Photo courtesy Unsplash: Nationaal Archief
I owe my own existence, in no small part, to the railways.
My Ukrainian grandfather worked for both the CNR and the CPR as a means to save for bringing his family over from the old country, and to buy their farm near Riding Mountain, Manitoba. Yet many other Ukrainians and immigrants spent their whole lives working for the railways.
Most of the Ukrainians listed on my grandfather’s 1914 Arriving Passenger List cite the CPR yards in Winnipeg as their destination in Canada. In all likelihood, they were sponsored by the CPR too. Their occupations were listed as “farm labourers.”
Building a railway across Canada was a significant political goal for Canada. In his excellent book “Ukrainians in Canada — The Formative Period: 1891–1924,” (1991) Martynowych provides detailed information: immigration assumed mass proportions between 1901 and 1914. The Canadian government partnered with Canadian railways to actively solicit Ukrainian workers, in fact, the CPR maintained branch offices in all Austrian capitals and in several Galician and Bukovinan towns. In these offices, agents steadily worked to convince Ukrainians to leave their homeland.
When I was conducting research for my novel “Heart Stones,” I came across a wonderful virtual resource — the Taras Shevchenko Museum Toronto, Ontario (Taras Shevchenko Virtual Museum). This website contains precious first-hand accounts by Ukrainians, along with photos and detailed information about their experiences as new immigrants to Canada. I am grateful that someone took the time to record their stories!
(Be forewarned: I can guarantee that you will spend hours reading these incredible accounts!)
The following is an excerpt from Mikhailo Shymkiw’s account of his first years working for a railway company near Sioux Lookout, Ontario:
“After work, during my free time, or on Sundays, I often went for walks into the forest. Once, when I had walked some fifty feet from the track, I saw two crosses overgrown with weeds, standing between two poplars. I went cold at this unexpected sight. Walking up, I saw that one of the crosses bore a knife-carved name, Herhory, the rest was unreadable, for both crosses were in a state of decay.
I told my foreman about them. ‘There are many such crosses along this railroad,’ he said. ‘There are also many graves that no one knows about and will never know about!’
It was true, I found six such graves myself among some tall birches six miles from Souix [sic] Lookout. Looking at them I felt a deep sadness. They seemed to be saying: ‘Tell our families that death found us here, let them not expect us back’ . . . The workers did not remain long on the job under these circumstances, for injuries and death looked them in the eye every day. Having worked a week or two they left, secretly. Their places were taken by new workers — and the story was repeated again. The contractor found this to his benefit.”
Farm labor during seeding and harvest was also needed. The CPR had been granted huge tracts of land on both sides of the track by the Canadian government. Many of these same immigrants would become buyers of farmland, even shipping their own grain on these railways. Thus, there were many reasons to promote immigration to Ukrainians.
Immigration was so frequent that often Ukrainians would meet people they knew from their home villages when they arrived in work camps! One of the reasons for this was that most of the immigrants at that time were from the provinces of Galicia or Bukovinia. Lands further east would have been under the Russian empire at that time.
Martynowych (1991) wrote that living conditions for railway gangs were abhorrent, especially before WWI. Today, we’d consider rail gang work for 10–12 hours a day very hard physical labour — moving rocks, lifting heavy rail ties, and steel spikes. Workers would need to move everything by hand unless there was a mule or horse team to move it. In his book “The Great Railway,” (1972) Berton wrote that “Dust choked throats, ears ringing, arms aching from swinging sledges all day or toting rails… .”
Water shortages and poor sanitation caused disease (including typhoid) in the camps. Lack of water meant that it would have been difficult to bathe! Add to this the challenge of inadequate heavy winter clothing and a means of laundering it.
It was difficult to save money working for the railway. Clothing was typically purchased from company stores (Berton, 1972) with meagre earnings. Anyone who has done hard physical labour knows that clothes wear out fast.
Working outside in the bush in summer meant that workers were tormented by flies, blackflies and other hungry insects. Men would build smoke smudges in an effort to reduce the resulting stress on horses, mules and themselves, bringing temporary relief.
I know from personal experience that insects are attracted to the presence of livestock and other mammals, including humans. Railway gangs containing large numbers of men would certainly experience insect attacks on a daily basis unless there was wind to blow them away. But most bush areas on the Canadian Shield would be sheltered from wind.
Heavy snowfall on railway tracks meant that abundant labor was needed to clear lines and resume rail traffic. Every available horse team might be contracted after heavy snowfall, but yet, much of the track would need to be cleared by hand.
When the CPR changed from steam locomotives to diesel, the demand for coal went down, meaning that railways shipped less coal too. Workers were subsequently rewarded with reduced wages. Can you imagine being told that your wage would be reduced by 30%?
The 1921 census states that my grandfather worked for the CPR in Wishart, Saskatchewan. In 1923, he was reunited with my grandmother at a CNR siding near Sioux Lookout (ie at Superior Lot, as per her passenger record).
Men rode the rails to wherever there was work. Ukrainians were viewed as a ready, dispensable source of labor. WWI caused a lot of upheaval for workers as periods of high employment alternated with periods of low employment: while immigrants were increasingly hired during the war, veterans were prioritized for jobs after the war, Lack of stable employment made it difficult to save money. Large number of single unemployed men led to increased scrutiny of immigrants by government, eventually leading to creation of Canada’s first internment experience during WWI.
As Shymkiw mentioned in his account, worker mortality on rail crews was high. Building the railway through the Canadian Shield used up three tons of dynamite a day, and at considerable cost of men’s lives (Berton, 1972).
Did the CPR and other railways make an effort to notify these unfortunate Ukrainian workers’ families’ back in the old country, I wondered? Did the families back home ever find out? How were these losses in human life communicated after WWI started, a time when Canada was effectively cut off from the Austrian Empire? Communication would have become impossible.
Family story relates that my grandfather worked on railways during the years 1914 to 1923. He was a heavy smoker, in fact, he’d contracted a type of oral cancer by the time he passed away in 1947. Did he use smoking as a way to reduce insect attacks when he worked on the railway near Sioux Lookout before he was reunited with my grandmother in 1923? Or had smoking simply become a way to deal with the immense stress that he and others must have experienced?
“Winters were dark and cold . . . the isolated conditions of camps . . . in gloomy, airless bunkhouses . . . with 60–80 men crammed in . . . beds of vermin-infested hay . . . nights fetid from steam of wet clothes and smoky stoves.” (Berton, 1972)
It is with these thoughts that I contemplate my grandfather’s difficult life when I either cross railway tracks or wait for a long train to pass by!
My curiosity, and my desire to fill in gaps of knowledge, eventually led me to write a historical fiction novel called Heart Stones: A Ukrainian Immigration Story of Love and Hope, which was published in mid-February 2023.
Visit my website for more details on my story, book reviews, more blog posts, or my media. While there you can download Chapter One from my book, it’s absolutely free!
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Berton, P. 1972. The Great Railway. Warner Books, New York.
Martynowych, O. 1991. Ukrainians in Canada — The Formative Period: 1891–1924. Edmonton: University of Alberta — Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press.
Taras Shevchenko Virtual Museum Toronto, Ontario. Downloaded on April 4th, 2023 from:
Taras Shevchenko Virtual Museum