My mother’s family immigrated to Canada’s Alberta plains from Ukraine in 1898. I’ve written of her grandparents, Stephan and Sanxira Tokaruk and also her parents, Wasyl and Anna Huculak. Mother never mentioned her family by name.
The Canadian government encouraged struggling Eastern Europeans to leave their overcrowded farms and cross North America on the Canadian Pacific Railroad to settle the country’s icy, windswept plains. Many pioneers came, bringing their customs and languages with them. My forebears settled near Alberta—some in Andrew, and some in Smoky Lake.
They spoke Ukrainian. When their ships docked in Halifax, customs officials, unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet, assigned them the anglicized names of Tokaruk and Huculak.
The Canadian government offered them a quarter to settle. They had five years to clear the land, plant crops, and build a homestead. The rest was up to them. The government offered no benefits, No English as a Second Language classes. My Ukrainian-speaking mother, the fourth of seven children, was the first in her family to attend school.
We do not want to lay our struggles on our children. So whenever I asked Mother to tell me about her family, she stressed the fun they’d had playing in the snow and driving their team of horses. On Christmas Eve they’d carry lanterns as they went caroling from house to house. The neighbors welcomed them and invited them in for cookies and cocoa.
It wasn’t until after my mother died at 92 that I learned of her family’s struggles with poverty, alcoholism, and fear as they worked to assimilate in their new land. I wish Mother had told me. Secrets take a toll on families.
Do you know your family’s stories?