A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
Episodes Search Site Map The Series Partners White Pine White Pine Home

General History

Overcoming Obstacles

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 Manitoba.

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.

Previous Page - - Next Page