The miners helped tunnel the crow’s nest pass CPR line. They were often cheated by contractors. Still they settled along the rail line’s mining and smelter towns trough the Rockies. They dug the coal of Alberta mines – and often paid with their lives. A blast in 1902 in a mine at Fernie killed fifty Slovak miners. A worse disaster occurred in the following year when a mammoth chuck of Turtle Mountain broke off and crushed the mostly – Slovak town of frank below, killing scores. And still they came, they built the coal town of Lethbridge as the biggest group of Slovaks in western Canada at the turn of the century. They built a church there – and in several prairie towns.
Wherever Slovaks came together to form a community, they erected a church as the centre around which Slovak traditions were celebrated. Slovak cultural life – folk dancing, plays, and social organizations – revolved around the church. Christianity came to Slovakia in the ninth century. Slovaks became imbued with a bedrock religious faith. They were predominantly Roman Catholic, along with adherents of the eastern Byzantine rite and Lutherans. Slovaks also brought a strong work ethic and pride in family.
Slovak farm settlements at first grew along the CP railway lines cob webbing the prairies. Their ranks swelled with the government’s massive recruitment of European Slavs in the 1896 – 1910 period, to open up more of the prairies. Winnipeg, as a railway hub, attracted many Slovaks to settle in what became Manitoba. Others left farms to settle in Calgary and Edmonton.
With the phenomenal jump in prairie wheat production, huge grain elevators were built at the head of Lake Superior. Slovaks flocked there; glad to take 72-hour-a-week jobs. Fort William became what was, and still is, one of the largest communities in Canada, and site of the first Slovak church in Canada.
The First World War brought an abrupt halt to all immigration. Many Slovaks already in Canada suffered discrimination by jingoistic “patriots” because the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from which they had fled, was allied with Germany. The irony was that the famous “Slovak army,” 50,000 strong, fought alongside the allies against the overlord empire they broke away from to form the country of Czechoslovakia in 1919. During the war, some Slovak workers were interned in camps at Kapuskasing, Ontario and Amos, Quebec.
Slovak immigration resumes in the postwar 1920’s and 1930’s. In the 1920 – 38 period, 35,000 Slovaks made Canada their home, but now the pattern had changed. Most went to Ontario and Quebec. Many settled in the hard rock mining towns in North Ontario – Kirkland Lake, Timmins, and Sudbury – and in Rouyn and Val D’or in northen Quebec. Others congregated in Montreal to build the second largest Slovak agglomeration behind Toronto. Windsor, Hamilton and Vancouver rank next.
A small number of Slovaks settled in the Maritimes in the inter-war period, most of them migrating to the coal mining towns of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.
A Slovak settlement was formed near the Northern Ontario logging towns of Hearst. A catholic priest recruited some 60 Slovak families to found the community of Bradlo in 1930/ They cleared the hardscrabble bushland for potatoes – the staff of life for Slovaks – and pasture, and, of course, built a log Church. The site disappeared during 1960’ as the settlers mainly moved for better educational opportunities for their children.
At war’s end, hundreds of Slovaks were relocated from “displaced persons” camps in Europe. They first were dispatched to work in logging camps and as farmhands. But most went on to urban areas to work in factories, some because successful entrepreneurs in a range of businesses.
When the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, emigration was forbidden. Except for some escapers, the lull continued until the revolt of 1968. When Soviet tanks crushed the uprising, several hundred Slovaks managed to make their way to Canada. Many were of the professional class. Unlike some other ethnic immigrants, they scattered across Canada. Ottawa hailed the 1968 Slovaks as the most successful of postwar refugee groups. Slovakia become an independent republic on January 1, 1993.
All in all, Slovak settlement was like raisins in the cake called Canada. The sons and daughters of those early settlers left the farms and coal mining towns to get an education – with the encouragement of their hard-working parents. Slovaks value education highly. Their descendants became doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, architects, scientists, contractors and, indeed, factory owners themselves.
Few of them came back from University to settle on the family farm. Some who did, however, have become very prosperous owners of vast prairie acreages.
Three generations earlier, those first Slovak settlers had arrived with nothing but their faith in god, hard work and the bastion of family. They preserved their identity and achieved success against many tribulations.
Written by Bob Reguly