By Jim Hagarty
After the Second World War, there began a wave of emigration from Europe of people looking for a better life in Canada. But for a while, it was not really much of an improvement on the life they had left behind. Some were sorry they came. Others stuck it out, hoping for better days. In most cases, better days came and success stories abound today of people from among those emigrants who have done extremely well in this New World country.
But they did not do it on their own and I think it’s fair to say that had Canadians not opened their hearts to refugees from the war-torn European continent, a great many of whom were being forced to live under an entirely new and strange political system, their chances for success would not have been so great.
Farmers in Perth County in Ontario where I grew up did their share to help in the years from 1945 to 1950. Perhaps some of them felt this was one way of contributing to the war effort since in many cases, they had been exempted from active military duty because they were needed on the land. In any case, European men went to work as hired hands on the Perth farms that sponsored them – one-year, church-arranged contracts were drawn up between immigrant and farmer – and thereby they got their new start here.
One of the things my father always seemed to feel best about in his life was the help he and my mother were able to be to the several immigrant men they hired on at their farm in Logan Township. He always spoke of them with great fondness and respect and though he had never experienced anything in his life comparable to the horrors of war and the uncertainty of leaving a homeland, he seemed to be able to feel their pain. He often told of the day he walked out on the front porch after dinner to find his hired man sitting on the steps, face buried in his hands, sobbing for his family back home.
One man my father hired was from Poland. He picked him up at the train station in Stratford and by the time they reached Bornholm, a half hour drive away, though neither man could speak the other’s language, they were communicating by one means or another. Tony Bogdan worked hard alongside my dad on the farm and remained a lifelong friend after he left. His name was often mentioned in our house.
Another man, Elmer Samaruutel, was from Estonia and he too became more than just a short-term labourer on our farm. From time to time in the years that followed his stay with us – in 1949 he left for a job in Toronto where he still lives today – he would drop in to renew his friendship with my parents.
And every year after they moved on, we would get Christmas cards from Tony and Elmer. They did not forget their good fortune in coming to a county where most hands were outstretched in goodwill. Some hands weren’t – some bosses looked on their hired men as sources of cheap help and little else. My father once rescued an immigrant worker from such a hard-hearted farmer and took him home to work on our farm. The farmer had refused to pay the man, making up some reason he thought justified his not giving the man his wages. Dad had an argument with the ignorant farmer then told the immigrant to get his things, he was coming with him.
Through the early ’50s, my parents hired other immigrants, some from the Netherlands. They too became more than farm labourers. Most were friends, some were like family. All were grateful. For my parents, their reward was watching these men go on to own successful farms of their own, to raise their own families and to take their places in the affairs of the community. In a twist of fate, after my parents sold their farm and moved to town, one of those immigrants bought their land and returned to the farmhouse where he had lived as a teenager after coming from Holland.
I’m not sure why Dad was so interested in helping new citizens. He was not a world traveller with a traveller’s view of the world. He was not a do-gooder or meddler looking for pats on the back or rewards in heaven. Maybe he just needed the help. Or maybe he sensed it hadn’t been easy either for our family when they came here from Ireland in the midst of the Famine a hundred years earlier. In any case, a million dollars could never have brought him more pleasure than the yearly Christmas cards from two of the men who remembered.
And as it turned out, Perth County needed every immigrant it took in back then. The county really got more than it gave. They and their sons and daughters are now the lifeblood of our agriculture and our rural communities.
Funny how that works.