Ivan Hrysyo's immigration story as narrated to Steve Macievich.

Poignant Memories of the Past.

Ivan Hrysyo was born on March 13, 1880 in the village of Washatyche, PeremyshI District. His ingenious wife, Catherine, was also born in this village. This was during the period when Western Ukraine was under Austrian rule.

Ivan, who was left an orphan at age 7, was able to attend school for a little while. At 14, Ivan went to Germany where he worked as a servant to Anton Lepinski, a Polish landowner who had become Germanized. He worked there till he was 21, when he returned home. While in Germany he learned the German language and this helped a great deal when he was taken into compulsory service in the Austrian army in 1901.

He served in the army three long years and doesn't have a good word to say for this period in his young life. The recruits were very badly treated - beaten, exhausted by long hours of training which included jumping while squatting on their heels and holding a spittoon over their heads. Punishment came in the form of being hung by their arms and many passed out as many as three times during this cruel torture.

Ukrainians, in particular, were discriminated. Hrysyo served in the 1st Battalion of the Second Company of the 10th Regiment. There he became acquainted with Yaroslav Arsenich who, it seems, was a corporal in the 3rd Battalion, and with VasyI Chumer, all three of whom, in time, emigrated to Canada.

Having served his term in the army, Ivan Hrysyo got married in 1905. A "new life" began, but it wasn't life, but a miserable existence. It was heavy labour from sunrise to sunset, either for the local landowner Krayinsky, or for the tavern keeper, Shpronh, in the neighboring village, for 15 kreutzers a day.

Life was narrow, destitute and hopeless. There was no land and no hope of getting any. Whatever they earned was barely enough to keep body and soul together. They were faced with a lifetime of hard work, poverty and misfortune.

In 1905 there was a lot of talk about Canada where, rumour had it, there was a great deal of work for everyone and even more land for willing hands. Poverty drove people to Canada which enticed them with its promise.

On March 8, 1905, the Hrysyo family left home to travel the long distance to this strange country which was to become "the land of promise."

The road to Montreal went through Hamburg, then to Winnipeg, where most of the Ukrainian immigrants were going. Ivan Hrysyo remembers well the terrible impression the first few days in Canada made on him.

"When we were traveling through Ontario's rocky terrain and huge forests," he recalls, "I sensed death. If it's like this everywhere, I thought, then there can be no life for us here. I've run away from poverty in the old country and now I'm faced with the same fate here."

But not all of Canada was a wilderness like Ontario. Winnipeg, for instance, where the young immigrants finally arrived, was not like that, he recalled, though it was still a small town. There was no CPR station as yet. They only started building it in 1905, and Ukrainian hands were already at work on it. Under the CPR bridge not far from the station site, horses regularly got bogged down in the mud.

The Ukrainians in Winnipeg then lived in what was called the "North End", which is considered "foreign" to this day. Among them was the well-known, at that time, Kyrylo Genyk. He worked in the immigration office.

Getting a job in the slaughter-house, Hrysyo decided to settle in Winnipeg. He built himself a shack on the corner of MacGregor and Manitoba Streets.

The young immigrant's education began in Winnipeg. He was, of course, a religious young man. At that time there were already priests, both Greek Orthodox and Catholic in Canada, although not many. Those made a bad impression on Hrysyo. They harangued the Ukrainian immigrants - both the priest Hura and Radishevsky - and called them infidels. It was a matter of money.

One day Hrysyo, with his friend Stanko, went to the priest Hura for confession. The Priest at first glance, saw that they were immigrants and reasoned that they, the innocents, were not without sin, but without money as well, and sent them on their way unconfessed. Leaving, the two friends, not even thinking about "sin", agreed that the priests obviously thought about the souls of their flock only when they had dollars. But the church and tradition tugged at them and they were finally able to confess to a Bukovynian priest.

In 1905 Hrysyo and Lupyrypa went to a meeting where the talk wasn't about the sins of ordinary people like themselves, but about the sins of those who exploited ordinary people. The speaker at this meeting was VasyI Holovatsky. He exposed how the gentry exploited and deceived ordinary people.

Not to bless the Easter bread, however, was still a sin. The priest, Hura, refused to do it. The Polish Catholic priest also. What to do about it? Were they to eat their Easter bread unblessed? And again Hrysyo went to the Greek Orthodox priest Ivan Sichensky, a true priest from the old country, who came, blessed the bread and accepted a drink.

Hrysyo's education broadened as time went on. He more and more often began to think that all the above was delusion and deceit. He didn't anymore avoid meetings of VasyI Holovatsky and later those of Olexandr Sushko, and when he began to read Chervony Parpor (Red Flag), the cataracts began to fall from his eyes.

Ivan Hrysyo lived in Winnipeg only two years, but they were useful years. They began the growth of his class-consciousness, his realization as to what interests he should defend, with whom and against whom he should fight. His education then continued in another community. In 1907 Hrysyo left Winnipeg to settle on a truly "New Land", to which he gave many years of work, much of his health - nearly his entire life, but which gave him more sorrow than happiness.

Let us sing to this Canada
Though we're still without success,
When we've finally ploughed our fields,
We'll get rich on their fine yield.

These were years when the land-hungry Ukrainian immigrants flooded into Canada. They settled on the homesteads that were opened up to them, or on farms, which had already been settled, their original owners having left. People who had grown up on the land, who yearned for land, who came to Canada for land, were drawn to land. Land! Land - mother earth - the nurturer that supplied the food, that will clothe you. The land could be ploughed, one could feed cattle on it, build a home on it, and land on which a forest grew would also give firewood.

A long time ago, in the old country, a poor peasant, looking at the small plot of land inherited from his father, would sing:
My field, ah, my field,
Ploughed with my bones,
Harrowed with my breast,
With my heart's blood flecked,
From my heart, my breast,
Tell me field, my field,
When will my life be blessed?
My field, ah, my field,
My grandfather's gain,
Why can't you a living
Your owner obtain?
My field, ah, my field,
Filled with bitter sweat,
With great bitterness I gaze
At you, and regret.

More than one Canadian pioneer could say the same about his Canadian fields.

But a year after his arrival in Canada, a little Canadian ditty, written by a Ukrainian immigrant, permeated his heart:
Let us sing to this Canada,
Though we're still without success,
When we've finally ploughed our fields
We'll get rich on their fine yield.
The wheat grows here very well,
Oats and barley just as normal,
Where the willow and the aspen,
There the cabbage is abnormal.
When we finally plough our fields,
We'll get rich on their fine yield.

Ivan Hrysyo, like thousands of others from Galicia and Bukovyna, was drawn to the land. In 1907 he bought a farm in the Beausejour-Ladywood district of Manitoba and moved there with his wife and one child to begin life as a Canadian farmer. On the farm, he recalled after 43 years, there were three acres of cleared land, a small house, a barn, two oxen, one cow and a lot of swamp and turf.

He wasn't the first settler in this wilderness. Some five to seven years earlier a number of German immigrants had settled here and a little later a number of Ukrainian families. VasyI and Nykyfor Makukh, who had come from the village of Pidhayets had settled here in 1902. Living here also were Ivan and Stefan Hladiy, also from Pidhayets, VasyI Valkevich, a Pole from the Husyatin District who spoke Ukrainian, Panko Kandiy from Skalatsky District and Pavlo Bilay.

There were also a number of Czechoslovaks who had settled in the area during the first three years of the 20th century.

Though Ivan Hrysyo was not one of the first, he does, without a doubt, belong to the first pioneers in the area.

The area was a wilderness. There were no roads. The land was covered with swamps. One had to walk in water up to one's waist. These were years in the life of his family that made him shudder to remember. He almost lost his life.

Soon after they had settled on the property, Hrysyo traveled by oxen to Ladywood. It was a far journey and the weather was bad. Having crossed a stream and been soaked to the skin his clothing froze to his body. He got a serious chill.

Thinking sadly of this episode, Hrysyo recalled that he actually stood with one foot in the grave. They truly thought that he wouldn't recover - not only his family, but his friends and the doctors as well.

There was no doctor in the area, of course. The first "doctors" were the women. They heated a barrel of water and told the sick man to get into it. He got worse. He had to be taken, at that time a horrendous distance, to Winnipeg. The Winnipeg doctor, however, very simply and brutally told him he would die. Another doctor even refused to look at him.

Hrysyo returned home to the farm, that he hadn't even started working yet, to await his "inevitable" death.

The local farmers, men and women, on visiting him, shook their heads sadly. The women wept softly, but none of them, of course, could do anything. An old friend, VasyI Chumer, came often. He was teaching school in the area at the time.

During one of these visits someone remembered a Bukovynian woman named Huska, who lived not too far away and who was noted for her ability to heal and help even those whom doctors had given up. They immediately called her thinking, that as a last resort, she might be able to help. She came, looked sadly at the sick man and said, "any day now." She didn't even want to stay overnight, but did give this advice: to gather chicken manure, always fresh, heat it up and lay it on the sick man's stomach.

Because they had few chickens themselves, they gathered this offal in their neighbour's henhouses. The stench in the house was impossible. The proposed "medicine" also didn't help.

His wife turned to all and everyone, hoping that someone might help to save his young life. They read in a Polish-American newspaper, American Echo, an advertisement by some doctor who was able to cure everything. All one had to do was to write him the symptoms of the illness. VasyI Chumer did this for his friend. The doctor sent a number of coloured papers, told them to wet them and send them back with ... a lock of hair. In answer he informed them that the patient "had a cold" and advised that he drink his patent medicine which they could order for $12.00.

What actually helped no one knew. It was most likely the tender care he received from his wife and friends and the inner strength of his still young body, for slowly-slowly he began to recover. He spent a whole year in bed and during this time the sick man, the children, the cow, the oxen and the farm were looked after by his courageous wife, Catherine.

But they weren't able to save the farm. Once recovered, Ivan Hrysyo and his entire family worked hard to save it, clearing some eight acres and sowing rye, raising chickens, a cow and pigs and subsisting on whatever they could make from these efforts. There was never any money in the house. He still owed $150 for the farm, for which he had paid $1200. As if recalling something unpleasant, that would better be forgotten, Hrysyo said:

"I sold the farm to pay the debt and the taxes owing..."

After this a new page began in the life of pioneer Ivan Hrysyo and his family.

In 1910 Ivan Hrysyo moved to another farm, not too far from his first one, but in a completely unsettled area. He took a new homestead, 160 acres of complete forest among swamps, a few miles from Lac du Bonnet. Later, new settlers, for some reason or other, gave this community the English name of Brightstone. Obviously, these homesteads had many "bright stones" which the new settlers often had cause to curse when year after year they had to harvest a new "stone crop".

It wasn't easy to get a homestead here. Mr. McArthur stood in the way. The land that Ukrainians decided to settle was covered with birch forest. Mr. McArthur hired workers to cut down the trees, which he sold as cords of wood. This, of course, hindered the parceling of the land, though McArthur, recalled Hrysyo, had already cut down a lot of the forest.

Before the settlers could put up a fight for the land, they had to put up a struggle with McArthur for it, though it didn't belong to him in the first place. Hrysyo himself began to organize the future farmers. They had to go to Winnipeg and demand the homesteads from the authorities. VasyI Kucher was again of great help.

The organized farmers finally won. The land was divided into quarters for each family and they were warned: "Work - clear the land, build, plough and sow, or we'll take it back."

The homesteads were sold for $10 with the condition that the settlers had to clear a certain part of the land within a specified period of time.

The settlers, under these conditions, did not as the song said "sing in this Canada", and they were not able to "plough the soil" and "grow rich", but had to labour countless hours, the entire family bending their backs to pick the rocks, clear the forests and undergrowth by hand while living in terrible poverty.

It is not only Hrysyo who could tell a similar story. This story can be told, practically word for word, by other settlers in this district. And not only these, but thousands of other Ukrainian immigrant settlers who pioneered the prairies on homesteads in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta could tell a similar story - a history of constant struggle for survival.

Time often wipes out the difficult past. But begin a conversion about those early pioneer days and you will hear:

"They brought us here and left us in the middle of a forest - a wild overgrown territory. The nearest neighbour was five miles away. Having marked out our homestead, we went to our neighbours. He, with his wife and children, lived in a dugout… We also built ourselves a haven on our homestead - a hole in the ground covered with branches, grass leaves and earth, and began our husbandry. We had only a bag of flour, a bag of potatoes and some lard, which we bought in the town with our last bit of money. Our only neighbour, who had a gun, saved us from a hungry death. He shot rabbits and also gave us some. To this we owe our lives. The men couldn't remain on their land or we would have perished. Leaving our wives and children we went out to seek work - 40 miles by foot. Fortunate was the man who was able to get work on a section gang. Then, having earned a few dollars, we bought a bag of flour and other produce - candles, coal oil, salt, matches - and loading it all on our shoulders, carried it back the 40 miles to "home"."
"I can't," he would say. "Whenever I think of those terrible days, I can't talk. It's hard now to even imagine how we lived through it."

Stories like these have been told by more than one pioneer. You'll hear how a bear tried to break its way into the earthen huts, how only a well saved a family from a forest fire, how lost in the forest, people would wander for days. More than one pioneer, in the middle of his story, would feel a tightness in his throat, his eyes fill with tears, his voice tremble...

No matter where they settled, the first Ukrainian immigrants in Manitoba, Saskatchewan or Alberta, had something in common and characteristic. This was long and hard hours of labour to survive, to conquer the land, to clear the forest, the mud, the swamps, the most primitive conditions of life - the poverty, misery, the endless back-breaking toil.

The area settled by Ivan Hrysyo and 20 other homesteaders had nothing - only forest, swamp and stream. There were no roads. They lived, at first, in earthen dugouts. They carried bags of flour and other produce on their backs for miles, often up to their waists in water, cleared the bush and with it the three-foot deep sod. They harvested the grain, cutting it by hand, and carrying it on their backs, threshing it with flails - when there was something to thresh.

So the years slowly-slowly passed and slowly-slowly, the land was cleared. The first purchase was oxen with which they ploughed and drove and threshed. Slowly-slowly they climbed out of their dugouts - building two-room houses covered with straw, often without a wooden floor.

The land under the burnt-out forests was good in places - good black earth, but in other places it was rocky. The rocks were picked and piled over many years. Nobody grew rich. They worked like oxen along with their oxen - everyone worked - the men, women and the children. Ivan Hrysyo's family took 25 years to clear and work 160 acres.

Today he angrily recalls how one nationalist Ukrainian newspaper called in 1906 to "sing in this Canada" and later called him and other transformers of a primitive land into a developing, cultivated country "guests in Canada", saying that "they came here as guests and are organizing to overthrow capital."

"I have worked so hard, have been so weary and despaired so much, and to have them say that "I have come as a guest", he continued bitterly, "the dishonest, deceitful, mercenary liars!"

Who were those first brave and steadfast settlers in Canada who "mastered" the land and became well-to-do in Brighton?

Ivan Hrysyo had an excellent memory. He looks at you with his clear eyes and tells you all in the smallest detail. He remembers everyone who over 40 years ago and later settled in the area - even where they moved, who was still living, who had died.

Hrysyo remembers, relates, and his wife, who also has an excellent memory, adds her comments.

They were, without a doubt, a group of tempered and tried people. They came from various regions of Ukraine and here, in Canada, they were united into one community by a similar fate.

The town of Lac du Bonnet, in those days, was not yet a municipality. It was a very small settlement which couldn't even compare with a village in the old country. Brightstone, where Ivan Hrysyo and his friends settled, was eight miles from Lac du Bonnet and its two small stores. But these were not an ordinary eight miles. In relation to the speed of travel, walking it was more than 40 miles. The farmers, after having become to some degree "established", carried their produce - eggs, butter and fowl, on their backs to Lac du Bonnet and returned carrying flour, coal oil, salt, sugar and other products that were most necessary to their livelihood. This, as Hrysyo recalls, was eight miles of scrub and swamp. Somewhere in the centre was a welcome incline and a bit of dry land. Here, going toward Lac du Bonnet and then returning, the settlers paused to rest. In time this spot began to be called the Place of Rest.

The struggle with nature was one aspect of life for the early settlers. But shortly after, as it happened always where a community emerged, a struggle developed, on the one hand, for their souls, and on the other, for their consciousness.

In this struggle also, Ivan Hrysyo, a former hireling, a soldier to Franz-Joseph, a peasant without land, a natural musician of considerable talent, a butcher, a pioneer farmer, revealed abilities of a capable strategist - became a pioneer in a political sense.

Life is a struggle.

This life of Ivan Hrysyo and other Ukrainian settlers in the Lac du Bonnet area was one long struggle - for land, with the land itself, with poverty and illness, with stumps and stones, for reasonable prices for their farm products and relief, against priests, for the awareness of the labouring farmers against deceitful politicians and the injustices of the system of exploitation and deception.

Brightstone now has a population of 300 - old pioneers and their children and even grandchildren. The community is basically progressive and this is the result of the struggles waged by Ivan Hrysyo and his friends.

Shortly after the first pioneers had settled in Brightstone and formed a community in that swampy area, the "complementary" as usual, soon appeared in the form of priests and ministers prepared to "save the souls" of these people who "lived in hell" and saw nothing beyond their hard work.

The first to appear was a catholic priest, Hradowsky. He didn't come right into Brightstone, of course, but established himself in Lac du Bonnet. From here he proclaimed, as is customary by "great personages" that farmers should come to him as soon as possible as he was available (for money) to hear their confessions and to baptize their children.

Up to that time no one had even thought about baptizing their children. In truth no one had any time to think about such a thing. Secondly, there had been no one to do it, and that, for many of them, was good. Thirdly, how could anyone living such a tortured and suffering life have time to sin?

The priest, having proclaimed his presence, began to await his flock. He waited and waited, but the farmers didn't appear. Hrysyo recalls that even the cantor, Stanko, one of the first settlers, didn't go. This was not a simple, but a "real sin", even a revolt. The priest and some of his partisans began to search for the guilty party and found him in Ivan Hrysyo. The priest then proclaimed Hrysyo excommunicated and urged that he be boycotted for his "heresies". This meant that no one should loan him anything, visit him, or even talk to him... The inquisition had come to Canada!

This was quite an original excommunication. The angry priest didn't even think about "loving his neighbour". He loved himself much more.

The affair could have been serious if the priest could have accomplished his decree, for none of the first settlers could have survived under those circumstances without the help of their neighbours. But Hrysyo was a close friend and the priest was a stranger. The farmers continued to boycott him and not Hrysyo.

The priest then threatened to take the settlers to court because they weren't baptizing their children and were bringing up "little devils".

This was a psychological attack. No one knew at the time if the priest had the power to accuse parents in court of not baptizing their children. A serious danger arose, recalls Hrysyo, which demanded an immediate counter move. What to do?

There were ten unbaptized children at the time. Ivan Hrysyo went quickly to the protestant minister with the proposal that he baptize the children. The Minister immediately understood the advantage of this for his church. He not only agreed, but also suggested that because of the remarkable occasion, the children should be baptized not by him, but by the bishop. He visited all the farmers and convinced them to come to a service with the bishop and they came - 24 of them.

The elders among them confessed and then the bishop baptized their children en masse.

Hrysyo said that the Catholics fought to the end. They barricaded the road by which the bishop had to travel to Brightstone. This tactic did not work. The bishop himself helped to clear the barrier and then, like the farmers, walked through the swamps.

All of them - the bishop, the minister, and the farmers - recalled Hrysyo, had a very pleasant day.

But it didn't end on that. The bishop didn't come only to baptize the children, hear confessions and go, leaving no sign of his being there. Having been taken advantage of in the struggle of the farmers against the priest, it was reasonable that he should propose organizing his church in the community. First of all, Minister agreed to hold services there every second Sunday. Later he proposed a Ukrainian minister. In time, Olexandr Kizyov, who came from Greater Ukraine, arrived.

There was already a cemetery and this, thought Hrysyo, was most important. With the arrival of Kizyov they began to build a church. A new danger then presented itself.

Hrysyo thought: there was no school and they're building a church. Instead of working their farms and improving their miserable life, the farmers were wasting time. It was necessary to bring everyone to their senses, to realize what they were doing. A new tactic became necessary.

It came with the visit of a biblical evangelist, Kokhanovsky. He came to a meeting, raised his eyes to the heavens and shouted, "The world will turn upside down." Some, remembered Hrysyo, were truly frightened. But Hrysyo himself was interested in something else. "Why do you need a church?" asked Kokhanovsky, "Where there are two, there is also a God and a church. Why build a church?" Some of the farmers became quite angry with Hrysyo, saying: "Hrysyo always seems to come up with some kind of devilment."

But the tactic succeeded. They stopped building the church and that which had already been built they took apart and used to build a bridge to the cemetery.

It was not an easy or a short struggle. It lasted from 1913 to just before 1918. A priest still came regularly, but not for long. He stated that he had to live and asked for $18.00 for each visit. This caused a lot of argument and he stopped coming. Actually, after all this, Brightstone wasn't visited by ministers any more. The church was never built.

A school opened in 1917 with a Ukrainian teacher, Novak. In 1920, the farmers built a Ukrainian Farmer Temple in Red Deer and it became a community centre for the entire area.

Steve Macievich
"The Ukrainian Canadian" magazine, December 1990, p.34-38 and January 1991, p.34-38, Kobzar Publishing Company Limited


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