My Canada, 20/150: A nation molded by immigrants

Unless you are a member of one of Canada’s aboriginal First Nations, the truth about being Canadian is that you got here because you, or your ancestors, moved here from somewhere else. We are a country filled with hyphen people. In my case, it’s Ukrainian-Irish, a peculiar combination with potatoes and Catholicism in common.

My maternal grandfather was born in Ukraine although, regrettably, much of his history is unknown to me – I do not know his parents’ names, nor if he had any siblings. He said he was a “peasant” in the old country but did not work on a farm: at a young age, he learned foundry trades. In 1912 and 1913, he was disturbed by what he saw in the country and decided he wanted to move from Ukraine; he and several “cousins” – one of whom was an actual cousin, and other young men from the same village – decided they would try to move to Canada.

My grandfather was already married by then and his wife was pregnant, so they decided he would get to the new world and she would follow, once he was settled.

He and his confrères travelled west across Europe, picking up jobs along the way. I remember his story about how they would be fed at a factory at lunch: soup would be poured into a trough and then each man spooned up as much as he could, as quickly as he could. “A trough,” my grandpa would say, shaking his head at the memory. “Like for pigs.”

They finally made it to England with enough money for ship passage across the Atlantic. My grandfather disembarked in Montreal and travelled to Ontario. He took a job at a foundry in Elmira, Ontario while the others settled in the larger communities of Kitchener and Galt (now part of Cambridge), plying their foundry trades.

Once he was settled, it was 1914 and the First World War had begun. There was no travel across Europe for his wife then, nor for the next 12 years.

The picture above shows him in his workplace, the Link-Belt Foundry. He’s the chap most prominent in the foreground, to the left. As was common then, everyone is rather grim- looking because they had to hold still for the long exposure. I keep that photo framed on my desk and remember: no matter how nuts things might get in an office-based job, it’s hardly the burden of work men like my grandfather used to do.

Despite all he went through, my grandfather was a jolly man. He retained the old habit of being solemn for photos throughout his life but he was frequently laughing and playful. He loved his garden and made his own wine: a very early memory for me is being stunned by seeing liquid run uphill through a tube, the physics of siphoning producing what looked like a miracle to toddler-Kelley.

Because of his upbringing, travels and I think a natural ear, my grandpa could speak many languages, including Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, English and even Yiddish. The last was a product of all that wine-making. For many years grandpa was the only Ukrainian living in a small town dominated by Protestant Scots and Germans and he was relatively isolated from the social activities of the community. Over the years, he got to know the travelling salesmen of Eastern European / Jewish backgrounds who would pass through, and they would always stop by Steve’s place for a visit and a glass or three.

He was ill first with silicosis (a byproduct of foundry work), then cancer, and died when I was 10. He was very proud to live in Canada and had no patience with fellow Ukrainians who sometimes pined for the “old country.” “This is my country,” he would say, gesturing around his home or his garden or wherever he was standing, at the moment. And because of him, it’s mine, too.

20-1-grandpa-and-me
My grandfather Steven Woznuk set a solemn face for the camera but he had a huge laugh that would throw back his head, a laugh inherited by granddaughter Kelley. Photo: Mary Teahen
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