The Nation-Makers

MARY JANIGAN July 11 1988

The Nation-Makers

MARY JANIGAN July 11 1988

The Nation-Makers



Twelve days after Hungary rose in bloody rebellion on Oct. 23, 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into the country to put down the revolution. At the small city of Sopron, housewife Maria Sziklai, her comfortable world collapsing around her, clambered aboard a Swiss Red Cross relief truck with her three young sons and was driven the eight kilometres to Austria. Her husband, Oscar, a professor at the Sopron forestry university, stayed behind to join thousands of his countrymen fighting the Soviets. But the resistance guns had no firing pins. Disconsolate and in danger, Oscar Sziklai headed for the border. Six days after he left Hungary, he found his wife with their three children, aged 15 months to six years, in a relief camp in Strobol, Austria.

From there, they moved to Canada, part of a postwar surge of more than five million immigrants who have re-

drawn the political, social and cultural contours of the nation during the past four decades. Those newcomers have transformed Canada from a country dominated by British traditions, with a French minority, into a cosmopolitan community. One in six Canadians was born outside the country, one in three has language origins other than English or French, according to the national census. But as well as bringing different cultures and new languages, the migrants are heavily engaged as builders of the nation, both economically and, increasingly, by wielding political influence.

Legacy: Last month, Oscar Sziklai, now a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, drove to a research forest at suburban Maple Ridge to admire the Douglas fir trees that he had artificially germinated and planted in 1962. He is proud of those trees, he

said, because they are his legacy to his adopted land. “When our trees in Hungary were half the height of those trees,” he reflected, “there was admiration.” He added, “There must be something here that is maybe better, maybe taller, maybe larger than the old country.”

Empire: Many others are dedicated to building a better, larger life in their adoptive country. In universities, such new Canadian writers as Michael Ondaatje from Sri Lanka and Neil Bissoondath from Trinidad have joined Shakespeare and Molière on the curriculum. The business elite, once a Scottish and Anglo-Saxon preserve, now includes such entrepreneurs as Toronto’s Reichmann family, the ultraorthodox Hungarian Jews who have built a worldwide real estate and energy empire, and Peter Bentley, an Austrian immigrant who is the president of Canadian Forest Products Ltd., in Vancouver. In the political elite are such MPs as Liberal Sergio Marchi, born in Argentina; Conservative Vincent Della Noce, born in Italy; and Supply and Services Minister Otto Jelinek, born in Czechoslovakia. In recent months, immigrant Sikhs and ... Hindus have flocked to nomination lt; meetings for the federal Liberal party. 9 Perhaps the most obvious transfor| mation has been in Canadian eating I habits. In freewheeling Calgary, the z closest that Canada gets to an Ameri§ can-style oil town, the restaurants range from A Touch of Szechuan to Zodiac Pizza. In Winnipeg, Guenther Sickert, 60, recalls that when he arrived in Canada from West Germany in 1952, “red cabbage was practically nowhere in sight and you could not get goose for Christmas.” Said Sickert: “You could only buy Canadian white bread—what I call rubber bread.”

Scattered: Even Canadian recreation has changed. With their roots scattered around the world, Canadians now travel around that world: the Toronto telephone directory lists hundreds of specialized agencies, including East Asian Travel Service and Greek Holiday Centre. In Calgary, the telephone directory lists more than 30 centres offering instruction in Asian martial arts. And in Calgary’s Riley Park, East Indians and Pakistanis dressed in whites play cricket on weekend afternoons. As University of Toronto history professor Robert Harney noted:

“There is a Canadian ethnic culture emerging, a less-than-blond ethnic culture. It is the emergence of hyphenated identity which is not the old country and is not Anglo-Canada.”

Indeed, when fireworks burst over Parliament Hill on July 1, the country celebrated what is perhaps the only holiday that unites all Canadians, new and old:

now live in Canada. The names of those immigrants constitute a rollcall of achievement:

• British ballerina Celia Franca, who cofounded the National Ballet of Canada in 1951 with fellow Briton Betty Oliphant and has watched it receive international acclaim.

• Frank Stronach, the near-penniless Austrian immigrant of 1954 whose first job was retrieving balls for a Montreal golf course and whose last was chairman of the giant Toronto-based auto parts firm Magna International Inc., which he founded. Stronach will run for the Liberals in the next federal election.

• The Ghermezian brothers—Nader, Raphael, Bahman and Eskander—who worked as rug merchants when they emigrated from Iran to Montreal in the early 1950s and who now own an Edmonton-based real estate empire.

• Chaviva Hosek, the daughter of Czechoslovakian Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust, arrived in Canada when she was six years old and is now minister of housing in the Ontario Liberal government.

• William Vander Zalm, the Dutch immigrant who built a tiny bulb business into a $7-million theme park, Fantasy Garden World, and who is now the controversial premier of British Columbia.

• Adrienne Clarkson, the daughter of impoverished Chinese immigrants, who reached Canada as a three-year-old and is now the president and publisher of the McClelland and Stewart publishing house.

For those and thousands of other immigrant Canadians, getting here was often a nightmare. Frequently exhausted, often sick, usually poor, disoriented and penniless, immigrants have created a saga of privation and prosperity, exile and spirited rebirth in a new land. Long before the Second World War, each succeeding wave jostled for place and acceptance, enduring suspicion, discrimination and the resentment of the preceding waves. But decade after decade, tens of thousands joined together to farm, to build the cities and to redefine, over and over, the Canadian identity.

The first wave of Canada’s postwar migrants came from the teeming refugee camps of Europe. Fleeing westward from the advancing Red Army in 1945, millions of

Eastern Europeans crowded into such camps as Spakenberg and Hanau and Kempten in Germany. Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians,

Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs and Hungarians, classified as displaced persons, or DPs, vied for places in Canada.

Trooped: In the North Sea ports of Hamburg, Bremen, Rotterdam and Antwerp, thousands trooped into cramped quarters on chartered passenger liners—Cunard’s Aquitania and Mauretania, and Holland America Line’s Veendam—for the six-day voyage across the Atlantic. The busiest port of entry was Halifax; the point of disembarkation, Pier 21. Dr.

Lloyd Hirtle, who worked as a medical officer at the pier from 1949 to 1958, remembers treating immigrants for ailments ranging from typhoid to tuberculosis. And not all the refugees travelled in the relative comfort of an ocean liner. “Some,” said Hirtle, who still lives in Halifax, “came in little ships that they were able to buy or rent, 200 people on them. Some were scared: they were afraid that what possessions they had would be taken from them.”

Their suitability was determined by immigration policies that were a mixture of idealism and calculated self-interest. In 1947, then-prime minister Mackenzie King proposed that Canada link its immigration rate with the rate of unemployment and the rate of domestic growth. As a result, Europe’s refugees became Canada’s solution for a postwar labor shortage caused by rapid industrial growth. If refugees did not have close relatives in Canada to sponsor them, they were required to take arduous jobs in mines, lumber mills, garment factories or on farms. The companies deducted the cost of the refugees’ food and transportation across Canada from their wages. They received refunds if they worked for at least 10 months.

Still, immigrants who made the choppy sea voyage were grateful for the new chance. In June, 1948, Mac-

lean’s followed a group of DPs as they travelled across Canada to their new jobs. The Polish refugees were intrigued when the magazine’s reporter flinched at their account of life in a concentration camp. Declared one refugee: “It is marvellous to find someone who cannot stand to hear of the horrors. They have become so commonplace to us.”

Success: Almost 40 years later, the success stories are legion. George Corn, onetime mayor of the small Czechoslovakian town of Kostelec, fled in November, 1949, after the Communist coup the preceding year. For 18 months, he lived in West German refugee camps until he was accepted for work on a sugar beet farm near Lethbridge, Alta. Then, for seven months, he and his wife, Flava, worked on a 20-acre plot for 50 cents an hour, while living in a shack with their two small children. When he finally delivered his crop to the mills, he and his family headed for Toronto. Flava Corn, a home economics teacher in Czechoslovakia, worked as a seamstress for 35 cents an hour. George Corn went to work in 1952 with the venerable accounting firm of Dunwoody & Co. and studied accounting. When he retired in 1985, he was a senior partner. “My life could not be better,” said Corn, now an honored leader in the Czechoslovakian community and a founder of the Canadian Ethnocultural Council. “I always got more than I expected.”

In Halifax, Margaret van Sintmaartensdijk recalls the housing and food shortages in her native Netherlands in 1953. Desperate for a new life, for more space and some prosperity, she and her husband sold their possessions to raise money for the voyage to Canada. Then, with their three small children, aged 2 to 5, g they boarded the Dutch liner Groote Beer and =; sailed across the Atlantic to Pier 21. “I was struck by the waste here: people left half their food,” recalled van Sintmaartensdijk, now a

Halifax artist. “We went to the wilderness and ran around. It was just wild, the freedom and the emptiness.”

As part of the federal government’s 1947 policy, King also continued Canada’s unofficial “whites only” program that began in 1885 when Ottawa clamped a head tax of $50—raised to $500 in 1903—on every Chinese immigrant. He repealed discriminatory stipulations such as the requirement that Asians must have at least $200 when they landed in Canada. But he stipulated that Canada would not accept a large-scale influx of nonwhite immigrants. He introduced a thinly disguised quota system on annual immigration from specific regions. In 1959, when Canada accepted 106,928 immigrants, only 280 were permitted from the West Indies. Those immigrants were mostly women who became low-paid domestics.

Policy: Indeed, the establishment of federal policymakers considered the British,

Irish, French and northern European immigrants as the cream of the crop. University of Toronto history professor Harney scornfully summarized the immigration officials’ approach: “They were mainly after blond, Protestant, north Europeans.

Their attitude was ‘We can bring in our kind of people, we can enslave them picking sugar beets, and we can call ourselves a great nation for saving them from the camps of Western Europe.’”

Between the late 1950s and the late 1960s, immigrants came increasingly from southern Europe—from Italy,

Greece and Portugal. The country was booming, and the lure of hard currency for hard work was irresistible. Between 1945 and 1981, about 500,000 Italians entered Canada, three-quarters of them as manual laborers. As usual, the anglophone majority worried about the stability of the newcomers. In March, 1964, Maclean’s explored Toronto’s Little Italy, “this exotic tidal wave.” But the reporter recorded sound morality and strong family ties, and added, “I never quite got used to meeting many Italians who spoke, thought and looked essentially the same as the people I grew up with in Toronto.”

Color-blind: Racially based immigration only ceased in 1967 when Canada switched to the point system. Immigrants received points for language skills, education and technical abilities. Suddenly, the law was color-blind— and immigrants from around the world could compete on an equal footing for access. The statistics show a remarkable turnaround: between 1956 and 1962, fully 92 per cent of Canada’s immigrants were from the United States or

Europe; between 1977 and 1984, only 40 per cent came from those two regions.

As ever, the new arrivals work immigrant hours for immigrant dreams. Gloria Fordyce, 43, came to Canada in 1975 because she could not find work in Guyana. Now she lives in an apartment in Montreal, toiling through 12-hour days, six or seven days a week, as a cleaning lady. By scrimping and saving, she has managed to enrol her son, Jason, 15, in Centennial Academy, a private English high school. Fordyce expects him to attend university. She also hopes to invest in real estate. “I have never had the luxury to go on vacation,” she said. “Being a single parent, having a son in private school—well, it takes time. So what? That is okay.”

Oblivious: Traditionally, many nativeborn Canadians have been oblivious to the immigrants’ struggle. It is only within the past two decades that social historians and sociologists have examined the structures that each community set up as it took shape. They have concluded that immigrants never transported the Old World intact to the New World—although outsiders often assumed that immigrant neighborhoods were tiny replicas of the homeland. Instead, those studies have shown immigrants adapted, often from the day they arrived. They accepted selected New World customs; they abandoned unacceptable Old World I customs; they created I new institutions. NotQ ed Harney: “The condig tion of being ethnic did I not replicate the old country.”

Historian Lillian Petroff, the education officer with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario and the granddaughter of Macedonian immigrants, recalls that her grandmother used to reminisce about picnics in Toronto’s west end during the 1920s and 1930s. “She would troop through the park, carrying smelly cheese and fried peppers, her hat on backwards,” said Petroff. “Anglo-Canadians would think ‘Isn’t that quaint. Isn’t that ethnic.’ But Macedonians never had picnics in the Old World—they took a New World institution, the picnic, and adapted it.”

That pattern has been repeated throughout the decades as each wave of immigrants blends the Old World with the New. Dr. Luong Tuyen Nguyen fled Vietnam with his pregnant wife, Kim Chi, and their son, Luong Phuc, 10 days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. A pediatric surgeon in Saigon, he won a post as an intern at the medical school at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec. Now, half a world away from Vietnam, he is once

again a pediatric surgeon, at Montreal Children’s Hospital. Although his three children still speak Vietnamese at home, they ski, play hockey—and correct their father’s English pronunciation. Nguyen has become a fan of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. “If they are in the playoffs and lose, that is it,” he said.

The new immigrants also take their place in the Canadian political mainstream. Petroff says that, when immigrants first formed communities, their early almanacs often contained photographs of Old World revolutionaries, bandoliers strung across their chests. Within one or two decades, photographs of Canadian politicians joined the revolutionaries.

Alarm: Over the past few months at Liberal nomination meetings across the nation, Sikhs,

Hindus and Chinese have attended as new members, occasionally to the alarm of some members of the Establishment. Norman MacLeod, the federal Liberal campaign chairman for Ontario, says that ethnic groups are simply taking their place in society—as more established ethnic groups did in the past. “I can remember when Italian candidates or Jewish candidates or women candidates created the same furore,” he said.

“In time, these new Canadians will also become part of the mainstream.”

Still, making the transition from one set of customs to another is not always easy. The old ways of dating and marriage often clash with the more liberal customs of the West. Modern medical treatments often violate cultural traditions. Workers at community clinics in Calgary have encountered possessive husbands from Latin American nations who did not want their wives to receive a Pap test for cervical cancer from male doctors. Still, the immigrants’ greatest burden is probably depression. In 1984, in a publication from the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Kabir Qureshi, an East Indian immigrant, wrote that the hostility of many Canadians toward minorities “made many newcomers depressed and schizophrenic.”

Mainstream: Although most immigrants want their descendants to retain knowledge of their heritage, mainstream culture often overwhelms ethnic culture. During the 1971 census, only 70,000 out of 315,000 Canadian residents of Polish origin said that they spoke Polish at home. Moreover, ethnic Canadians could pay an economic price if they stay within their ethnic community. The University of Toronto’s Harney says that many cus-

toms will disappear as the new generation watches U.S.dominated television and blends with other cultures in school. “I think that all cultures are in a process of becoming Canadian ethnic groups,” he said.

Winner: Meanwhile, Canadians, old and new, have come a long way. Born in Jamaica, Harry Gairey, 92, arrived in Toronto with $362 in 1914. Wherever he looked for work, he said, there were no jobs for “colored people.” So he turned to the railways, a traditional source of employment for blacks. He worked as a sleeping-car porter, then as an instructor of porters, before his retirement. But he never worked as a conductor

because those jobs were reserved for whites.

In 1951, Gairey says that there were no black immigrants, “not a trickle,” although immigrants from Germany and Italy, “the countries that we had been fighting,” were streaming into Toronto’s Union Station. So he helped start the Negro Citizenship Association to end the discrimination. Now, still active in black organizations and a winner of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario, Gairey proclaims his attachment to his community and to his country. “I am so proud to be a Canadian,” he said. “I am overwhelmed with joy.” The praise of the immigrant flatters the nation, but it is his presence that gives it strength and the chance for renewal.





-MARY JANIGAN with THERESA TEDESCO in Ottawa, HUGH WILSON in Montreal, DOUG SMITH in Winnipeg and JOHN HOWSE in Calgary