Migration, Arrival, and Settlement

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Slovaks/

Slovak migration to Canada in the twentieth century was part of a worldwide movement of Europeans that began centuries earlier in a search for land and better opportunities, as large landowners all over Europe started to enclose their fields and practise intensive agriculture, driving the peasants off their meagre landholdings. In the early eighteenth century, after Habsburg armies had driven the Ottoman Turks out of central and southern Hungary, thousands of Slovak peasant families were encouraged to settle in the sparsely populated lowlands of what is now Hungary and northern Yugoslavia (Vojvodina). This migration continued into the first half of the nineteenth century and resulted in the creation of dozens of Slovak agricultural villages separated from the ancient homeland. After serfdom was abolished in Hungary in 1848, freed peasants (usually men) from northern Hungary (that is, Slovakia) started to migrate south every summer and fall to harvest the crops of the large landowners. Their wives stayed at home, assuming sole responsibility for the family and farm while the men were away. Later, as Hungary’s capital city of Budapest grew and became industrialized, about 100,000 Slovaks moved there to find work in construction and various industries.

During the 1880s, Slovaks started to migrate in large numbers to North America, drawn by the opportunities for work in the rapidly industrializing United States. Over 500,000 Slovaks had settled in the northeastern states of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois by the outbreak of World War I. Most worked as unskilled labourers in the coal mines, steel mills, and oil refineries of this region. The majority came in village chains from the four easternmost counties of Slovakia – Spiš, Šariš, Zemplín, and Abov – where the population had increased greatly in the previous century but where landholdings were small and there was virtually no industrial work to be found. Initially, Slovak immigrants to North America were sojourners, young, single men who were determined to earn their fortune (usually $1,000) and then return home, buy land, and lead the “good life.” While many did return home, sometimes several times, and 20 percent returned for good, the majority decided to stay in the United States, sent for their wives or girlfriends, and began to establish communities.

Meanwhile, Canada was rapidly expanding, and it regarded its prairie regions, which had recently been opened to settlement, as underpopulated and vulnerable to takeover by the United States. Since it could not attract enough British immigrants to people the west, in the 1890s the Canadian government, in cooperation with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which had just completed its transcontinental line, began actively to recruit central- and eastern-European peasants as settlers with promises of 160 acres (64 hectares) of free land for a small registration fee. At the same time, hard-coal mines were opened up in the Rocky Mountain region. In response to advertisements circulated in the United States, about 5,000 Slovaks (many from Pennsylvania) had migrated north to Canada by 1914. A few hundred of them became farmers on the prairies and the remainder worked in the coal mines in the Rockies or as labourers on the railway. Once again the men migrated first, established themselves, and then sent for their wives and families.

Slovak immigrants to Canada arrived in four distinctive waves. The first wave of immigrants came to Canada before World War I, the second in the 1920s and 1930s, the third after World War II, and the fourth after the Warsaw-Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The second immigration wave was similar to the first. After World War I, when Canada discovered that it could not attract enough British immigrants to fill its perceived population needs, it again turned to central and eastern Europeans. Starting in 1923, it began to promote the immigration of men to work in lumbering, and in 1925 it advertised for farm labourers to harvest prairie crops and domestics to clean the homes of Canada’s upper and middle classes. Almost 40,000 Slovaks from all regions of Slovakia responded to Canada’s needs, chiefly during the 1920s. Like the first-wave immigrants, most had only a few years of schooling.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, immigration slowed down as Canada admitted only the wives and families of immigrants who were already settled in Canada, or those who had enough money to purchase their own farms. Immigrants who migrated to Thunder Bay, before and after World War I, came in “village chains” from Orava county in northern Slovakia, especially from the villages of Dlhá, Podbiel, Nižná, Bielý Potok, and Krivá. While the origins of Slovak immigrants in other parts of Canada have not yet been systematically studied, it is reasonable to assume that such village chains played a role in the creation of other Slovak settlements in Canada.

The third immigration wave differed radically from the first two. After World War II, a small group of political refugees, numbering perhaps 1,500, came to Canada in family units, either because they refused to live in the resurrected Czechoslovakia or because they rejected the Communist system that was imposed on their country in 1948. These “displaced persons” (DPs) had a major impact upon the Slovak community already resident in Canada. After the Iron Curtain was imposed in 1948, only a few individuals managed to leave east-central Europe, and immigration from Slovakia largely dried up.

Finally, after the Warsaw-Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the fourth wave of Slovaks came to Canada. Like most of the post-war DPs, many of the immigrants in the fourth wave were highly educated professionals. They had been frustrated by their inability to advance in a Communist system and were determined to establish a better life for themselves in the West. They fled in 1968–69 before the Czechoslovak authorities closed the borders again. After that only a small trickle managed to leave, usually by going to Yugoslavia “on vacation.” The Yugoslav authorities allowed them to cross into Austria, where they claimed political asylum. From there a few hundred managed to get into Canada, as refugees. Those who were married came with their families. The number of Slovaks who came to Canada in the period after 1968 is not known because Canadian immigration authorities did not at the time differentiate between Czechs and Slovaks.

Statistics on Slovak immigration to Canada vary in their reliability. The Canadian government did not begin to distinguish people from Austria-Hungary by their ethnic origin until 1901, and a mere 1,313 Slovaks were recorded as arriving between 1901 and 1912. Further, Slovaks who came to Canada from the United States were not counted. The Austro-Hungarian consul-general in Montreal, however, estimated that by 1902 there were already 5,000 persons of Slovak ancestry in Canada.

The best statistics on Slovak immigration to Canada are from the inter-war period. Czechoslovakia strictly regulated emigration and kept precise records of those who left. According to official Czech statistics, 35,358 Slovaks emigrated to Canada in the period 1922–30, and another 4,294 between 1931 and 1937, for a total of 39,652.

Post–World War II statistics on Slovak arrivals in Canada are educated guesses. Since Canada counted Czechs and Slovaks together as Czechoslovaks, no precise figures on Slovak immigration exist. The first historian of American and Canadian Slovaks, Konštantín $ulen, has estimated that 1,500 political refugees came to Canada in the period 1948–51.

The Canadian census has shown wide swings in its recording of the Slovaks. In 1911 it counted only 851; in 1951 it recorded 45,576; but in 1991 only 29,350 (15,945 single response, 13,405 multiple response). The 1991 census also recorded over 54,000 Czechoslovaks in Canada, and some of these were undoubtedly Slovaks. Since the 1991 census also listed 47,175 Czechs in Canada (single and multiple responses combined), it would be reasonable to divide the 54,000 Czechoslovaks proportionately and consider 20,000 of them to be Slovaks. This gives a rough estimate of approximately 50,000 Slovaks in Canada. A significant number of Slovaks also migrated from Canada to the United States in the twentieth century, seeking greater work opportunities, but there is no record of how many because neither American nor Canadian immigration officers track the movement of ethnic groups between Canada and the United States.

The first wave of Slovak immigrants to Canada, who came before World War I, settled overwhelmingly in western Canada. Some were lured from the United States by new job opportunities in the hard-coal mines of the Crow’s Nest Pass area of Alberta and British Columbia, which had been opened up by American entrepreneurs from the Shelby, Montana, region, where some Slovaks already worked, and other Slovaks came to work on a spur line of the CPR nearby. In the 1880s and 1890s Slovak settlements started to appear in the Alberta towns of Lethbridge, Frank, Blairmore, Coleman, and Bellevue, as well as in Fernie, Michel, and Natal in British Columbia. Other Slovaks came to Canada in response to advertisements by two promoters of farmlands initially based in the United States. The first was Paul O. Esterhazy, the owner of the First Hungarian-American Colonization Society of New York City, who, working with an agent of the Canadian government, in the late 1880s settled around 400 central-European families (Magyar, Slovak, Czech, Carpatho-Rusyn, and South Slav) from Pennsylvania at Hun’s Valley and Neepawa in Manitoba and at Esterhazy and Kaposvar in Saskatchewan. The second promoter was Juraj Zeman, an American Slovak who dreamed of getting his people out of the unhealthy and dangerous mines, mills, and refineries and back to their traditional occupation of farming. In 1901, with the blessing of the CPR, he began to promote homesteading in Saskatchewan and eventually established the settlement of Kenaston. He also helped to settle Slovak farmers in Outlook, Broderick, Hawarden, and Tilley in Alberta.

Even though the earliest Slovak immigrants to Canada initially settled in the west, the majority eventually moved to central Canada, which had most of the industrial employment that Slovak immigrants sought. Thus, after the coal mines of the Rockies were exhausted, and especially after fire destroyed the town of Fernie in 1908, the ex-miners moved eastward until they discovered the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur (today consolidated as Thunder Bay) in northern Ontario. These Lakehead towns had earlier attracted a number of American Slovaks as longshoremen, and, with the influx of miners from the west, Fort William had the largest Slovak colony in Canada before World War I.

After World War I, Canada again tried to promote immigration to the west, but this effort largely failed. The best land was already taken, and the work offered to prospective immigrants was often seasonal – taking in the harvest in the fall or chopping wood on parkland in the winter. Despite the Canadian government’s insistence that Slovak immigrants (among others) go at least as far as Winnipeg, where they would be returned their deposit of $25, most Slovak immigrants either left the train at Montreal or else returned to Ontario or Quebec after failing to find permanent employment in the west. A small Slovak colony, primarily composed of farmhands and ex-lumberjacks, did arise in Winnipeg, but the Great Depression made that city, with its many thousands of unemployed, an unattractive destination. Instead, all through the 1920s and 1930s Slovaks moved from the west back to central Canada, partly to mining towns such as Timmins, Kirkland Lake, and Sudbury in northern Ontario, or Noranda, Arvida, and Val d’Or in northern Quebec. The largest number, however, headed for Canada’s industrial heartland – either the Montreal region, or else southern Ontario, particularly the cities of Oshawa, Toronto, Hamilton, St Catharines, Welland, and Windsor.

Slovaks usually settled in distinct neighbourhoods of these cities. For instance, in Fort William, Slovaks initially lived in the “Coal Dock” area, bounded on the west by the tracks of the CPR, on the south by the Kaministikwia River, and on the north by Atlantic Avenue. In the 1920s, Slovaks in Montreal lived downtown in a neighbourhood bounded by Ontario and Sainte-Catherine streets on the north and south, and by Saint-Denis and Saint-Laurent streets on the east and west. Although the Slovaks were, thus, residentially concentrated, they were not the only residents of these areas. Usually other eastern and southern Europeans resided nearby.

Virtually all of the Slovak immigrants who arrived in Canada as political refugees after World War II settled in cities, especially in Ontario and Quebec. Winnipeg attracted a small number, but the majority headed for Montreal or the Toronto region, where they could find the kind of professional employment for which they were qualified. Initially, they too settled in Slovak neighbourhoods, but they were quick to leave them as they moved up the socio-economic ladder.

Similarly, the post-1968 Slovak refugees headed for Canada’s cities, although they were more widely dispersed. By the late 1960s, the Canadian government had adopted a policy of dispersing refugees, with the result that Slovaks began to appear not only in the older Slovak settlements of central Canada but also in appreciable numbers in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver, where they greatly boosted the small number of Slovaks who had moved there from the mines or the farms before World War II. By 1968 the original Slovak neighbourhoods had largely been abandoned by the second and third generations, and the newest wave of immigrants joined other Slovak Canadians in settling in the suburbs.

According to the 1991 census, the majority of Slovaks (single and multiple responses combined) live in Ontario (64 percent), with the greatest concentration in the Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) of Toronto (23 percent). In 1991 there were 18,840 Slovak Canadians in Ontario, 3,055 in Alberta, 2,915, in British Columbia, 2,360 in Quebec, 1,160 in Manitoba, 615 in Saskatchewan, and 260 in Nova Scotia, with fewer than 100 people in each of the other provinces and territories. Among Canadian cities or CMAs with 1,000 or more Slovak Canadians, Toronto had the largest community with 6,260 people, followed by Thunder Bay (2,090), Montreal (2,015), Vancouver (1,840), Windsor (1,510), St Catharines-Niagara (1,320), Hamilton (1,315), and Ottawa-Hull (1,005). Thus, it is clear that, even though Slovaks can be found throughout the country, they are concentrated in central Canada.