This blog series will consist of three parts:
Part 1. My Grandfather's Story
I had some extra time on my hands when I retired. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was steeped deep in my Galician family history. I’d gone down the rabbit hole!
Before my father passed away, he’d told me some stories about our ancestors. I never knew my grandparents, Wasyl and Anne Nykoluk, since they’d already passed away in 1947 and 1957, respectively, before I was born. I remember asking my father why my grandparent’s came to Canada. He replied that they’d worked for rich landowners in the old country with no hope of owning their own farm. They would never get ahead. Owning their own farm was their dream and Canada seemed like a country with more opportunities. He mentioned that my grandparents were separated for nine long years because of the war. In my youthful naivety, I didn’t grasp what this meant. We were told that Grandfather Wasyl worked for the railway after he came to Canada; it was how he saved enough money to eventually buy a farm.
Like many Canadian communities, our Rural Municipality of Rosedale, Manitoba, funded a family history book in the 1970’s. My father contributed what he knew of my family’s immigration to Canada. It would have been an excellent place to start looking for information, in retrospect. His write-up contained the name of my ancestral family village and some important dates. My ancestral village is called Melnytysa Podilska. It's right next to the Dniester River, about 40 kilometres from Chernivtsi, on the west side of present day Ukraine. The name means "windmill."
Fortunately for the Nykoluk family, my sister had developed a close relationship with my Aunt Violet before she passed away in 2013. They both lived in Winnipeg. Violet was my fathers’ older sister, both of them were born in Canada. The Aunt I never met, Mary, was born in the old country. Wasyl and Anne’s first-born-son, we learned, died as a young boy in the old country. Maryanne made a point of writing down all of the stories Aunt Vi told her, which she readily shared with me later on. Aunt Vi remembered critical birth and event dates that helped me find their documentation. My grandparents were married in 1911, Aunt Violet also mentioned one of the reasons our grandfather wanted to emigrate was to avoid being called up into war. He was 26 years old in 1914 when he left his village. In all likelihood, he’d already fulfilled the required three years of army duty for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but he risked being called up again if war was declared. No one fully anticipated the rapid onset of WW1.
A good general reference on Ukrainians in Canada is the Canadian Encyclopedia: www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ukrainian-canadians
Orest Martynowych’s book “Ukrainians in Canada – the formative period: 1891-1924” provides excellent information on the difficult living conditions in Galicia, emigration and the role of the Canadian railways, and about general political life at the time. Galicia was a poor province, only about 15% of the Ukrainian population received an education. I also found good information about Ukraine in WW1 in Mike Shuster’s article at www.greatwarproject.org
I found my grandfather’s passenger record on The Ships List (see: www.theshiplist.com). Passenger lists contain much useful information, in addition to departure location. The list indicated that my grandfather was 26 years old and Austrian, married with two small children left behind in Galicia, that he planned to reside in Canada (his destination being Winnipeg), his occupation of farmer (past and intended future), religion and race (Catholic, Ruthenian), and that he could read and write.
By matching my grandfather’s passenger record date with the birthdate of my Aunt Mary, I calculated that he left Ukraine about a month after Mary was born! She would be nine years old before she met her father again.
I soon learned about Canada’s Internment of Ukrainians during WW1. The Project Roll Call listing of Ukrainian internees by camp on the infoukes website at www.infoukes.com is a list of Ukrainians who were interned in various camps across Canada. Apparently, the original list was destroyed by the Canadian government in the 1950’s. It has since been reconstructed by Ukrainians, but is not complete. Out of curiosity, I scrolled the list for my grandfather’s name. A Wasyl Nykoluik was listed in the Brandon camp! Why didn’t my family know anything about this? Families often do not talk about unpleasant events. I realized that my grandfather would have been a prime candidate for pick up by police: he was likely unemployed during a period of very high unemployment, being a recently arrived non- English-speaking immigrant, and possibly without proper documentation on his person. At the time, there was a lot of political pressure from existing Canadians to make life difficult for Eastern Europeans. I searched for other Wasyl Nykoluk’s and I found one, but he was about 10 years younger and part of a family of brothers in Winnipeg that had immigrated much earlier. We will never know for sure, but I conclude that there is a 50% chance the Wasyl I found on the internment list was my grandfather. The experience of Ukrainians in Canada during WW1 should not be forgotten. More information about Ukrainian internment is available at www.internmentcanada.ca
Join me soon for my grandmother's immigration story.
All my curiosity led me to write a historical fiction novel about my grandparent's immigration story, it is available now. Visit my website Bookstore page for more details!
Download a free copy of Chapter One from my Free Chapter page.