A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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General History

Immigration History

One of the earliest Hungarian to have emigrated to Canada was Stephen Parmenius. He was in charge of recording the travels of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. They landed on the shores of Newfoundland in 1583, where Parmenius recorded some of the earliest European impressions of Canada.(1)

It would be another three hundred years before Hungarian immigration to North America began in earnest, with the vast majority of these immigrants settling in the United States. In the 1880's, the first wave of Hungarian immigrants came to Canada. They were attracted by the picture of Canada painted by a Canadian immigration agent who called himself Count Esterhazy.

Between 1800 and 1900, millions of mainly European immigrants, came to North America, carrying their meagre belongings on their back and a shared a dream of improving their lives. While the vast majority of these immigrants made their way to the United States, some, either initially or after an initial stay in the U.S., made their way to Canada. In terms of the immigration process, the Hungarians joined this exodus rather late.

Hungary traditionally was a land which attracted immigrants, but this changed after the 1848 revolution. The revolution introduced important social and political reforms. Serfdom was abolished. Personal, civil and political rights were guaranteed and a Parliamentary-style government was introduced. What failed to be resolved was the question of land tenure. This resulted in years of turmoil, as peasants tried to establish land ownership. This was followed by a mass influx of former serfs into the cities of Hungary. The cities were in the midst of an industrial revolution and mechanization, and the combination of this industrial revolution and the turmoil in the countryside resulted in, for the first time, a mass exodus of Hungarians across the ocean to the New World.(2)

Between 1870 and 1914, 639,541 Hungarians emigrated, with 90% of these migrants going to the United States. A mere 2% or 8,000 Hungarians chose Canada as their destination. During the better part of eleven centuries, the Hungary Empire occupied the entire centre of the Danube Basin. This resulted in an ethnic mix in the Hungarian population, which is reflected in the ethnic makeup of the immigrants to Canada. Along with the ethnic Hungarians (Magyars), there were Slovaks, Germans, Romanians, Jews, Serbs, and Croats.(3)

In the 1880's, Canada was desperate for suitable immigrants to populate the West. Although there was no official quota system, there was a designation of suitable and non-suitable immigrants. The Hungarians were deemed as suitable - able to handle the rigours and hardships of pioneer life. Canada sent out immigration agents to the suitable countries to attract immigrants. The immigration agent sent to Hungary was a man who called himself Count Esterhazy, although he was not a Count. His name was Paul Oscar Esterhazy.

Esterhazy was able to convince, first the Canadian Pacific Railway, and later the Department of Agriculture, of his grandiose schemes of settlement. What he envisioned was the creation of a "Little Hungary" on the Canadian Prairies, fueled by immigrants which he would provide. He was given permission by the Canadian Government to act on their behalf as an official immigration agent.(4)

Esterhazy painted a picture of Canada's West as the nearest thing to The Garden of Eden, where the soil was rich, the weather was great and the land was free. For the people of Hungary, who had been living for over thirty years in a state of political and economic turmoil, the notion of this land of plenty was hard to pass up and several hundred Hungarians made their way to Canada's West. Several communities were established by Hungarians on the prairies, the most enduring of these being the Town of Esterhazy, named after the Count himself.

But the massive emigration which Esterhazy had promised, never did fully materialize. His greatest success was attracting several hundred discontented Hungarians who had immigrated to the United States, only to find that they were working in the coal mines, for long hours, little pay, and in terrible conditions. They had emigrated to the U.S., in search of land grants. By the 1880's, however, most of these grants were gone. Esterhazy was able to convince these discontented miners that life in Canada would be better. They followed him north to Canada's prairies. What he neglected to mention was the isolation, cold, and that the rich soil was covered with forests.(5)

The second major wave of Hungarian immigration occurred in the five-year period between 1925-30. Twenty-six thousand Hungarian immigrants came to Canada at this time.(6) As was the case with the first wave of immigrants, they came for political and economic reasons. Canada had become more attractive to the immigrants, since the United States had not fully opened her door to immigration following World War I, but had imposed strict immigration quotas.

Unlike the pre-World War I influx of Hungarian immigrants, this second wave did not settle on the prairies. They headed to the cities of central Canada. Within these cities the Hungarian immigrants, like other immigrant groups, tended to congregate in specific neighbourhoods, forming closely knit communities.

The Depression of the 1930's ended this wave of emigration, as the Canadian government closed its doors. Following World War II, Canada once again opened its doors widely to the displaced persons of Europe. Twelve thousand Hungarians came to Canada in the immediate post-war period. There were several reasons for this. Some of the 12,000 were made up of people who had lost their homes during the brutal German occupation of Hungary. Another group had left Hungary with the retreating German army. The third group were Hungarians who were leaving because they feared the communist occupation of their country.

Over the course of the next 12 years, there was a brutal Soviet occupation of Hungary, characterized by the persecution of anyone opposed to the occupation. There was a reign of police terror with show trials, imprisonment and deportations. This terror lasted well into the 1950's. In 1956, there was an abortive uprising against the communist occupation. Thousands used this brief window of opportunity to flee Hungary. As many as 37,000 refugees of the 1956 uprising came to Canada. Many were the elite of Hungary, made up of professionals. The majority were young and educated. As was the pattern of immigration since World War I, the majority of these immigrants settled in the cities of central Canada.(7)


1 The First Hungarians in North America, by Susan Papp-Aykler, http://collections.cc.gc.ca/heirloon-series/volume7/country hungary/htm.1

2, 3, 5, 8 Struggle & Hope - The Hungarian-Canadian Experience, by N.F. Dreisziger, McClelland & Stewart, cp 1982.

4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13
The Canadian Encyclopedia, Year 2000 Edition, Editor in Chief: James H. Marsh, McClelland & Stewart Inc., The Canadian Publishers, Toronto, Ont. cp. 1999.

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