It was in 1948 that I became a modest refugee with a pregnant wife and 18 month old child seeking a better way of life in Canada. It’s true our small family hadn’t been forced to trek endless barren roads, find primitive shelter in wretched holding camps and wait, wait, wait for a selection committee to decide whether we were fit enough in health and capable enough in occupational skills to join the Canadian family.
It is also true that for me and mine and the hundreds of other citizens from the UK, and just about every country in Europe, it wasn’t an easy ride. And the country we came to love for the many opportunities it eventually brought our way was not at its warm-hearted, welcoming best in the summer of 1948.
We didn’t just walk into a travel agency, book steamship tickets and sally forth first across the Atlantic and then proceed by train from Atlantic to Pacific. We faced interviews, passed rigorous medical exams, revealed our financial assets. There was a maximum on how much money we could take out of the country. I forget now what that maximum was but that wasn’t a problem for us. We barely made the minimum but we did – and never regretted the gamble.
Never regretted the decision, but confess to having doubts from time to time and wondering why on earth we had left the old familiar places, old customs and comfortable and extensive friendships. Although we sailed on what had once been a luxury liner our cabins on the Aquitania were below the waterline. Only the dazzling array of food in the dining room spoke of former opulence and brought a touch of magic to the hundreds on board who had lived on severe food rations for years prior to boarding ship.
The Canadian Pacific train trekking through endless forests, vast prairies and eventually the incredible, mountains streams and rivers, was a vintage immigrant train. Hot, stuffy, dirty because even on a hot June day windows had to remain shut to keep flying ash and cinders out of your hair, eyes – and food.
It was when we rolled through Hope and into the Fraser River Valley that we had serious doubts about the joy of immigration. We had read the Valley was rich farmland and beautiful to the eye. And it was – but not in June 1948 when the Valley was making history with its river flushing to its highest ever flood level – higher than the great flood of 1894.
Back as we were finishing our ocean voyage the Fraser River was rising fast, but not thought to be “dangerous.” On May 28 the Semiault Creek Dyke was breached. The following day dykes near Cottonwood Corners gave way flooding 49 square kilometers. On June 1 the Cannor Dyke cracked with the resulting flood devastating the Glendale area.
On June 10 the Fraser reached its peak registering 7.6 metres at Mission. It had breached more than a dozen large and small dyking systems, flooded more than 22,000 hectares of rich farmland – a third of the flood plain – cut the Trans-Canada Highway and brought to a halt all traffic on Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways,
A few days later we were assured our Immigrant train was first to roll into Vancouver “since the flood – but the track has been inspected and is safe.” It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, when we wondered if we had been brave to search for a better life – or stupid.
No bands or banners greeted us. No instant health care. No accommodation, not even of the temporary kind. And, strange though it may sound in this age of entitlement, nothing was expected. We had help in finding a place to rent; paid cash for my wife’s confinement and the birth of our second son in August. Within two days of arriving I earned my first Canadian dollars as a casual “swamper” before I knew what a “swamper” was and within a week was a deckhand for Island Tug and Barge. The lone crew member on a garbage scow towed off Ogden Point to dump Victoria’s garbage.
Had a few insults in the early goings about my English accent and place of birth. Some lonely times, some sad ones and more than a few when finding a dime was like finding a treasure chest. It wasn’t easy being an immigrant in the 1940’s and it will be far from easy for the next wave to reach Canada speaking only limited English or French.
All they have to do is remember that the immigrants who came this way before I headed west had it a helluva lot tougher. It’s a thought that kept me going whenever I felt hard done by.