Yuri Vyrostok tells the story of his immigration to Canada and first experiences in a new country.
A LIFE'S EXPERIENCES
The early 1900's saw the exodus of countless Ukrainian emigres from the Sniatyn District of Western Ukraine. They left their native villages of Zavalia, Tulov, Ustya, Rusiv, and our village, Beleluya. This exodus began in 1902. Why were we leaving our native land for a far-off, unknown territory? We were running away from poverty and a hand-to-mouth existence. Some left for other European countries, some for the United States, some to Brazil and Argentina - and all to earn enough for a better life and to improve their lot.
Talk about Canada began in the final years of the 19th century. At the same time there was talk of the division of feudal lands. They probably heard about Canada from those first emigrants from Nebiliw (Eleniak, Pylypiw and others), or from the various steamship agencies. About the division of land, they heard from students who listened to speeches by Mykhailo Pavlyk, Ivan Franko, VasyI Stefanyk, Marko Cheremshyna, Kyrylo Trylowsky and other public figures.
I was 14 years old when students began to talk about the division of land and about the new land beyond the ocean. On finishing the village school, I was to continue another complementary year (once a week on Sunday) and prepare for my life as a peasant. I was a good student in our village school and received a number of gifts for my diligence. In my 5th school year I was given a book, Robinson Crusoe, as a prize. One day the teacher from our village school came to see my father. He began to try to convince him to send me to a higher educational school in Kolomeya.
"It would be a shame," he argued, "for the boy to stop now; he is a very good student." He then sat down and wrote down what I would need to fill out to register, saying that I should go to Sniatyn and register as soon as possible. I didn't even wait for father's "yes" or "no", but led the horse out of the stable and waited for father to give me money for these "papers" and leave for Sniatyn. But father, after agreeing with the teacher that his advice was good, turned the conversation to economic matters.
"I have only three morgs (acres) of land, and my family is big," he said, "so how can I afford to pay for his schooling? I'm not equal to Semen Prodan in Rusiv (that was VasyI Stefanyk's father's name), who has around 80 morgs of land."
He was right. There were six children in our family, three girls and three boys, all too small to work as yet, except for our older brother who had already been conscripted into the Austrian army. Mother heard the teacher's advice and was happy that there was an opportunity for me to continue my education.
"It would be good if he studied to be a priest," she enthused, "he would listen to people's confessions and pray to God for their souls." Only one thing bothered her, the cost of that education.
"I don't want to be a priest," I answered her. "I'd rather be a land surveyor who measures out land and divides it."
"What are you going to measure?" asked father. "Don't you see that our land has already been so measured out and divided that one can't even turn a wagon around on one's own plot! No, you're not going to school because I have no way of paying for it, you'll go and become a shepherd for the community sheep."
It happened just as father said. When I was 15 years old I was already looking after a whole flock of sheep on the common beyond which were the narrow strips that once belonged to the peasantry, but now belonged to the moneylenders for debts unpaid. In time, the peasants from Ustya on the Prut River were able to buy back these strips of land which had been squandered away on drink in the local tavern. VasyI Stefanyk wrote about this in one of his stories, because even his father had a few fields there.
In mentioning the common, because my youth is connected with it, it was there that I shepherded the community flocks of sheep. While recalling this, VasyI Stefanyk appears before my eyes. During the harvest he would often bustle about his father's yard wearing a white cap with a dark shade and belt around it. Maybe it was then that he wrote the story about the tradesman who drank an exact amount, not too much and not too little.
Shepherding the sheep on the common, I'd often look around and see not only our village but neighbouring villages as well - and further off the Carpathian Mountains. Close by, also, were the broad fields of the landlord. That was why I so carefully herded the flock, making sure that they wouldn't wander into those fields and do some damage that father would have to pay the landlord for. When it happened occasionally that a lone sheep would stray into his property, I would get it from the overseer. A number of times I explained this by saying that it was their sheep that walked into the grain and did the damage. The overseer was a good-hearted man; he listened and believed me, then walked away. I often thought that if he were the owner of those fields it might have been easier to divide them up between the poor peasantry.
The days and nights went by, and though I didn't go to a higher school of learning, I was a student of the environment, of my native village. There were few students in high school from our village. One of them was Yury Shiemko, an uncle to Dmytro and Ivan Shiemko, two brothers, the first of whom worked in the Newcastle mine and the second killed in the Spanish Civil War, where he was a member of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. Their uncle, when arriving home during vacations, would bring them radical literature to read. I also read some of it, though I knew nothing about radicalism, being only 17 at the time. It wasn't till 1898 that a Ukrainian Radical Party was formed in Beleluya and other villages in the Sniatyn District. Heading the party at the time was the writer VasyI Stefanyk, together with Ivan Sanduliak from Karliv, Semen Zinlevych from Sniatyn and Kyrylo Tryliovsky. It was then that the older peasants and village youth became acquainted with the political radical movement.
THE RADICAL MOVEMENT IN THE VILLAGE
When the Radical Party was formed in our village, the greater number of its members was comprised of the well-to-do, rather than the poor peasantry. The well-to-do were elected into the leadership and monopolized the party. This support didn't last long however. They remained in the party only until they were elected into government positions in the community. It was customary that when the local governments were elected in the villages, the village elder would call a meeting of the reeves and would so convince them to his thinking that they were good for nothing after that except for drinking and carrying out his orders. They didn't care about themselves and still less about the community they were supposed to serve. They were then called traitors to their people and earned this name by their actions. We had a number of such in our village. Even though they were elected from the Radical Party, they cast a bad light on it.
Once I was assigned to gather a petition to the government in Lviv on the question of work permits. It happened that the government had passed a law that workers of one village could not go to another to work, but must remain and work in their village. This law also concerned those who wished to go to Germany, France, or even Canada, to earn money. When I had the petition ready to send out, I went to the reeve for an official stamp to the petition and his signature, which would add importance to our cause. I met him outside his office and after hearing me out, he agreed to stamp it and add his signature to it. But when we entered the office he began to wriggle out of it because a gendarme was present. I had no fear because the petition was going directly to the parliament in Lviv. The gendarme shook his head with displeasure and I left and sent the petition without the reeve's signature or stamp.
A few days later that same gendarme approached me, asking to know more about the petition. I told him I had already sent it to Lviv into the hands of our local deputy. The gendarme then became aggressive and announced that he was going to arrest me in the name of the king's law. I answered that he had no right to do this as he had no reason or approval to do this. At this he left me for the moment.
In a few days he returned with a summons for me to appear for questioning before the district commission in Sniatyn about the petition.
On hearing this wife began to wring her hands and cry.
I told her not to worry as there is no evil that won't turn into good and that there'll come a time when their power will be broken.
I went to Sniatyn and entered the commissioner's office on the second floor where a secretary directed me to a door, but not to the commissioner himself, but to his deputy. I entered and there was our local gendarme giving his report on how I had behaved toward him. I answered that my attitude arose out of his aggressiveness toward me. The deputy immediately, without going into it further, sentenced me to three days in jail, saying:
"We can't allow striplings like yourself to rule us or give you the right to do so. Let him spend three days in jail."
On this he pushed a button; the secretary entered and led me out into the prison section to serve my sentence.
This happened in 1906 and now, 40 years later, in that same building, and perhaps in that same room where a Polish commissioner sat, sits a Ukrainian, Andrusiak, from Ustya. Forty years have passed since our "striplings" came to power and are now ruling justly, not harshly as it was under Polish aristocratic rule.
I mention only one episode to show what the relations between the Polish authorities and the people were like, but I suffered many such episodes.
LEAVING FOR CANADA.
On March 14, 1907, some 18 older and younger inhabitants of Beleluya, as well as two from the neighbouring village, Tulukiv- VasyI Poraiko and his daughter, Parania - left our villages through two agencies: Foreiberg and MacMahon - to emigrate for Canada. Eight of us left through the first, and ten through the second. Though both agents let us know one day before we were to leave, we were not surprised, because we had all been ready to take this long journey for some time. We had prepared food, toasted bread and some even arranged for a mass to be held in the church and confession before the priest Smhalevich. I didn't go to confession, having ceased to believe in it by the time I was 20 years old.
Here are the names of our 20 who left for Canada: Yurko Vyrostok, Ivan Shiemko, Ivan S. Shiemko, Semen Shiemko, Mykhailo Hnatiuk Antin Hnatiuk, Andriy Ostafichuk, VasyI Marusyk, Tanasiy Kirik, VasyI Poraiko, Parania Poraiko, Mykhailo Vyrostok, Mykola Shiemko, Carol Hliader, Petro Marusyk Joseph Andriaschuk, Lazar Andriaschuk and Matthew Krimian.
Some among them knew that I hadn't gone to confession and said that it was dangerous to travel by ship with someone who hadn't confessed. I told them that I had done it in Sniatyn because I didn't get along with our own priest and this restored peace among us.
We arrived at our port in Antwerp in a few days. Here we were accommodated in a hotel and told we would have to wait a few days till more emigrants arrived.
The agents then began to ask each of us where we wished to go. They explained that Canada preferred that emigrants settled on the land, rather than in the cities to work.
Twelve of us chose Edmonton, because that was where Dmytro Selianych was, a former compatriot radical whom we knew and who would give us good advice. VasyI Poraiko and his daughter also chose Edmonton because it wasn't far from Vegreville where some of their former countrymen lived. We all paid the extra fare and settled down to wait for our ship. We walked the streets, inspected the port and the large horses, comparing them to the small skeletons at home that our peasants had to work with. We were told that the greater portion of the flour used, and pork as well, came from Canada. We ate this white bread and found it very tasty, having become tired of the rye rusks we'd brought with us. We were looking forward to arriving safely in Canada where we would be well off with this wonderful white bread and all the salt pork we could eat if there was so much of it that it was sent out to other countries.
Our ship came in at last and we boarded the "Lake Michigan", surprised that it had only one stack, though it took on 4,000 people. In a few hours we left the port for the great Atlantic with an orchestra bidding us farewell.
On the ocean, on the ocean,
With passports in our hands,
We are travelling in a ship,
Like herrings in a barrel.
Our crossing took 15 days. We were fed just enough so we wouldn't die of hunger. We celebrated our Easter in the middle of the Atlantic. We were given baked potatoes and we joked through tears that they were our coloured Easter eggs. One man from Kniazh was traveling with his servant. He had two dozen Easter eggs with him and treated us to an egg each. His servant didn't get one for he was in bed, sea-sick all the way across. None of us was affected and we sang various folksongs and revolutionary songs taught us by a compatriot from Greater Ukraine, who was also immigrating to Canada.
We finally arrived at the Canadian port of Quebec on May 9, 1907. Here we were sorted out and put on the train for the west. In Winnipeg, we spent one night in the immigration building and another at the home of Mykhailo Malofiy from the village of Pidvysoka. On the second day, I believe it was Sunday, we visited T.D. Ferley. Petro Myroniuk informed us that he was a radical. We had our first dinner in Canada in his home. They were both, with V. Poraiko, acquaintances from the old country. On the third day we left Winnipeg for Edmonton.
Two days later we got off the train in Strathcona, because the railway line had not yet crossed the river into Edmonton. We arrived at night and stood on the platform, not knowing where to go. We waited, hoping someone would show up to help us. After some time, a man appeared and approached us, asking where we came from. We told him, though he well knew by our dress and luggage that we were immigrants from the old country, just as he was earlier. He took us to the immigration building and left without even telling us what the building was. We were anxious and worried, not knowing the language, that we might be thrown out or even arrested. We finally decided to leave the building and sleep outdoors among some bushes.
We woke up so early that the lights of Edmonton, beyond the river, were still twinkling. We pulled our belongings together and started out walking toward those lights. We crossed a large bridge and reached Edmonton just as the sun was coming up. There wasn't a soul around as yet, so we walked the streets, but didn't go far; afraid of losing our way, even though the town was not large. It wasn't till an hour or two later that people appeared and we were happy to see them, hoping to find someone who would help us find a place to live. Of course, one's own people always recognize each other, and it wasn't long before we were approached by one of our compatriots who was pleased to learn that we were from Bukovyna, his own home territory. We asked him to help us find a place to settle, and after some thought, he took us to a house close by. The house was fairly large and we were told that farmers, coming into town, very often spent the night there. The man agreed to take us in, so that now we had a place to stay at $1 a night from each of us.
After a few days, we met and became acquainted with Dmytro Solianych from Ustya. We told him that we had come, using his address. After much talk, exchanging news about the situation back home, as he had come to Canada a couple of years earlier, he criticized us for leaving home before the elections which were being held by secret ballot for the first time, something that we had long fought for. There were ten among us who could have voted. We explained that it was our agent's fault. He informed us that we had to leave at that time.
Solianych advised us to move into the home of his neighbour, H. Kostyk, from the village of Tolukiv, Sniatyn District. We did this. Our first jobs in the city were digging sewers for which we had to pay $1 to get the job. We worked at digging ditches for two weeks, and then were laid off. It was bad, we thought, if this was an example of Canada. Kostyk told us that we would get another job the next day with another boss who also asked for a dollar.
We came home after our first day on the second job and asked Kostyk why one had to pay a dollar to get a job. He answered that people themselves were to blame because they had taught the bosses to do this, so it happened that we were laid off a number of times and returned to the job after paying another boss a dollar. It soon became obvious to us that this whole scam was an organized one to fleece the new ignorant immigrants who needed the jobs. These were our first working experiences in Canada.
In the meantime, my wife wrote that I should repay the loan I had made from my brother to make the trip and to send her a few dollars because a piece of land was available for sale but I was to tell no one about it because someone else might buy it before we did. What was I to do? I wrote back that I didn't want the land, that I might buy some later but somewhere else, not there.
We were laid off once again and began to look further around Edmonton. Many people at the time were living in tents on lots they had bought from the town, or had put up tents anywhere, just to have a roof over their heads. The city looked like an Indian village. Looking around, we walked into an employment office in Strathcona, where the agent told us that workers were needed on railway extra gangs in British Columbia. A few of us decided to go, again paying the agent a dollar each. These employment offices were not run by government authorities, but by any individual who knew how to write a bit and wished to set up his own employment office and keep a file on what work was available.
We left Edmonton during the hot days of July and travelled to work on the railway to Cranbrook, B.C. A CPR watchman travelled with us to see that no one left the train wherever they wanted to, but that all continued to the jobs they signed up for. Even the conductor watched to make sure we didn't leave. When we arrived, we saw that working on the extra gang would get us nowhere. The pay was poor and the charge for food very high, so that nothing was left from your pay.
There was a sawmill in Cranbrook at the time and we tried for a job there, but were told that they didn't need more workers. We then decided to go to Fernie. Here we found many of our compatriots from neighbouring villages at home, so it almost seemed to us like a homecoming. We exchanged news from home and our experiences in Canada.
On the next day we began to work in a plant that produced coke. We took the coke out of the ovens, and this at night, because it was too hot in the daytime. Each of us were to look after nine ovens - three to a shift, paying us $9 for each oven. The work was hard and exhausting. We removed that coke as long as we could stand it. Our hands hardened with blisters. I grew a double blister that became infected and my hand swelled so that the doctor had to lance it. When my infection was cured, I didn't return to work there, but left for Hosmer, where a new mine had opened up. Here I was told that they didn't need any more workers and advised me to go a few miles north to a lumber camp where I could perhaps, get work. I walked the forest road and reached the camp where I was hired as a swamper, which is to cut the branches away from cut-down trees. But I didn't work here long either. The camp was closed and the boss took the older workers with him to another camp near Fernie, laying off those of us who were employed recently, telling us to come and see if there was any work later. I returned to Fernie, but did not go back to the coke ovens.
After some time I got work in another lumber camp and worked there till December. In December, most of the workers were laid off not only in the forest, but in the lumber mill as well. Again, I began looking for work. I knew that they were breaking stones at Crows Nest Pass, loading them up on lorries and taking them to Hosmer to build coke ovens. I went there with my partner with whom I had worked in a lumber camp. In time our group of countrymen from the same village had scattered to jobs in various places.
Arriving at the camp in Crows Nest Pass, we found a group of our countrymen from the Sniatyn district who had recently arrived from Edmonton. Among them were men from Illintsi, Karliv, Tolukiv and Beleluya. John Boychuk headed the group from Illintsi. I became acquainted with him during the course of our work. We often joked that we were Ivan Franko's "stonecutters' from his poem "Pavers of the Way" in Canada.
In the evenings, after work, we would often gather and reminisce about Sniatyn and Zabolotiv, how our peasants once rebelled in the neighbouring villages initiated by those in Illintsi. We also guessed at when our peasantry would finally release themselves from the landlord yoke and become free citizens in their own land.
In the spring of 1908, there was enough stone to finish the coke ovens, so that most of the workers were again laid off. We scattered in various directions - some to Fernie, others to the farms or other jobs. I, with Fedor Wakaliuk, went to Coleman, a mining town some six miles from Crows Nest Pass. The mine in Coleman was going full blast and we tried to get work there, but when I found out that one had to pay for a job here too, just as we did in Edmonton, I returned to Fernie.
Once in Fernie, I wanted very much to get in touch with a radical group. I had heard that there was a branch of the Socialist Party of Canada in Fernie and that it had even nominated candidates in the recent elections. This was, I think, in the fall of 1907 or spring of 1908 when I arrived from Coleman. I know this because Fernie had 13 hotels at the time, and in August or September of 1908, the entire town burnt down, with all its hotels.
The elections were held before this happened. On the evening before Election Day, the conservatives organized quite a spectacle. The conservative candidate sat in an open buggy pulled by his followers, followed by others carrying burning torches. They went from hotel to hotel shouting out: "Too late for socialism!"
Though Fernie with all its hotels was so backward, there were people of radical outlook here and a miner's union existed. True, it was difficult then to propagate progressive ideas because these 13 hotels hypnotized the greater number of inhabitants.
I became acquainted with Alex Achtemichuk, Ivan Pawchuk, M. Punak and a few other workers. They may have been members of the English branch of the Socialist Party as they had been in Canada a number of years. There was no Ukrainian organization, although an organizer of Russian revolutionaries came from time to time and we received and helped him. When I arrived from the extra gang section of the Great Northern Railway, just before the fire in Fernie, I was told that T. Tomashevsky had been elected to the convention in Winnipeg, after which there was an appeal to raise funds for the periodical Robochy narod (Working People). These were as yet individual organizations, not united. This came later.
A few more words about the fire that destroyed Fernie: It was an unusually tragic event. Most of the buildings were built of wood, but even the few brick buildings burnt to the ground. Only two buildings remained- a grocery store and the mining office. Both of these were built of stone and this saved them.
The groceries in the store were a lifesaver for the inhabitants, who were able on the following day, a Sunday, to obtain some food before the trains began to bring in food from Cranbrook. The food was unloaded in old Fernie, in the western end, because the rail lines into Fernie had also been destroyed by the fire. The trains had to back out of Fernie into Morrisey where they turned around and returned to Cranbrook. The food was unloaded under police supervision to prevent theft, for hunger was beginning to make itself felt very soon. Tents were put up and the food was doled out as equally as possible. The people managed as well as they could, having been left with nothing, especially the women and children who had run out of their houses with only what they had on. The Elk Lumber Co. was also destroyed. Its workers had nowhere to go so a train came in from Michelle and took them to Hosmer where they hid in the coke ovens, which had already been finished. My brother Michael was among them. I had no idea what had happened to him and had no way of finding out as all means of communication were ruined as well. But he suddenly appeared, alive and well, telling me where they had hidden out.
The authorities proclaimed martial law because certain valuable metal safes had been left undamaged and were put under guard until they cooled off. Ordinary workers were put to work burning the dead livestock, after which we began to rebuild the town hotels, stores and administration buildings as well as homes. I worked at the building of a large store, from the digging of its basement to the roof. After this I worked at building a brewery.
In 1909, the paper Robochy narod began publishing in Winnipeg and we began to help in the building of a Ukrainian labour organization and press. Although there were already a number of Ukrainian newspapers being published, workers and farmers got little out of them. There was little in this direction to be done in Fernie because many people left the area after the fire, including my friends Ivan Panuk and Achtemichuk. It took a few years before others moved into the area. Sometime in 1914 Dennis Moysiuk arrived in Fernie, but I had already left and was living in Lethbridge.
An organization named after Myroslav Sichynsky was formed in Hosmer in 1909. I joined it and attended its meetings often because Hosmer was only eight miles from Fernie. Of course, it was an obligation to be there when there was a social event or for Christmas when funds were raised in support of Robochy narod. The organization in Hosmer was formed on the initiative of John Boychuk, John Kozak, M. Ferley and others. At that time there was a fair number of boys from the Sniatyn district in Hosmer and when there are a few who are more knowledgeable one can do a lot for a good cause.
I wasn't able to do anything in Fernie though this was a capital of our compatriots. The problem existed with those 13 hotels that were there before the fire. That was why I joined the organization in Hosmer.
In 1910 I received a pass from the CPR and travelled to Winnipeg. Here I visited the publishing building of Robochy narod first of all. It was situated in an old building on Higgins Avenue, near the CPR station. Its editor at the time was Myroslav Stechyshyn and Pavlo Krat its make-up man. It seemed there wasn't even any water in the building to wash one's hands with, and this irked Krat very much. He complained about this constantly. I learned that he generally complained a great deal about anything and everything. After acquainting myself with both the editor and make-up man, I bought a few copies of the book, "Labour Songs", by D. Rarahowsky and sent them to my friends in the old country so they would know about our progress in Canada. I remained in Winnipeg a few days, then returned west.
I was able to get work as a blacksmith's assistant on track repairs for the CPR in Lethbridge. There were no modern blacksmith implements at the time and the fire had to be blown up by ordinary bellows. Some days, when there was no work for the blacksmith, we were sent out to work on rail-car repairs. This made the car men angry, calling us scabs because we weren't members of the union. We couldn't join a union because there were too few blacksmiths and unions in those days were based on crafts. The problem lasted for some time until we were allowed to join the car men in their union. Our press wrote a great deal about the drawbacks of craft unions, but I knew very little about them at that time. After joining the union, however, I was not only an assistant to the blacksmith, but an assistant to the car men, and got an hourly raise of two cents. Having settled into this job, I started looking around for our people so as to form a Ukrainian organization. In time, I became acquainted with a progressive worker, Tom Semak, from the village of Zavalya by the Cheremosh River, and through him with a number of like-minded men from Bukovyna: I. Trofanenko. A.Tomacky, and others. We held our first general meeting in the mine union hall and through the efforts of Tom Tomashevsky we established the "Fighters for Freedom" society and elected an executive. So began our organizational activity in Lethbridge in 1910.
A large number of men joined our society - coal miners in the main, along with three grocery-store owners. Each of them wanted our members to be their customers to expand their business. This began to create problems in the branch. Our meetings often became the centre of arguments over customers which each tried to take away from the other. When Tom Semak became financial secretary one of the store owners took him in to work for him so that through him he could gain more customers. This created a long-running crisis in the society. Whenever we changed our financial secretary, he no longer went to work in the mine, but began to deliver groceries for a storekeeper. There was no way we could solve this problem, because being a delivery man was much easier than working in a mine, and he was the secretary as well.
So our secretaries passed from one to another storekeeper. V. Hontash served as secretary the longest. Konstanyn Kosovan was also a very active member. He often had to settle all kinds of misunderstandings and worked hard to build the group membership. If any problem arose in our activities he did his best to overcome it. For example, we wanted to present a play, but had no curtains for the stage. Kosovan found a painter, a Presbyterian minister, and he painted one for us free of charge. We paid only for the material and the paint. However, he did try to get us into his parish, but Kosovan warned us not to be taken in because he wanted to build a church and needed money. Since we were social democrats, having different doctrines and principles, we decided not to join. But the minister did establish a school where he taught English. It was situated in Hardville near the mine, and was too far for us to walk, so it lasted only a short period of time.
When Myroslav Sichynsky's sister toured Canada in 1911, we collected a respectable sum of money to get his release from prison. This helped us attract, to our organization, new members who sympathized with our aims. The tempo of our activities grew. We began to present plays regularly in various halls. New forces came and went, depending on available jobs and where one could get them.
"The Ukrainian Canadian" magazine, May 1990, p.35-38 and June 1990, p.35-38, Kobzar Publishing Company Limited
Brule Mines, Alberta, Canada
A group of Ukrainian lumber workers
Northern Ontario, Canada