Ivan Polny tells the story of his immigration and first years in Canada.
Years of Life and Struggle
I recall those long-past years when I attended school in my native village. A number of our neighbours had left for Canada together and were writing home that the grasses in Canada were so tall that one could only see the cow's horns above them when they pastured. The cows themselves gave so much milk that it was fed to the pigs and the cheese was fed to the chickens. I listened to these letters as they were being read and couldn't believe my ears, because there was only one cow in our family and it gave us barely a litre of milk each day. Since there were seven children in our family there wasn't enough to drink, let alone cheese. Inspired by these letters, however, I often nagged at my parents to emigrate for Canada, and they would answer:
"When you grow up you can go wherever you please."
I awaited that "growing up" with great impatience. As if on purpose it seemed to drag out very long and very slowly. I finally reached the required age and even got married. This achieved, I told my young wife that since we had to build a new house, a barn and a stable to house at least three head of cattle and there was no money to do it with, I should go to Canada where I could make some money. I could then return and we could start to live as people should.
In spite of all my arguments I couldn't convince her that I should do this, even after a year of discussion. The arguments between us over this lasted three years, with her giving in at last. To borrow the 150 guilders to travel to Canada I had to give an acre of land as collateral to the lender who would seed it for the interest to himself. My wife refused to consider this, but after a lot of talk and argument she gave in and we gave an acre of land as collateral for the money borrowed for the trip.
On March 12, 1908, I was still breaking up stones for a house during that day, historic in my life. In the evening I put the borrowed money in my pocket and joined the group that was leaving our village to the Chorostkiv Station, where we bought tickets to Myslovice. We were on our way.
In Ternopil we changed trains. Here a commissioner appeared and asked us about our passports. Our leader asked me: "Do you have a passport?"
"Yes, I took my brother's," I answered.
"Good, but try to avoid this officious idler with the sword at his side or he might turn you back."
We arrived in Lviv to the same situation. The police were busy asking the travellers where they were going, did they have passports, and so on. Fortunately, all this managed to elude me and on the night following, we reached Myslovice. Here we went through the official routine in the morning, got on the train to Germany and travelled through to Antwerp, the port city in Belgium. In Antwerp we were met by an agent who asked us to follow him. He provided us with rooms, and then said:
"You'll be called to lunch soon."
And sure enough, the bell for lunch rang about an hour later. We went down and sat at tables laid out with plates, cups, knives, forks and spoons. Our "lordly" life was beginning.
After lunch we went to the immigration bureau to pay for our trip and the agent there told us that our ship would be leaving in a few days. While waiting we went to the port every day to look for "our" ship. On the fourth day the ship "Montreal" came in. True, it was a big ship, but with only one smoke stack, not the four that the steamship lines advertised in their brightly-coloured posters. Two days later we sailed out of the port toward Montreal, but those who were going to Canada for the second time said we would disembark in St. John, and they were right.
After 16 days at sea we stepped on Canadian soil in St. John, happy to have arrived. We were put on a train and journeyed westward, looking eagerly out of the windows. What we saw were small wooden houses, burnt-out forest and rocky terrain divided by lakes and rivers. What a disappointment! Was this really Canada, we asked ourselves? We travelled all night and arrived in Montreal in the morning. Our guide then took us to Point St. Charles to our acquaintances. They had already been in Canada a year or so. Eight of us were billeted in one house and the others wherever there was extra room. Our countrymen greeted us hospitably, asking about relatives and friends they had left behind: who had died, who had married, and so on.
"Well, now that you've given us all the news from home, I'll tell you about Canada," said one "old Canadian" who had already been living in Canada a year and a half.
"Where have you been in Canada and what have you seen, that you're going to tell them about it?" interrupted another. "You've got to travel a bit and look about you, and then you could talk about it."
"That's nothing. I've seen enough and I'll tell them what I know," said the first, and began:
"Times are hard here now, boys, because there is no work. Only six among us have jobs, the rest are unemployed. Some of them are even thinking of going back home, because without a job or money you couldn't survive here for long."
Those words by the "old Canadian" were like a hammer to our heads - we were stunned. We went to sleep, a few on each bed, but sleep didn't come to any of us. All of us were worrying about what would be tomorrow.
LOOKING FOR WORK
Those who had jobs went to work in the morning, and those who didn't took us into town to show us where we must go to get jobs, or ask for them. Every factory we approached had crowds of unemployed at the gate, hoping they would be called in to work. What was this, good people? Was this really Canada with the dollars and prosperity we had heard so much about? There were many like us here - all looking for work. We searched a week, two weeks. We visited the Immigration Office, and there saw hundreds of people waiting, with the police trying to disperse them.
One day the unemployed blocked the entire street before the Immigration Office. The police couldn't disperse them, so they called the firemen out and they turned the fire hoses on them, spraying them with water. In this way they drove them away. We saw that the situation was no joke. We had no money, hunger was staring us in the face. We talked it over and decided to go the Austrian consulate, choosing a delegation to speak for us and ask for their advice. They went, and after telling a representative our misfortune and distress, he had this to say:
"Yes, it's difficult to live when unemployed. But tell me, people, why you came here? Didn't you get letters and newspapers telling you what it is like, that there was no work? We can't help you at all. If any among you really want to return to the old country, we can help you, but you would have to repay the fare to the government when you got there. That's all the help or advice I can give you. God help you!" And he waved a hand to the door. We told the others what the consulate representative told us and after listening they began to express their dissatisfaction.
"What kind of advice is this, it is useless!" said someone in the crowd. "A whole acre of land would be lost for this kind of advice."
"I know what I'm going to do," said another. "I've borrowed $20.00. I'll give them $10.00 at the office and leave myself $10.00 for the road and take my oxen with me to England."
In this way many among us returned home.
There was a lot of discussion about ways and means in the group, but none of us could find a solution to our situation. Ten of us finally decided to go to Three Rivers where two of our countrymen lived with their families. They had written telling us that it was still possible to get a job there for two days a week. It happened just as they wrote. We got two days of work a week and lived in company lodgings.
We loaded logs that were taken from the sawmill to the paper mill. We were paid $1.00 for ten hours of work, not enough to live on, but one could exist on it. We suffered this till such a time as the logs came down the river. When this happened we had more work and were able to earn more. In the meantime, we received letters from Montreal informing us that the Employment Bureau was hiring people to work on a new road at $1.60 for a ten-hour day.
"Boys, let's go!" We've come here to make money, so let's not waste time waiting for those logs. The devil only knows when they'll come."
Having decided, we returned to Montreal, and on the next day we were signed up to work on the new road, with 40 of us leaving on the same night. We travelled a whole day by train and walked another day to our place of work, arriving there in the early evening. The workers, already there, had just finished supper and we, a new crew, sat down to eat also. After supper we mingled with the other workers and found many old acquaintances among them. We began to ask questions and talk about this and that, and got in reply:
"Why did you come here? There's only work for another two or three weeks and then the contractor will leave for New Brunswick. What you will earn during this time will probably only pay your travel expenses. Besides, just take a look at where we are sleeping - at the dirt and inconvenience." It was true. There was no pleasure in either sitting or lying down. The ground was laid with brushwood, covered with blankets on which the workers slept. There was only one solution - to leave as soon as possible. But how, when some subordinate seemed to be guarding us?
Night fell and he came to the tent and told us to go to sleep. We laid ourselves down on the blanket-covered brushwood, but couldn't sleep, just uncomfortably dozed off and on, as we waited for morning when our guard would leave to light the fire in the cook-stove. The awaited morning finally arrived, our guard left for the kitchen and all of us who had arrived the day before left our tent and dashed into the forest. We had walked about a mile when we came to another camp of workers living under tents. We walked up and asked for the boss.
"There he is. He is one of ours from Kopichinets," one of them informed us. In the meantime, the boss had noticed us himself and approached.
"You'd better get out of here fast boys," he said, "because the head boss will be showing up any minute now and you'll get into trouble."
This Kopichinets boss showed us where we must go through the forest to get to the station, but not to the one by which we arrived, but to another. We thanked him and walked on.
By the time we reached this station its lights were on. Coming up, we saw the head boss waiting there with the police. What to do? We quickly decided to separate, each going his own way. I ran out on some roadway and up a hillside as fast as I could, then down the other side a bit slower, having tired myself out. As I walked on, a thunderstorm came up and a heavy rain began to fall. I saw a light in the distance and made my way toward it, arriving at a gate where a dog appeared, barking madly. A man came out on the doorstep and said something to me in French, probably asking who I was and what I wanted. I shrugged my shoulders to mean I couldn't understand. He spoke again, somewhat angrily, not wanting to come out in the rain. I walked up to him and he motioned for me to come into the house. By this time I was soaked to the skin. When he entered he said something to his wife and she brought me a dry shirt and a pair of pants, put them on a chair and motioned that I should change, while they went into the other room. After I changed she hung my wet clothes to dry, gave me something to eat, and motioned to the sofa where I could sleep.
They continued to ask questions in a friendly manner, no doubt wanting to know where I came from and where I was going, but I couldn't explain. At last he went into the other room and came out with a geography book so I could show him where I was from. I showed him Austro-Hungary, at the same time explaining that I was Ukrainian, using my hand and pointing, but they still didn't understand. They left me finally, saying only, "coucher"(go to bed).
When I woke up the sun was already shining and there was nobody in the house. I dressed in my own clothing and went outdoors. They saw me, turned me back indoors, and asked me to sit and have breakfast with them. I ate and thanked them in Ukrainian and in the only word I knew in French, "merci". They smiled, waved me good-by and I left.
It took me three weeks to get back to Three Rivers. On the way, I saw how a farmer cut and raked hay using only one ox. This looked odd to me, because we always used two oxen at home. I will not enlarge on my journey to Three Rivers, where I slept, what I ate, because it would take too long. It is enough to say that I endured much.
RETURN TO THE HOMELAND
I remained three years in Canada and worked at whatever I could get. It was only after I came down with a very bad cold that I decided to go back home. On my return I built a house and worked very hard at seeding and planting my bit of land. When harvest time arrived, the weather did us dirt. It began to rain without stopping, interfering with the gathering of the harvest. What couldn't be saved, rotted in the field, and two acres of oats were completely ruined. I saw that this wasn't getting us anywhere, and said to my wife:
"Wife, we're going to Canada. I'm not going to work this hard for nothing."
"A fine thing! You've revived already? The devil is again pushing you somewhere into the quagmire?"
"What will be, will be, but it's no joke here!" I answered decisively, and began to get ready to emigrate for Canada for a second time.
Within a year of my return I had steady work in a blacksmith shop in Montreal. There was a lot of work everywhere in 1912, but a year later, in 1913, we were working only three days a week. Later, there were times when we had no work for two weeks at a time.
In 1914, right up to the outbreak of World War I there were no jobs to be had. We worked three days a week and sometimes sat around several weeks without work. When the war broke out our Ukrainian workers began to be persecuted as "enemy Austrians". Those who were unemployed were rounded up into concentration camps. A number of my countrymen were taken and I went with a few of my friends to register. I spoke to the official, begging him to let us through - not to send us to a camp. He said that too many had come at once, but that he would try to do this. I noticed a whole pile of passes and passports on his desk. Most of those from Austria were sent to concentration camps or else, like myself, had to register with the authorities every month. Those considered more "dangerous" had to register every week.
"The Ukrainian Canadian" magazine, July-August, 1991, p.34-38, Kobzar Publishing Company Limited
A group of Ukrainian lumber workers
Northern Ontario, Canada