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L'histoire de l'immigration de Stanislaw Igras et Staislawa Dechnik (immigrants polonais)

Le Musée examine et accepte les dons de souvenirs et d'histoires, personnelles ou familiales, à la collection. En tant qu'institution pédagogique, ces récits nous aident à comprendre comment les individus se souviennent d'expériences vécues, comment ils les interprètent ou, encore, comment ils créent un sens à partir de celles-ci. Les histoires ne sont pas modifiées par le personnel du Musée. Le point de vue exprimé est celui de l'auteur et non celui du Musée.

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In 1925, the Canadian Government made an agreement with the Canadian National Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were given the authority to recruit immigrants from agricultural areas in Eastern, Southern, and Central Europe. Passage by ship and train to Canada was provided by these companies, while the government promised farm work and homesteads, hoping to populate the western provinces with inexpensive labour. It turned out that this employment was not guaranteed, although the ¼ section of land, or 160 acres, was a powerful incentive for the poor peasants from Europe.
Posters and pamphlets in the late ‘20s read, “Build your next home in Western Canada.” Sir Clifford Sifton, Attorney General and Federal Minister of the Interior, aggressively pitched this immigration policy. But by mid-1930, the agreement was cancelled because they couldn’t provide the jobs as promised and the Depression choked off immigration to Canada.
However, in March 1930, a Canadian Pacific ship, the “Montclare” sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia with a boatload of prospective Polish and other East-European immigrants. It docked at Pier 21, the Canadian equivalent to Ellis Island in the United States. Passengers were given railway tickets and told to report to an immigration officer in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There, some of them were given tickets to travel even further west to Saskatchewan, Alberta, or British Columbia.
Stanislaw Igras (Stanley) and Stanislaw Dechnik (Stella) were among them, two young people from neighbouring villages in Poland. They did not know each other at that time. Stanley traveled to Edmonton, Alberta to join a cousin on a homestead just west of the city. Stella was sent to a fruit farm in British Columbia where she picked strawberries. Imagine this 22 year old, the oldest of five daughters, having the courage to go alone to a strange land, knowing no one, not able to understand or speak the language, wondering what she had gotten herself into! Stanley was now with his cousin, John, living in a tiny shack near a stream in the beautiful fertile Peace River area of Alberta. He, too, had second thoughts. Despite the rich land with plentiful wild berries, fish from the nearby stream (which he said could be easily scooped up from the water with their pitch-forks), they decided it was just too lonely. So they left the homestead and moved to Edmonton, where at least there were people.
Stanley soon received a letter from his home village in Poland asking about his new life in Canada and mentioning that a girl from a neighbouring village also immigrated at the same time on the same ship. Perhaps, he should look her up. They had no conception of distances in this vast country. She was in British Columbia and he was in Alberta! But, luckily, a railway spur line had just been built which led quite close to where Stella lived. When she first met him, a handsome 28-year old from a village near her home, who spoke her language. Well! No wonder, she didn’t let him get away. They were married soon afterward and then I was born in Wynndel, British Columbia on September 22, 1931.
The young family moved back to Edmonton, settling in the city where there would be better prospects for a job. By then, the Great Depression was spreading around the world. Times were extremely hard. Stanley was one of the men who stole rides on the top of railway boxcars going from city to city looking for work. Sometimes they were lucky to be given a loaf of bread from a farmer’s wife. The dozen men on the roof of the boxcar would break off a piece, then pass the bread to the next man sitting beside him. They would even jump off the moving trains when they slowed down entering a town, risking their limbs and even lives because they didn’t want to be arrested by the railway police.
My brother, Henry, was born in Edmonton on September 25, 1934. In those days, couples did not want babies and no wonder: no jobs, no food, no shelter and no contraceptives. Stanley found occasional work in restaurants as a short-order cook, so his family sometimes had access to a little more food than most people. I remember living in a garage at the back of an Edmonton home. It had a pot bellied stove to heat the small building during those cold Alberta winters. I also remember fainting from frost-bite and hitting my head on the Singer treadle sewing machine. My mother managed to get this machine from a salesman who didn’t want to lose his commission. When the owner could not keep up the payments on the machine, he offered it to my mother if she paid off the balance owing. She was sitting at the machine sewing a dress for me from bleached sugar sacks when I fainted.
A highlight of my early years in Edmonton was the British Royal Couple’s visit to Canada in 1939. School children were each given a small Union Jack flag to wave at King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth at a stadium. My heart was broken, when I found out that my baby brother’s sitter did not take him to see the King and Queen.
Eventually, my father, Stanley, was forced to go to the “relief” office where they provided a ticket for him to go to any other province in order to get him off Alberta’s welfare roles. He chose to come to Toronto, Ontario, where he found a job as a cook in a restaurant on Queen Street near Bathurst. He then wrote to Stella and told her to get tickets for herself and the two children. She even took along her Singer sewing machine, which now stands in my present home. Stanley had found a two room flat to rent and a job as a dishwasher at the same restaurant for his wife. After the two-day, three-night train trip across Canada, a new chapter in my life began in Toronto.
Afterward: Years later as a teacher setting the mood for a poem of a train crossing the prairies during the dustbowl years of the depression, I told this story of my family in the third person, anonymously.
It was the only time that at the end of the period, the class filed past me in utter, thoughtful, silence!