A Leap of Faith

(The Voyage to the New World)

The dream of freedom and a better life that had given the Ukrainians the strength to survive through centuries of oppression now led many of them to Canada. These primarily poor, peasant farmers were just what the young Dominion of Canada needed to open up the vast, underpopulated lands of the west. The Ukrainians were industrious, they knew how to farm and they were used to hardship. The Ukrainians sold their land, their homes, and everything but their essential belongings to raise the fare for the voyage to Canada. With tears in their eyes, they kissed their relatives and friends goodbye and cast a last, nostalgic glance at their villages in their beloved Ukraine. Then they embarked on the long journey to the New World.

For the first leg of the trip, the Ukrainian immigrants boarded noisy, gloomy and crowded little railway cars. Although some of the immigrants were lucky enough to get a seat on the narrow benches that ran along both sides of the railway cars, most of them had to sit on their baggage. The immigrants could embark from a number of different seaports in Western Europe but the majority of them went through the German ports of Hamburg or Bremen. The nine hundred mile trip to these ports took at least two days and meandered through Poland and Austria before entering Germany. Along the way, the immigrants were subjected to medical examinations, means checks and passport inspections. They feared being turned back at any of the check points along the way and they had constantly to be on the watch for unscrupulous rogues trying to cheat them out of their money.

When the immigrants reached the seaports, they could be subject another round of checks. In some places they were crowded into ships like cattle; in other places, they were treated better. During the ocean crossing, which could last from one to three weeks, the immigrants were lodged in the steerage compartment located below decks. They stayed on bunkbeds in the hot, crowded and noisy compartments. They were often terribly fed and had to ration the drinking water. Their journey became a nightmare when a storm struck. As soon as the ocean became rough and the waves began to splash against the ship, the immigrants were forced below decks. Some of them of course became seasick and threw up. The stench only made matters worse. When disease broke out in these crowded conditions, it was pratically guaranteed that some of the immigrants would perish before the ship reached shore. As one can well imagine, when the Ukrainians finally saw the Canadian shoreline they were overjoyed.

After disembarking in Halifax or Quebec, the immigrants would wait at the immigration building until they could continue their voyage westward in one of the 'Colonist Cars'. The trip was free of charge and the trains in Canada were a vast improvement over the ones the travellers had ridden on in Europe. The railway cars were spacious, had wooden seats that could be converted into beds, heaters, running water, cooking stoves and washrooms. But there were still anxious moments before the immigrants reached the end of their voyage. During the long ride west, many of the immigrants looked out at the wild, rocky bushlands of northern Ontario and wondered if they had been deceived about the New World. Their fears vanished, however, when they eventually arrived in the rapidly growing city of Winnipeg, Gateway to the West.

 Upon arriving in Winnipeg, the immigrant families would be crowded into the immigration building. The women and children would stay there while the men went out to search for land on which to settle. When the men located a homestead, the immigrants were once more on the move. Often they would take a train to the town or village near where they would eventually settle. Then, nearing the end of their exhausting journey, they would crowd into horsedrawn wagons and undertake the last leg of their voyage along dusty bush trails. Finally they arrived at their new homestead.

(The statue shown here, honouring the arrival of the Ukrainian immigrants, is located in the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Museum near Edmonton, Alberta.)

The whole trip took about three weeks and cost about $100. per person if no hardships were encountered. Many of the Ukrainians who set out never finished their voyage however. As a result of the many hardships on the voyage there were many deaths, especially of children. The lack of proper food and the living conditions during the voyage left the children open to disease. In one of the worst incidents, one group of Ukrainian immigrants lost fifty-five children on the last leg of the journey. The Ukrainians contributed their share of blood to settling the land.

But the hardships were not over when the Ukrainian immmigrants finally arrived at their new homestead. It would take a few years of hard work before they would be physically comfortable in the New World. In the meantime, they had no material possessions beyond a quarter section of rough land and the few belongings they had brought from the Old Country. They had no comforts except the companionship of their neighbours. And they had only their dreams to give them the strength to carry on.

Copyright 1999, David Nemirovsky.