Canadian Pioneers

Train

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?

6 responses

  1. Paula, very interesting comments. Wish you success with getting your story better known and your future blogs.

    Don Vollmer

  2. Dear Paula, This is superb. I love it and I am touched by it.
    I don’t know much abut my family, but I do sometimes tell stories to my not-very-interested grandkids. I should write them down. Maybe in the future..someone would be interested.

  3. I think when the stress and sorrow has been overwhelming it can be hard to find the right words to tell the children. It’s like shame is blocking the ability to speak. But some people do it anyway and it’s like you say so much better to know the truth than having to guess when it’s too late to ask.

    • You are right, Maria. I learned of my mother’s childhood ten years after she died at 92. She left Canada as a girl. My cousin planned a family reunion, I went and met 50 first cousins and their families. It was a joy to meet my family. Her early life pained her so much that she left Canada. But there were other secrets in my family, my memoir is sort of a detective story that I have now learned. Some secretes harm families.

      • Thank you for your answer. All are now dead who could tell me of my mothers youth during WWII in Copenhagen where she fell in love with Bill a British soldier who came with Montgomery. I am glad she told me a little in my childhood

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