Vlast (My Homeland): The Jiraneks In Canada: General History
At the time of the Jiraneks' arrival in Canada, the country which they left was known as Czechoslovakia. This county was made up of two distinct cultural groups - the Czechs and the Slovaks. Both groups had distinct culture, language and religion. These distinctions, however, had become so intertwined over the ages that the two groups became related as brothers. Since 1992 and the fall of the Soviet Union, the Czechs and Slovaks, with no bloodshed or animosity, opted to form their own countries. In Canada, as a recognition of shared history and community, the organizations and clubs have remained united in both name and spirit.1
The refugees of the 1968 Soviet crackdown were not the first Czechs or Slovaks or Czechoslovakians who emigrated to Canada. The connection between Canada and Czechoslovakia can be seen on some of the early maps of Canada. The area around Hudson Bay was known as Prince Rubert Land. Prince Rubert was the Son of Queen Elizabeth I and the Winter King of Czechoslovakia. He was born in Hradcany Castle in the City of Prague, in the summer of 1619. A year later, the Royal family fled Prague after they lost the battle of Winter Mountain. Prince Rubert would go on to become the leader of the Royalist Cavalry during the English Civil War. On May 2, 1670, Prince Charles I of England granted Prince Rubert and 17 others a Charter known as, 'The Company of Adverturers of England', which granted them control of 1,486,000 square miles, in Canada. This territory became known as Prince Rubert Land.2
In the early 1800's, a Czechoslovakian church known as the Moravian Bretheren set up three missionary stations in Labrador and a settlement near Thames, Ontario, known as Fairfield. This mission of Fairfield was destroyed during the war of 1812, but was rebuilt and continued until 1902.3
The first Slovak to settle in Ontario was thought to be a man named Josf Ballon, who settled in Toronto in 1878 and opened a wire shop.4 It was in this same period that groups of Czech immigrants started to settle in Western Canada, attracted by the land grants. Some came directly from Czechoslovakia, others came from Pennsylvania where they had settled for a few years before moving to Canada. These early Czechs founded the village of Kolin, Saskatchewan. During the first cold winters they lived in sod huts built into the sides of river banks.5 Today, many people living in that area of Saskatchewan can trace their roots back to these Czech ancestors, but few are able to speak the language.
There was a second larger influx of immigrants following World War I. The United States closed its doors to immigration following the 1914-18 war. Many immigrants whose first choice was the United States had to change their destination to Canada. Many of the new immigrants came seeking a better economic life. By 1939, there were 40,000 Czechs/ Slovaks living in Canada.6
The third wave of immigration from Czechoslovakia occured in 1948 7 when the Soviet Union, which had emerged from World War II as one of the two dominant world super powers, annexed Czechoslovakia as part of its territory. At this time, a large number of people fled the country as the brutal Stalin regime invaded just three years after Czechoslovakia had freed itself from the chains of the Nazi occupation. These new immigrants were political refugees. The fourth wave of immigration from Czechoslovakia occured at the end of August 1968. It followed the heady days of the Prague Spring when, for a brief time, the people of Czechoslovakia had a taste of freedom. In August, the Soviet tanks brought an end to the hope of reform. Members of this wave were made up of academics, professionals, students and younger people, who no longer wanted to live in the shadows of the cold war and strove to live their lives in freedom.
The fall of the Soviet Union did not come through a third world war. It was an internal collapse led by ordinary citizens who wanted to live in peace and freedom and a Soviet Leader who understood this need.
Czechoslovakia was finally free. Four years later (again without bloodshed) the Czech and Slovak communities voted to go their separate ways and form their own countries. Within Canada, the two communities are closely attached. They have worked together, formed clubs, festivals and solved problems together. Out of respect for each other, and contrary to the paths that the Czechs and Slovaks of Europe decided to follow, the Czech and Slovak communities in Canada remained united out of respect and friendship. According to the 1986 census the combined Czech and Slovak community of Canada is 110,775.8