A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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General History


Like most Portuguese immigrants, Antonio da Silva came to Canada to escape a life of certain poverty in Portugal. The majority of immigrants were from the Atlantic islands of the Azores, where rising demographic pressures in the early 1900s made any prospects for social mobility bleak. There was in increase in population in an underdeveloped area. There were few industrial or natural resources and limited arable land for subsistence. Local authorities began to seek possible destinations for emigrants.(11)

Poor and illiterate, da Silva left behind his mother, never to see her again. It was the same emotional separation for so many of the early Portuguese immigrants. They left their families behind to work in the menial jobs on railways and farms which Canadian workers were increasingly refusing to accept. (12)

Canada was a completely unknown world for the Portuguese. The men who came by boat load were soon separated from each other and, incapable of speaking any French or English, they lived in virtual isolation for months on end. Their only means of communication was with hand gestures they invented to explain to employers and fellow workers their needs or problems.(13)

The experiences of the farm workers were the most harrowing. Work on farms meant long hours of labour, six days straight with hardly a moment's rest. The typical working day started at 6:00am and ended at 6:00pm, except in the summer when labourers were expected to work until sundown as late at 10:00pm. More extreme working conditions were not unheard of. One immigrant, who tells his story in the book Portuguese Immigrants, 25 Years in Canada, recalls being passed around among farmers:

I was taken to a farm around Sherbrooke in Québec. In the morning, after milking the cows, the boss would take me away somewhere, hand me an axe and a saw and through gestures, made it understood that I was to cut down those trees. At night, he would come back and pick me up for dinner. This was in May and the ground was still covered with melting snow. The boots I had brought over from the Azores were simply useless for spending the whole day chopping wood in those conditions.

Four days later, I got a surprise. The boss called, me, told me to pack my bags, gave me eight dollars, put me in his car and took me to another farm. But in that place, if I hadn't run away, I would have starved to death. Just wait til I tell you.

At four in the morning, there was the boss knocking on the door of my room. I had to milk about forty cows and feed them too, wash up the stalls and after that I was given breakfast. Some breakfast! In two minutes the boss would jump up from the table. I didn't have any time to eat, because I was running off after him, sowing potatoes in the field. Then it was back to the milking, and finally at ten at night, I finished work. No kidding -- I went from four in the morning to ten at night.(14)

For this gruelling labour, the workers earned low wages, about $15.00 a week and had very little job security. They never knew how long each contract would last. In wintertime, farm hands were often laid off and had to look for new jobs. Some found temporary work breaking blocks of ice, harvesting maple syrup or felling trees. It was during these stretches of unemployment that Portuguese immigrants would join up with one another. They would wander through cities and villages looking for news about jobs and exchanging information about upcoming work possibilities.(15)

From 1957 to 1965, a serious unemployment problem in Canada forced Portuguese immigrants to travel great distances and suffer long periods of joblessness. The Portuguese couldn't afford the luxury of leisure; their wages were needed to pay off debts incurred in Portugal before emigrating and to maintain their families. Any job, at any wage, was a necessity. Many immigrants were skilled in the trades of soldering, carpentry or mechanics but resorted to farm work, restaurant work or picking worms out of desperation.(16)

Some went without work for six months or even a year. Experiences of prejudice and discrimination were common, especially when companies asked about a worker's ethnic background. One immigrant remembers,

Everywhere we went looking for work, they asked us, "Where are you from?" and when we replied, "From Portugal," they said, "There's no work here." We showed them our credentials and they insisted on the importance of Canadian experience; if we had such experience, they demanded to see our "documents." The best way to find a job was to have a Portuguese buddy already working for the company.(17)

Portuguese Canadians struggled for decades and were one of the most underprivileged ethnic groups in Canada.(18) During the 1960s, many Portuguese families opened clothing shops and variety stores, fish markets, bakeries and restaurants. In the 1970s, second and subsequent generation Portuguese Canadians were better educated and integrated in Canadian society, and were entering the fields of high-school teachers, lawyers, social workers, engineers and civil servants.(19)

The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1998).

A Future to Inherit, The Portuguese Communities of Canada, by Grace M. Anderson and David Higgs
(McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1976).

A Canadian Profile: Toronto's Portuguese and Brazilian Communities
(Portuguese Interagency Network, Toronto, 1995).

Portuguese Immigrants, 25 Years in Canada, by Domingos Marques and Joao Medeiros
(Portuguese Community Movement, Toronto, 1978).

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