Like the Icelanders before them, the Ukrainians were attracted to Brazil. There was free passage, lots of land but conditions, it turned out, were very bad. In Reflections and Reminiscences, Michael Ewanchuk reports that in 1895, Indians attacked Ukrainian settlers. A woman and four children were killed. Dr. Oleskow says “People die there like flies. As it appears, the climate for our people is deadly.” A priest reports that also in 1895 more settlers are killed by the local natives.”
It is reports like these that turn some Ukrainians away from Brazil and toward Canada.
The Ukrainian settlers who decided to come to Canada were fortunate for they had emigration agents to advise them about what they would need. They were told to take tools for building wooden houses. They only brought the metal parts of the tools. There was lots of wood and the wooden parts could be made. The women were advised to bring vegetable seeds. When they arrived on their isolated sections of land, they could clear a plot, till it and plant right away.
In Hardships & Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers, by Peter Humeniuk, there is a list of what went into a settler’s trunk.
“In the very bottom of the trunk they placed their winter clothes, bed sheets and blankets. On top of the trunk went carpentry tools: an axe, hatchet, draw knife, spade, hammers, planes, framed handsaws, bits, chisels, 2 sickles, grass-scythe, hoes, sieve, garden rake and other tools without handles, including the shorter stick and leathers of a flail….on top about twenty-five little cloth bundles of various garden seeds, onions, garlic, horse-radish and dried corn cobs…. four books were placed near the top. They were: a prayer book, History of Ukraine, a school primer, and Short Bible Stories….Mother tied some utensils and food in a cloth bundle.”
Once in Canada, the Ukrainians go through the same emotional and mental struggles as the Icelanders have gone through before them. A priest comes to see the settlers in the Dauphin area and he “wanted the people to assimilate” but “he exhorted them to maintain their culture, language and traditions. But, he encouraged them to learn English.” Already, assimilation has begun. The Icelanders had gone through this twenty years before with some wanting to assimilate and become part of the larger society while others wanted to create an exclusive Icelandic community. That argument, in spite of five generations in Canada, in spite of all the assimilation, still goes on.
The Ukrainians, too, wanted to live in a home of the gods. They wanted good land, good crops, good opportunities for themselves and their children. Their disillusionment, like that of the Icelanders, comes quickly.
Harvey, the immigration agent came to the Immigration Hall in East Selkirk. To the people who want to go to Gimli, he said “There is no future there: neither you nor your children will eat bread from that soil. That is poor land, wet and mosquito infested.” When people insist, he adds, “All right, go! You will break your necks there.”
They go to Gimli on Kristjanson’s boat and with that they have their first experience with Icelanders. The interaction has begun. Two different languages, two different cultures, two different religions, two different histories but the Kristianson brothers end up marrying two sisters from among the new immigrants. The dreams of a New Iceland, a new Ukraine, and separate cultures, have already begun to crumble around the edges.
The seeds that are carried in the immigrants’ trunks serve the people well. One settler says, ‘There were beets, carrots, peas, beans, onions, garlic, dill, cucumbers, cabbage, turnips, potatoes and corn…She (mother) had planted enough to last the family until the following spring.”
However, it is not just the knowledge and skill of growing vegetables that the Ukrainian settlers bring with them. First, like the Icelandic settlers before them, they have to feed themselves. The Icelanders fished to feed themselves but once they became expert enough to create a surplus, they then sold what they didn’t need. The same was to become true for the Ukrainians but it was their garden produce they sold.
Even though many of the Ukrainian settlers had been peasants, they owned a few morgans of land in Urkaine and, like the share croppers in Iceland, were able to sell both land and animals. The Icelanders had come from the poorest country in Europe. One report says they had an average of seven dollars a person and had so few resources that they had to get financial assistance from the federal government to relocate within Canada to New Iceland. Many of the Ukrainians, on the other hand, brought money with them into the Gimli district. Nicholas Marcina took up a farm eight miles south of Gimli in 1897. He bought a cow for $20.00, a plough for $15.00, $3.75 for a harrow, a wagon for $36.00. Nicholas Krysansky says his father paid $55.00 for a yoke of young oxen and $35.00 for a cow, $12.00 for a plow and $30.00 for a sleigh. That was cash going into a local area that was constantly short of money.
The Icelanders got their land for ten dollars. Many of the Ukrainians had to purchase land and some paid as high as $`1200.00.
Once the Ukrainians had shelter, the problem was to start to make money to pay off debts (many borrowed money to pay the high fare from Ukraine to Gimli. One family paid $700.00 for their fare. There was no subsidy.) They needed, as quickly as possible, to buy one or two oxen and a sleigh. This was important because New Iceland became a cordwood economy. The first major way of making money was to cut and sell cordwood. Houses were heated with wood so the demand for wood was high.
Stefan Yendyk says, “we started to haul cordwood to Winnipeg Beach. One had to get up during the night and feed the oxen, then start out early in the morning so that by sunrise one would be by the Ewanchuk farm….My early Canadian winters saw me in the bush, cutting cordwood or hauling the wood 22 miles to Winnipeg Beach.”
Later, when the railway tracks were extended, the farmers delivered wood to Gimli. In 1907, 95,000 cords of wood were sold in Winnipeg. The demand seemed insatiable. Even in summer, wood was needed for wood stoves.
However, cordwood alone wouldn’t pay for a farm. The men went away to work, often on the railway, or, to farms that were already established. Everyone had to work. Single women, young girls, usually, often walked to Winnipeg to find jobs.
On the farms, the wives dug Seneca root because it could be traded for goods at the local stores in Gimli. They also took eggs and vegetables to town in season.
Prices were low for farm goods but then, with the beginning of WWI, there was a demand for everything the farmers could produce. Eggs sold for 60c a dozen, butter for 60c a pound. Once the railway came as far as Gimli, campers (summer cottagers drawn to the village of Gimli because of its beaches) created a demand for fresh produce and wild berries. The Ukrainian farm families also sold cream, milk and poultry. The Icelandic fishermen, in the meantime, were selling the same people, fresh fish, particularly pickerel fillets.
In 1902 Gimli was still exclusively Icelandic, or close to it. I know that there were other nationalities represented because my Icelandic grandmother Fredrikka Gostskalksdottir and her English husband from Fort Garry had moved to Gimli and he had become a fisherman. However, it is not until 1904 that Wasyl Ewanchuk built the first Ukrainian house in the village.
The Ukrainians build houses, clear land, plant crops, use all the knowledge and skills they have, but drainage is a serious problem, getting goods to market , whether to Gimli, Winnipeg Beach or Winnipeg, is an arduous task.
Harvey, the immigration agent, turned out to be right. There was better soil elsewhere. Gradually, families began to leave, abandoning the farms they’d worked so hard to establish, or, if they were lucky, selling them to newcomers.
Some of the Ukrainian farmers who left for other areas were able to sell their farms that they had created out of the bush. After 12 years of clearing land, pulling stumps, collecting rock, building houses and barns, making fences, the farmers got from $561.00 to $900.00. Others took over with dreams of making the land profitable.
The dreams of the two immigrant groups, to live in the home of the gods, a place where they would propser, where the land would provide plenty, instead, were defeated by marginal and sub-marginal and, by problems with drainage, with a lack of roads. Those who hung on had a hard struggle ahead of them. When George Johnson (later Minister of Health in the provincial government, then Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba) came to Gimli to practice medicine, he discovered, in the Interlake, the second poorest area of Canada. Only Newfoundland was poorer. Conditions were such that he went into politics to try to find a remedy for the poverty.
However, both the Icelanders and the Ukrainians managed to create a life for themselves better than that which they left. The Icelanders, often little more than indentured servants, the Ukrainians, serfs, became their own masters. Their children and their grandchildren went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, businessmen. Most of these children left both the fishing and farming to seek success in urban areas. The opportunities that the original settlers from both groups had sought for their children did exist. No one said it would be easy.
The land in the Gimli area, Michael Ewanchuk describes as spruce, swamp and stone. For those who have lived in and around Gimli, the rock piles at the sides of farm fields have been a familiar sight. The stone boat was a vehicle of pain as every year, farmers and their families followed it over the fields, collecting the rocks that had surfaced during the spring. Although there were good strips of land, much of it was marginal, some of it good for nothing but pasture.
Lake Winnipeg provided bounty to the fishermen, most of whom were Icelandic but there were good seasons and bad seasons. The lake also took many lives. There is a cost to everything.
Today, a Gimli banquet is not complete without perogis and hollopchi, ham, kubysa. It often ends with vinarterta, skyr with strawberries, and ponnokokur. They say we are what we eat and from the smorgasbord table, it would appear we’re a little bit of both, if not in blood, then in dreams, history and experience.
(Facts, figures and quotes from the books of Michael Ewanchuk, Spruce, Swamp and Stone; Pioneer Profiles; Reflections and Reminiscences; Peter Humeniuk’s, Hardships&Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers. For anyone interested in the Ukrainian emigration to Western Canada, these are good places to start. For the Icelandic experience, W. Kristjanson’s, The Icelandic People In Manitoba; W. Lindal’s, The Saskatchewan Icelanders. There is a lot of material on-line. Most of it is personal reminiscence and carries with it the expected biases but is still valuable.)