Vasyl Karcha tells the story of his immigration to Canada.
PAGES FROM MY LIFE'S STORY
I was born in the village of Kucheriv Velykyi, Chernivtsi District of the green land of Bukovyna. Though I passionately loved my native Bukovyna - and who among us did not love her - I was forced, out of necessity as were others, to leave my homeland in 1912 to try my luck in Canada. Bukovyna was then in the hands of landowners. For example, in Kucheriv, my village, there were three landlords: Krentz, Hilvyk and Yablunivsky. Between them they owned more land than did the 2000 peasant farmers of the village. The poorer peasants were compelled to work for these landowners from dawn to dusk for 15-20 pennies a day. I too, had a taste of these earnings. One summer the landowners cunningly started encouraging school-age youth to go into the fields to weed sugar beets after school for five pennies in order to obtain cheap labour. I went with them. There, the head overseer allotted each of us two rows of beets and ordered us to start weeding. Each overseer carried a cane and used it to spur on the children who lagged behind. As the children got tired they went down on their knees as they weeded. My back also began to ache in time and I also went down on my knees. Inadvertently I crushed a couple of plants as I went along. This drew the attention of the overseer who came up and began striking me across my back with his cane, so that everything turned black before my eyes.
"Look, you son of a so and so, how you have crushed the beets!" He lifted his cane again to hit me a second time, but I leaped to my feet and fled for home.
ON CANADIAN SOIL
I stepped on Canadian soil in the port of Quebec at the end of May, 1912. I was then 17 years old. Passing through the customs, I displayed the $25 required by the immigration laws for immigrants entering Canada, and fortunately the money was not counted because I was short of that amount. Taking my belongings I went beyond the gate to where a group of nuns was standing and handing out prayer books to each immigrant.
We boarded a train and went further west. Travelling with me was my guardian, Dmytro Mintenko. My father, who himself had been in Canada three years and returned, understood that the journey was long and difficult and therefore entrusted Mintenko to look after me. We arrived in Montreal during the night. Leaving the train and station we walked out into the streets. The city was huge, the people strange, speaking a language unknown to us. My guardian walked ahead, with me following. We finally came to some kind of park where we took the bags off our backs, my guardian stating that we would stay in the park overnight and then we would see where we would go further. This was my first night's lodging in Canada, beneath the open sky.
The next day, my guardian informed me that we would be moving on to Sudbury. Arriving in Sudbury with but a few dollars left in our pockets, we were met by a fellow countryman, Ivan Demyan, who had already lived in Canada four years. He took me with him to the Copper Cliff mines, assuring me that I would find a job there.
MY FIRST JOB
My countryman got me a job in the alloy plant of the Copper Cliff mine. Boy, this job was really a job! In those days the alloy was cast out of so-called "pots" outside, where workers watered them in order to cool them off. Then the ingots were loaded onto wheelbarrows, hauled to the rail cars and shipped by train to the refinery in Port Colbourne. This was hell, not a job! From below we were burned by the hot metal - from above by the sweltering sun. In addition to this we had an Italian foreman who drove us on, swearing from time to time. After loading my first wheelbarrow with these ingots, I began pushing it along the scaffolding when I lost my balance and flew head first after the wheelbarrow. The foreman came running, but instead of being sympathetic, he grabbed my arm and started shaking me, verbally abusing me with words I didn't understand. I asked the other workers (among whom were many from the villages of Sarafintsi in the Horodenka Region) why he was raving at me. He was more concerned about the company's wheelbarrow than the worker who fell and injured himself.
I worked there not quite a full two months. Because of the foreman's incessant harassment the workers, all of them Ukrainians, went on strike, stating that if the foreman was removed they would continue to work, if not, they would all quit. I stood by, not understanding what was going on and not knowing what was expected of me. The foreman didn't know what it was all about either.
"Why aren't you going!" one of the workers asked.
"Where am I to go?" I asked.
"Get started for home."
I went home. Two days later, the workers met and decided to return to work. Unfortunately, I don't remember a single name of the workers who took such a serious stand in opposition to the bad working conditions. On arriving at the plant in the morning, we found that our punch cards were not in the time clock and we had not even noticed that we were accompanied by three policemen who then told us that we were wanted in the main office. Here we were all given our time and so ended my first job in Canada.
I went to Sudbury. At that time they were hiring workers to work on a new railroad in the locality of Hoban. Registering for work there I paid $ 1.00 at the employment office as was the practice in those days when one registered for a job. Twelve of us were taken on and the bosses took us on foot to a lake. There was a small motorboat on the shore and tied to it was a row boat. We were ordered to sit in the rowboat while the bosses sat in the motor boat. In this way we were pulled across the lake. It was somewhat frightening for when we reached the middle of the lake the rowboat started to plunge and dive with the waves drenching us from time to time. At last we arrived on the opposite shore and breathed easier. We then walked several miles through the forest before we reached the camp. On arrival we were given supper and went to sleep. The next morning we started to work, crossing a small bay by boat, but there was no danger here. We worked at smashing a rock mountain, preparing an embankment for the railroad.
I was assigned to drilling. In those days holes were drilled in the mountainside by hand, not by machine, with one man holding the drill and two others hammering at it. In our threesome, the drill was held by a Swede. At first I lacked the confidence to use the hammer on the drill. Later I managed and even liked the job. The three of us were all young and strong. Hammering hard we quickly deepened the hole. Once, instead of hitting the drill with the hammer, I hit the Swede's hand. He cried out in pain. The foreman came running, and seeing that the Swede's forefinger on the right hand was crushed, he ordered him to return to camp to get his finger bandaged - then he took me off this job to haul rocks.
The work was strenuous, the food was bad, and the pay was poor- $1.75 for a ten hour day. The fare from Sudbury to camp was deducted from this wage. One Moldavian, Nikifor Balkan, suggested to me that we run away together from this job. I readily agreed to this proposal. We ran away from the camp at 11:00 o'clock at night. We made our way to the lake, but there was no boat around for us to cross on, so we started walking around it and reached the main road towards evening of the next day. We reached the CP railroad and my friend suggested we go to Schreiber, Ontario, where he had friends and where it was possible to get a better job on a railway gang. We purchased tickets and were on our way. On the second day in Schreiber we got a job in an extra gang with the CPR immediately. Though the pay was the same, $1.75 a day, the foreman was humane and the food was not bad. We worked here till the fall of 1913. That winter the CPR laid off all the big extra gangs, leaving only the section workers on the job. Our gang was laid off and all given a free pass, which I used to get to Montreal, but was unable to get work there once I arrived.
In the spring of 1914, I finally got work with a construction contractor in Westmount. The pay was $2 a day. In August of that year the First World War broke out, and when Britain declared war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Canada followed suit. This began the persecution of Ukrainian immigrants from Austria. Some were interned in concentration camps, others obliged to register each month or else twice weekly with the military police. In addition to this, our employer went bankrupt and we were able to collect our pay only with great difficulty.
With the start of the war it was hard for Ukrainian "Austrians" to get work. One Jewish farmer hired me to work on his farm in New Glasgow, Quebec, for $3 a month, plus board. I went with him in order to survive the winter, so as not to starve. The farmer was poor, fed me herrings and black bread, sometime buckwheat grits with milk. I could not demand anything more from him because he had nothing better to eat himself. I spent the winter with him and when I left I was paid $5 because I had spent some money on tobacco. I returned to Montreal, and it used to be that whenever I had a drink of water, I would remember those salty herrings on which I had survived all winter.
In the summer of 1915, I began work on a canal in Montreal. I worked till fall, and that winter I went logging for the Georgian Bay Company for $18 a month if I worked the full term, but if I quit earlier, then I would get only $15. I was employed there a little over two months when I injured my foot with an axe. The boss said that all the days it took for my foot to heal would be paid, but at the end of the job it appeared that he had lied, because not only was I not paid for those 18 days, but the expense for my board was also deducted for this period.
"The Ukrainian Canadian" magazine, April 1990, p36-38, Kobzar Publishing Company Limited.
Brule Mines, Alberta, Canada