The first wave of Hungarian
immigrants settled in Canada's West, billed as "The Last Best West"
by immigration agents who were trying to divert some potential immigrants
from settling in the United States. One of the more infamous immigration
officials at that time, who, like the others was being paid a fee for
every immigrant that he was able to attract to the Canadian Prairies,
was Paul Oscar Esterhazy. He was employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway
and had official recognition from the Federal Government to attract immigrants,
specifically Hungarians, to Canada.(8)
Travelling to Hungary, he distributed brochures and gave speeches in the
villages and cities. He spoke in glowing terms of Canada's prairies -
how it was his mission to build a "Little Hungary" on Canada's
fertile prairie land. He spoke of the rich soil, the free land and the
opportunities. Through this, he was able to attract a few hundred settlers
in the 1880's, to what would become Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. These early
immigrants were the vanguard of a wave of emigration which would consist
of eight Hungarian communities on Canada's prairies, with a population
of 8,000 by the outbreak of World War I.(9)
What Esterhazy neglected to mention, was that in order to get to the fertile
soil they would have to first clear the forest and brush. The communities
were isolated. Esterhazy was 25 miles from the railroad. Count Esterhazy
also neglected to mention the prairie winters, with temperatures which
would regularly dip to 40 below. In order to survive, these immigrants
had to literally burrow into the soil, building sod huts, which served
as their first homes, sometimes for a number of years. Later homes would
be built out of the wood, which they cleared from the land.
These early immigrants struggled and succeeded. The Hungarian immigrants
are credited with being among the first to harvest wheat on Canada's prairies.
Twenty years after the first settlers came to Esterhazy, the town was
thriving. There were now churches and schools, and mechanization had helped
increase the yield of wheat.
The years of work and toil was severely undermined during the economic
depression of the 1930's. The bottom fell out of the price of wheat, and
farmers who were able to bring in a crop of wheat had to sell it for such
a low price that they were not even able to cover the cost of seed. For
the pioneers on the prairies, the economic collapse was one blow which
was quickly followed by a second. Severe drought hit Saskatchewan and
The land, which a generation had worked the better part of their lives
clearing and tending, turned to dust, as ten years of drought hit the
prairies. The wind and dust storms which followed blew the rich prairie
soil away. Unable to make the payments on their farms or for the equipment
and seed that they had bought during the good years, thousands of prairie
farmers had to turn their backs on their homesteads and head for the cities.
Today, you can still see traces of these homesteads dotting the prairies,
a silent legacy to broken dreams.
Following World War II, a wave of Hungarian immigrants came to Canada.
Some were fleeing the destruction of the Germans, others were fleeing
the approaching Soviets. Among this group were the middle class and professionals.
They took a financial hit to their status when they came to Canada. Many
of their professional qualifications were not recognized. This was combined
with news from home that their friends with similar qualifications did
not suffer under the Soviet regime, as was expected, but in fact prospered.
This group was never able to fully settle in Canada. Many viewed their
stay in Canada as being temporary.
Following the 1956 revolution, 37,000 Hungarian refugees came to Canada.10
They can be characterized as young and university-educated. Their social
and political outlook was shaped by the 12 years of Soviet occupation.
While many were fiercely pro-Hungarian and anti-Soviet, most did not fit
into the Hungarian communities of the West. They had gone through 12 years
of oppression under Stalin, which the Canadian Hungarians could not comprehend.
Although Canada did grant them political freedom, many of the refugees
were disappointed to find that their professional qualification earned
in Hungary, were not recognized in Canada. For many, this resulted in
several years of further schooling to have their qualifications recognized.
The wave of immigrants from Hungary following the 1956 revolution, marked
the last major influx. Since that time, several hundred Hungarians have
emigrated to Canada annually.
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