Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/8/2016 (2095 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Many years ago, the North End had started to become a multicultural community. The neighbourhood was, for many immigrants, a place of opportunities and a place for better living.
The stories of how these people integrated into the community and Canadian culture are featured in two books by compiler Don Mulcahy, who immigrated to Canada in 1955 from Wales. Coming Here, Being Here: A Migration Anthology and A Second Coming: Canadian Migration Fiction are based on immigrants’ lives across Canada and their struggles in leaving everything and everyone behind and adapting to a new culture, language and customs.
After Mulcahy’s mother-in-law died and he and his wife when through her belongings, they found letters from a friend of hers. It occurred to him, that with Canada having such a large immigrant population over its history, there would be other stories of people’s journeys here.
"We should have a natural curiosity about our origins and either as immigrants or the descendents of them, we need to know and remember not only who we are but also where we are from and perhaps who we were previously," he said.
"To immigrate is to embark in a new life, and maybe a new identity. Nothing would be sadder than a Canadian who’d lost all contact with their geographic and ethnic origin."
Mulcahy gathered stories from writers and non-writers throughout the country, including from Winnipeg.
North Enders Libby Simon and Ron Romanowski wrote about the trajectory of their immigrant families. One generation apart, Simon’s North End was much different than Romanowski’s.
In the early 20th century, Winnipeg received a high number of Eastern European immigrants who were escaping from persecution and conflicts.
Most immigrants settled in the North End to work in the rail yards that encircled the neighbourhood and other industries that urgently needed people participating in the city’s development.
"CPR provided a lot of jobs because they weren’t as automated as they are now. So everything had to be done physically," Romanowski said. "This was (great) for people because it was a steady job and then it became unionized so you had some rights, you had a pension, things that you never had before.
"It was cheaper to have the guys than having derailments."
Simon’s family came to Winnipeg in 1928, just before the Great Depression.
Her story in Coming Here, Being Here: A Migration Anthology is entitled The North End where she tells the story of her family’s arrival in Winnipeg with other immigrants settling in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.
Her father, mother and two older brothers moved from Poland and settled in the North End where her father worked as a Hebrew teacher. Simon, the youngest of five, experienced things her parents didn’t expect to experience in Canada, such as anti-Semitism.
At that time, the North End was a blue-collar community made up of Polish, Mennonite, Ukrainian and Jewish immigrants. Each group kept to itself because they were all lost, Simon said, and most suffered from racism and segregation.
"Everybody brought things from Europe to Canada," Simon said.
She said anti-Semitism was one of the things some immigrants brought over with them.
"I didn’t know why they were doing that to us, but I knew it wasn’t friendly. One day, some kids hit my brother, and that’s when we were transferred to Aberdeen School."
The changes in the immigrants’ lives weren’t easy, and they came across unexpected challenges. However, they never looked back, Simon said. She recalled the time she went to the grocery store and her mother asking for credit because they didn’t have enough money to pay for food.
"It was a better life indeed," she said of living in Winnipeg. "The life in Russia or Poland, they were almost Communists. The Bolsheviks prosecuted and hurt people. My dad had to escape from them."
So whatever happened there compared to what happened here, while it was difficult, they didn’t have the same horrors they had there."
After fighting for the Polish Corps in the Second World War, when the war was over, Romanowski’s father had the choice of coming to Canada because the Russian government didn’t want soldiers fighting against communism. So in 1946 he moved to Winnipeg and started working as a salesperson.
Romanowski said most immigrants’ hopes were to have freedom. Persecution and oppressive governments led many people to look for a better place to live — a place where they could grow financially, professionally and that would provide their children with better opportunities.
"My father was a businessman, and with communism taking over Poland he wasn’t going to be able to have his own business," Romanowski said.
"We had a liberal democracy…things were more possible here. I remember my dad saying ‘Oh we have a Bill of Rights here.’ To him, things felt more arbitrary in Europe."
Romanowski’s story, inspired by his family, is about a poet who comes to Winnipeg to learn English and how she and her family dealt with the dissolution of her roots and language while trying to fit in Canada.
The North End was then, and continues to be, a multicultural part of Winnipeg. Simon and Romanowski said people would have friends from all kinds of backgrounds, joined by a common language, English, and joy in discovering a new country.
Gradually the different communities started to intermarry, building the diverse neighbourhood that it is today and a feeling of pride for the North End.
"The different groups learned to tolerate each other 50 years ago, but it’s a different community now," Simon said.
"You can’t cut the umbilical cord from the North End. Everyone moved south, but I can’t."
The books celebrate the diverse country Canada is, and the various cultures that populated provinces and built an inclusive and respectful culture. Winnipeg has been part of that process as well.
Both writers want to show people that while the North End has long battled a negative reputation, many active people contribute to the well-being of the community. Individuals who were born and raised in the neighbourhood are working together toward a stronger and more united place where people can feel welcomed and happy.
Simon and Romanowski will be at McNally Robinson (1120 Grant Ave.) for a dual book launch on Fri., Sept. 23 at 7 p.m to speak about this 10-year project and read from their stories. The books will be distributed in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Community journalist — The Times
Ligia Braidotti was the community journalist for The Times until 2019.