen poor people in the old country, but their houses had been clean and the walls whitewashed, while these Canadian earth-covered huts were sad and discouraging to look at. The Saranchacks were young people with two small children. I washed my children's faces and eyes, reddened from the prairie winds and snow, and then we sat down to talk. "Excuse us, good people," said Saranchak. "that things are not the way we would like them to be. When homesteading, the beginning seems to bring one misfortune after another. On top of everything I have been ill with arthritis and we haven't seen any flour in the house for some time. The closest store is six miles away and one has to walk there and carry the flour on one's back."

We slept that night at the Saranchaks. In the morning my husband walked the six miles through scrub and swamp (there was no road as yet) to the store and brought back a hundred-pound sack of flour. Now there would be bread in the house.

On looking over our homestead we discovered that the area was covered only with aspens and prairie grasses, neither of which were good material for building. We first had to build a home, but it was impossible, given the material we had to work with and only $13.30 in cash. After some discussion it was agreed that I would remain with Mrs. Saranchak in their one-room house while my husband and hers, who had, after a month, recovered his health somewhat, walked the 60 miles to Vermillion, then took the train to Edmonton to look for work.

After a few weeks I received a letter from my husband saying that he was working in a sawmill and would soon send me a few dollars for food. The rest he would save so that we could build ourselves a house in the fall. I lived with Mrs Saranchak from May to November. We got along like sisters and our children also played together in harmony. We took turns walking the six miles to the store and returned carrying our supplies on our backs. There were times when these daily necessities weighed up to 50 pounds. The back ached, the legs and body grew numb with exhaustion and mosquitoes and flies added to our misery on these treks. But it had to be done. The life of a pioneer homesteader was difficult and cruel. Neither complaints nor tears helped. Only perseverance and hard work gave results.

Let the reader not forget where I stopped, for I would like to give a short account about the beginnings of my husband's life in Canada. He arrived in 1899. At first he worked at whatever job he could find. Later he bought a farm on payments together with a kinsman, Fedir Huska, in the Stuartburn area of Manitoba for $2,100.00. Fedir Huska was married, so he remained to work on the farm while my husband who was single went out to work. In this fashion they worked to pay their mortgage on the farm. After ten years, when they had almost paid it off, it was revealed that there was an earlier unpaid mortgage of $1,800.00 on the farm which had been hidden from them when they bought it. The earlier owner had said nothing about the debt owed by him and the lawyer overlooked it in the transaction so that the new owners were now saddled with an additional mortgage including accumulated interest on the property. My husband refused to pay this added mortgage and left the farm, receiving nothing in return for having given ten years of his young life toward payments on the property.

Further now, about our homestead in Alberta. In October of that year (1913), my husband returned from Edmonton bringing all of $67.00 earned over the whole summer. He began to cut down the aspens to build a house. After six weeks the walls were up, but the roof had to be covered with earth quickly because the frosts were setting in. The roof covered, my husband began to dig a cellar in the house. He dug and I poured water on this earth, mixed it and filled a large pan with this mud to fill in the openings between the logs from the outside. This was not easy for me, climbing up a ladder carrying a pan full of mud to fill in the crevices, for I was seven months pregnant at the time. But I had to do it as there was no one else to do it for us.

We finished our house but were left with nothing to live on through the winter, having spent all our savings on the building. My husband couldn't return to work because we had no well as yet and there could be no life on a farm without a well.

As it was, we melted snow for water, or had to walk a mile to our nearest neighbour for water. There was also no money for travel to find work and to walk was too far. My husband went to our neighbour and begged for a loan of $10.00 for we hadn't even a potato in the house, or flour, or even a few bullets to assure us of rabbit for meat. The neighbour gave us the loan and this, for that time, was a large sum. We bought flour and a few bags of potatoes for the winter.

My husband dug two wells during the winter months, but was unable to find water. I continued to melt snow for our needs. I finally told my husband one day to go to Mr. Ferguson, the store owner, and ask him if he could extend us credit for at least $50.00 which would be paid back when my husband went back to work in the spring. Mr. Ferguson laughed and asked what we had to give as collateral toward such a loan. There was no other way out - my husband took my coat and sewing machine to the store and for these we received $25.00 in credit. We lived on this sum all winter, helped by an abundance of wild rabbits which supplied us with meat.

Our third child, a daughter, was born on February 17 without any medical or hospital help and in March my husband left me with our three small children to seek work, walking the 60 miles to the nearest railway station. I left the children alone in the house, winter and summer, to gather wood in the forest for our fire, or to walk the six miles to the store and back carrying our necessities. Returning home for a week or two to rest, my husband would start out again in search of work, leaving me alone with the children once more. In the beginning none of the homesteaders around us had cows; one couldn't get even a spoon of milk for the children anywhere. It was only after three years on the homestead that we were able to buy a cow and ten chickens. Such joy! I broke down and wept from happiness.

That same year we rented a horse and plough and worked about an acre of land. In the spring I diligently worked the plot and planted a garden, thinking that now we would be able to have our own vegetables. I planted a bit of this and a bit of that, it all came up beautifully. I happily watered, hoed and weeded till July 10, when my happiness was killed by a heavy frost that also killed my garden. Only some of the potato plants survived it, only to be destroyed by frost a month later.

So we subsisted, in hardship and poverty, for the first six years. There was no sign indicating plans to build a railway or even a school in our district. We received a contract for the homestead, but left it, moving to Wayne, near Drumheller, in Southern Alberta, because the children had reached school age and we could see no future for ourselves on the farm.


William and Joanna Huska with one of their daughters

Kobzar Publishing
Joanna Huska


Ukrainian Farm in Vita, Manitoba.
Vita, Manitoba, Canada

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