My Ukrainian-born grandmother, Mary, who died at age 95, still had difficulty speaking English, even after living in Winnipeg for decades. In her later years, she could understand what I was saying to her whenever I came to visit her at the Holy Family Home near Redwood and Main, but when it came to expressing herself in English, my grandmother continually stumbled in her attempts to come up with the right words. Still, she tried, and my uncle, Gord, was amazed that his mother was even able to string together a few English words in order to hold a conversation with me. Whenever he talked to his mother, Gord spoke in Ukrainian interspersed with the odd English word. It was a novel, but effective, way of communicating.
I was reminded of my grandmother’s difficulty with English when federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that newcomers to Canada would have to show a proficiency in one of the nation’s two official languages before they would be considered as immigrants.
When my grandmother and her husband, Peter, came to Canada in 1925 from Ukraine, they couldn’t speak a word of English. The same was true for my mother’s side of the family. Her grandparents, Monica and Gisli, came from Iceland in 1880s, and neither of them could speak English.
But among the items Gisli brought to his new homestead in Gimli was a printing press, the first in that part of the province. He was a publisher, journalist and author, writing books in the Icelandic language. Later, he would become the reeve of the RM of Gimli, and helped convince the Manitoba government to provide financial assistance to the CPR to build a railroad to the lakeside community. He may not have been able to speak English upon his arrival in Canada, but he eventually became proficient in the language.
If Canada’s proposed new requirements were then in place, my grandparents from Ukraine would have been denied entry into Canada as would my great-grandfather and great-grandmother from Iceland. My parents, Stan and Thorey, from different ethnic backgrounds, would never have met, and my brother, sister and I would never have been born.
But in the old days, Canada welcomed immigrants from a variety of nations, and many of them couldn’t speak a single word of English or French. Within Manitoba, German-speaking Mennonites began settling in the southern portion of the province in 1874. Next to arrive were the Icelanders in 1875, who established communities along the shores of Lake Winnipeg. In 1882, a compassionate government allowed Russian Jews, who were persecuted at home to come to Winnipeg. Beginning in 1896, Interior Minister Clifford Sifton welcomed “peasants in sheep-skin coats” to Western Canada, which allowed Poles and Ukrainians to settle across the prairies.
Of course, they all experienced prejudice, but they persevered and did contribute to the building of a nation.
Manitoba Immigration and Multicultural Minister Christine Melnick related her own immigrant story, during a special meeting at the Manitoba Real Estate Association’s Realty Place on Inkster Boulevard, a story which is eerily similar to my own. She told of her grandparents coming from Ukraine and settling in Winnipeg’s North End.
Melnick was asking REALTORS® to help her save the highly-successful Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) that has been instrumental in attracting over 100,000 new immigrants to Manitoba, many of whom did not speak English or French when they arrived. Manitoba’s PNP does not discriminate against immigrants who cannot speak English when they arrive, but provides English-language instruction immediately upon their coming to the province.
Kenney told the Halifax Chamber of Commerce on April 20 that the language requirement was needed because immigrants, “in the long run, probably are set for failure” if they do not have English language skills upon arriving in Canada.
That statement also set me to wondering. Had my grandmother and grandfather been failures because they didn’t arrive being able to speak English. While my grandmother struggled with English throughout her life, my grandfather became proficient, although he spoke with a bit of a Ukrainian accent. And he became one of Manitoba’s small-business owners, running a general store on St. Mathews Avenue. I can recall being at his side as a small toddler of four years old, hanging onto a pant leg as he served people from over the store’s counter, speaking in English or occasionally in Ukrainian when it was required.
Was he a failure because he came to Canada unable to speak English? Absolutely not! As for their three children — one was a daughter — my uncle and father both served with the Canadian armed forces during the Second World War, and were successful Canadians in their own right.
Among my Icelandic great-grandparents’ children, their one boy, my other grandfather, Peter, served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Europe during the First World War and was wounded at Vimy Ridge, the battle which is said to have instilled in Canadians a sense of nationhood. It took 18 months before he recovered from his wound and was repatriated to Canada. It was after the war in Ashern, Manitoba, that he met my grandmother, Gudrun, who was a recent immigrant from Iceland. Although my grandfather was proficient in English, which is normally the case with second-generation Canadians, she was unable to at first speak English, but later acquired the language. She eventually spoke English extremely well, but with a distinct Icelandic accent.
Kenney told the Halifax group: “Good luck keeping your head above water in this modern marketplace with no English-language skills.” Well, I would counter that when my antecedents came to Canada without English-language skills, they made their own “good luck,” and even though they had settled in a strange land, totally foreign in every possible way for them, they succeeded.
Yesteryear was no different than today’s “modern marketplace” for immigrants, and back then people always found a way to overcome adversity. So why should it be any different today?
Newly-arrived immigrants may initially struggle with one of Canada’s official languages, but their children will have the language skills demanded by Kenney. They will provide the proof that bringing their parents to Canada was not a mistake in the first place. In the process, they will confirm that Canada, which was built by immigrants, will continue to be a welcoming home to the world.