European Immigrants at GWG in the Post War Era
by Catherine C. Cole
After World War II Canada began to allow more immigrants into the country in 1947. Between 1947 and 1952, almost 250,000 displaced persons came to Canada from refugee camps in Europe, many of them to Alberta. Germans were not allowed into the country until five years after the end of the war. Because of China's support against Japan during the war, and because of the accomplishments of Chinese Canadian volunteers during this period, Chinese immigrants were allowed into the country for the first time since 1923. The Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1947. Smaller numbers of immigrants came from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
Hungary fell under Communist rule after the war and in 1956-1957, a massive uprising tried to drive Soviet troops from Hungary; over 2,500 Hungarians were killed and another 250,000 fled the country. Of these, 37,500 found their way to Canada: 3,000 of these came to Edmonton and Calgary. A decade later, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, another wave of people from Prague, immigrated to Canada.
Between 1946 and 1961, Edmonton's population more than doubled, from 113,116 to 281,000. In 1962, Canada eliminated legislated racial discrimination, and any unsponsored people who had the necessary qualifications could be considered for immigration.
Unlike earlier immigrants to Canada, those who immigrated after the war tended to be well-educated people from urban backgrounds settling primarily in Alberta's cities. They came for political, religious, and economic reasons; many had lost their families, homes, land and jobs during the war. Some immigrants, the Germans and Dutch for example, assimilated quickly so they were less readily identified as immigrants within the workforce at GWG; others, such as the Ukrainians and Poles or Italians and Portuguese, were sometimes perceived as being from the same countries in the minds of their co-workers.
The workforce at GWG became increasingly culturally diverse. As well as the European immigrants, there was an influx of people from the rural areas around Edmonton into the city. There were few opportunities for employment, marriage and personal growth, for children in large farm families, and little education available to them in small towns. Born in Myrnam in 1930, Mary Romanuk was one of fifteen children of Polish/Ukrainian immigrants; she moved to Edmonton after she married in 1951. "No money, and so only jobs that were available was GWG for inexperienced, twenty-one-year-old girl with no education, except [grade] twelve—didn't mean anything, even in those days. So GWG was the only job I could get..." Annie Baranyk (now Broad) was born in Calgary, raised on a farm near Elk Point, and moved to the city in 1952; she began working at GWG in 1954. She spoke good English, had taken correspondence studies, and become president of the union.
Memories of Working in the Plant
Supervisor Mary Romanuk remembers how hard-working the immigrant women were: "Italians, Portuguese, Hungarians, where they also had hard life, and they would try and get every cent they could. So a lot of them would want to work through the lunch hour if they could, just to make extra money, whereas you get paid by the piece. And of course the union would say, 'no, you've to stop at 12:00.'" The European workers were so appreciative of the work that, Romanuk remembers, GWG management had to stop them from giving the supervisors Christmas presents. "Here these people are working hard, and they want to maybe gain favours or whatever. They present me with statues, with gifts of clothing and oh, all kinds of gifts, glassware, ornaments, all kinds of things that... toasters. I had a griddle, a waffle iron, all kinds of presents, because they were so appreciative to have a job, and to work, and to be able to work, and, and be appreciated. So they were very well liked and they did a good job, and European people worked harder, I think sometimes, I'm sorry to say, than Canadians because we had easier life here. Some."
Eileen Hatch, a Canadian-born woman who worked in the office from 1952 to 1958, said that there were no immigrant women working in the office but that the factory was, "Little Germany and Little Italy, whoever happened to be the head supervisor."
Eileen Yeandle, who was the nurse at the plant from 1956-1984, said that when she started, "the employees at the time were mostly German, Ukrainian and some Italian. Then, during the time that I was there, there was this bad uprising in Hungary, and we had a lot of applicants from Hungary at that time." As plant nurse, initially she was also responsible for hiring operators. She said that the immigrant women would come to the plant with a relative or someone from their church to translate for them during the hiring interview. She performed a vision test and filled out a medical questionnaire, asking the women about their previous work experience and family situation.
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Elizabeth Kozma describes the difficulties of leaving Hungary for Edmonton (2:00)
Although many Hungarian immigrants came from professional backgrounds, they often had to work as labourers, Elizabeth Kozma, her husband and two small children, among them. They left Hungary in December 1956, and went to the Canadian Embassy in Austria to ask to come to Canada where her husband had family. They felt "very lucky" to be allowed to come to Canada. They arrived in Halifax in January 1957, and took the train to Edmonton where they were met by Kozma's husband's relatives, one of whom recommended that she approach GWG because "lots of people come to work there ... who didn't speak the language." She had been to technical school in Hungary and worked in time engineering in a sewing factory in Hungary, but at GWG she began as an operator, top-stitching pockets and attaching waistbands.
Eventually she became a supervisor and grew to appreciate her work at GWG and later Levi Strauss, but in the beginning she stayed because "I had to stay there, I have two children ... we need the money you know." She said that a number of Hungarian workers came to work at the plant but most did not stay for very long. As Kozma put it, "Well not every, everybody like hard work." Those that did stay were worried about their relatives in Hungary, and supported one another through a difficult time.
Canadian-born Janet Cardinal remembers that when she began working at the plant in 1962, "it was mostly European women, very few people [at GWG] spoke English in those days." She remembers sitting by herself in the cafeteria, "But eventually after you worked there for a week, people would come over and see that you weren't sitting with the Italians, or you weren't sitting with the German people or Portuguese or whatever nationalities there were there, but you were kind of sitting by yourself. You weren't talking with anybody. 'Oh, do you speak English?' and then they would come sit at our table."
Of the immigrants, Cardinal said, "...they all lived with three or four families, lived in a big house, and as the women had their babies, they'd stay home for a year, and then whoever else was in the house by that time was having another baby, so they always continually just kept working and working you know, changing jobs type thing in their home life so that they could come back to work. And then, when they all saved up enough money they'd buy a house and then the woman got to quit working."
When Italian-born Assunta Dotto returned to GWG in 1965-1966, she said, "not many Canadian-born women worked there. There was a lot of Italians, as well as Chinese, Vietnamese and Polish women. Like myself twenty years before, all were feeling very fortunate to have the opportunity to improve their lives by having employment."
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Hana Razga describes her culture shock after leaving Czechoslovakia (1:43)
Hana Razga and her fiancé came to Edmonton from Prague in December 1968. The Canadian government helped them initially; they stayed in the old King Edward Hotel until they found a place to live, and she was sent to work at GWG within a week or so of her arrival. There were a number of Czechs working at GWG at the time but, like the Hungarian workers had done a decade earlier, most did not stay very long. Razga quit when her training period ended and she began to be paid piecework, rather than hourly wages. she said, "I felt it was like a Babylon. Number of languages. ... I felt that all of the immigrant women were sent out there. And I think it was probably because it was such a high turnover... of the Czech people that I knew that were there, none of them stayed very long because there was some people who, who had fairly high education you know, highly educated people and the only reason they were there [was] because they didn't speak English so what do you, what do you do? So they sent them over them there."
Guiseppina Tagliente came to Edmonton from Italy in 1970. She began working at GWG in 1980 after her children were in school. She had worked at a law office in Italy and did not think at first that she would be able to adjust to the plant, but gradually she began to enjoy working there. She started in the packing room but moved around to wherever she was needed, working on loops, labels, rivets, buttons, buttonholes and snaps. Tagliente was told that there had been a lot of Italians at the plant in the 1960s, but believes she was the last to be hired.