My Canada: Rough waters on the journey

The author’s grandmother’s travel papers to Canada in 1925 accompanied her son Theodore. Photo: Chris Moorehead.

If you’ve read my previous post, A nation molded by immigrants, you’ll know my grandfather Steven Woznuk came to Canada before the First World War from Ukraine and was a foundry worker from then until his retirement.

In Ukraine, he had married Annie when she was 18 and he was 16. She had been born to a better family than him in a society highly conscious of class and status. However, her parents died young and her older brother had taken over the family home and lands; his wife decided that young Annie should now live in the servants’ quarters, in the house where she had been raised. My grandparents never spoke much of this time but I’ve always surmised she was looking for any way possible out of that house.

When Steven left for Canada, Annie was pregnant and they agreed she would follow later. Except there was a world war (1914–1918), a revolution in Russia (1917), a civil war (1918–1922), and the absorption of Ukraine into the Soviet Union. I do not know where or how my grandmother lived through those years, raising a son on her own, although my grandfather was able to send her financial support.

At one point, the boss at the foundry heard that one of his workers had a son and wife stranded in Ukraine. That boss was friends with the local Member of Parliament, who represented the area in Canada’s national federal government. These Anglo men had far more sense of agency than did my immigrant grandfather: They advocated for him with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and, in April 1925, Annie and son Theodore, now 12, got their papers and set sail from Riga, Latvia, for Canada.

Whether Annie was a dour person by nature, or was made that way by the challenges of her young life, she was often the thundercloud to my grandpa’s sunshine. Some people are polished by adversity, while others are scratched by by it.

What must it have been like for Annie and Steve to see each other for the first time in a dozen years, and for a man to meet his son, nearly grown?

A formal portrait of Mary Woznuk (the author’s mother), the child in front, and her family. From left: brother Theodore, father Steven and mother Anne.

This picture is likely three years after that time — my mother Mary, the little girl in front, was conceived shortly after Annie arrived in Canada.

There were no English as a Second Language classes back then or any supports to help immigrants integrate. Theodore, usually called Ted, started school in Grade 1 with the little children. When he learned enough English to handle Grade 1 work, he was moved to Grade 2, and so on, until he eventually caught up with his peers.

Theodore grew to manhood and also went to work at the foundry. He, like many others in that era, contracted tuberculosis, which in the 19th century was the leading cause of death in Canada. He was sent to the Freeport Sanatorium in Waterloo County, one of many such isolated hospitals in Canada where TB patients underwent a regimen of fresh air and exercise. He was supposed to be recovering well but, one day, he died. My mom was 10.

Ted had a sweetheart, Louella, with whom my mother kept in touch for many years. I remembering visiting Louella when I was little: by then she was blind and by feel would braid strips of fabric, destined for braided rugs. Louella never married. She might have become the mother to the cousins I never had.

Stories of families separated by war, working to unite in Canada, have a special resonance for me but I know the joy of getting to Canada is no guarantee against the ordinary, terrible sorrows a family may endure.

During 2017, Kelley Teahen is publishing 150 reflections on “My Canada” on her website Teahen Tales. Check out the site for more tales.

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