July 1st2010 is a special day. Yes, it’s Canada Day, and special in its own way; but for me, this July 1st represents much more. July 1st, 1960 –Dominion Day as it was then called –was the day I entered Canada as a landed immigrant. It happened aboard the Cunard Line’s Carinthia, for anchor in the Saint Lawrence River, outside Quebec City.
Canadian Immigration officials came onboard to process the passengers. Afterwards, without docking there, we went on to Montreal, whence we arrived in the late evening after dark. The “redcaps” took our luggage to the trains, and in a few hours, I was on a CPR train bound for Vancouver, having barely caught a glimpse of Montreal’s lights in the dark. I was off to Regina, Saskatchewan, where I had relatives who would put me up for a while, until I got a job. My plan was to stay a year, maybe two. My original plan was to carry on to Prince George, B.C. where a relative worked in the forestry there.
By morning we were entering Manitoba and soon we were rolling along the prairie. I watched the immense plains of golden wheat stretching out before me, with those narrow, tall buildings in silhouette against the sky. I struck up a halting conversation with an old Saskatchewan farmer and his son, returning from a trip “down east”. I asked what those tall buildings were. “Grain elevators”, the old man replied. I was puzzled. I knew what an elevator was – it was the same word in my native tongue –but there the elevators ferried people up and down between floors. What grain was doing in an elevator I could not comprehend, but asked no more about it, lest I seem stupid. I bought a “pocket book” to read, but with my rudimentary English I didn’t get past the title page.
It was evening and dark when I arrived at the Regina railway station, or South Railway as it was called then. I found a telephone, and attempted to call my relatives. I had this strange number, which began with LA (Lakeside) and then five numbers. The telephones had both letters and numbers on the dial, which puzzled me. After some study, I managed to dial the number, and it rang, but there was no answer. At that time, there was a central telephone switchboard in the station, with an operator, and I asked her for help. Somehow she got the neighbour’s telephone number and called them. The neighbor gave her the number of another relative, and she called them for me. “Here is a young fellow from Norway looking for you,” she said. They soon were there to pick me up, and the evening had a happy ending. I had never met them before, of course, but when they spoke to me in my Norwegian dialect, I felt I was at home.
Some times in your life someone does something nice that stays in your memory forever. I am sure the lady at the railway station thought it just another incident in her life of service, but to me, she was an angel. I was in a strange country, speaking little English and feeling lost and alone. I never forgot her kindness.
The old railway station is now a casino.
I did not go to Prince George. I have been in beautiful British Columbia many times, but never in Prince George. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been, had I gone with my relative Malvin to in the forestry industry. My relatives in Regina, his sisters, would not let me go. “You are not going to live with Malvin in the bush” they said, “he lives in a shack and eats from tin cans!” So I stayed.
I went to the relatives’ farm in Gouldtown to see my farming-relatives there. Their mother still lived on the farm with her son, Chris, who had taken over the farm. It was in mid-July, a warm and clear evening, that I saw the farm for the first time, bathed in the moonlight. The open prairie stretched as far as the eye could see, with just a few hills breaking the monotony. The distances between neighbours were incredible. You could see the lights from the homes dotted across the landscape, like ships on an ocean, kilometers apart. Malvin, who was driving, stopped the car and pointed to a hilly part of the rolling prairie, and there, in silhouette, was a lone coyote. What a contrast to the compact towns of mountainous western Norway, where I grew up.
I was surprised at the lowly living standards on the prairie. Their homes were plain and utilitarian. My cousin, Chris, lived in the house his father built when he homesteaded in 1915. It was, essentially, a rectangular box. At one end was the door leading into a small foyer, then another door to the kitchen, which contained a coal stove, a sink, a long-table and bench. A door led into the main room, which was a combination living and sleeping room—beds were lining the far wall and sides in a u-shape, with curtains that could be drawn around each bed. The beds served as “sofas” during the day. At the other end stood a potbelly oil-fired stove, and as of recently, a TV. The furnishings were drab and Spartan, with overtones of gray. In this environment, the parents worked from sunup to sundown, raised seven children, and raised them well. The mother was still living, and she was as content and happy as if she was the queen in a castle. She was never happier than when her children with their families visited her on the farm. I once went with the three sisters and their families from Regina ─there were ten adults, plus eight children and me, all sleeping in the one room. The three older boys and I slept in one bed, two by two at each end, feet to the middle, just like the Vikings used to sleep in their long houses.
I stayed a couple of weeks at my relatives in Gouldtown. The community had a party-line telephone system, so everyone could hear the other’s conversations and for whom the call was by the number and length of the rings, or “ring-downs” When the phone rang, and it was a relative (which included most of the community), they would pick up the ‘phone receiver and listen in for a while. Then, if it were anything of interest, say someone was coming to visit, they would tell the rest of the people in the house. This way, they kept well abreast of the goings on in the community. Sometimes, when too many people would be listening in, it affected the quality of the sound, and the receiving party would ask the neighbours to “get off the line” so he could hear the calling party.
The local newspaper was also quaint. The “news” was primarily about the neighbour’s activities —which were visiting whom, where and when and for how long. Out of town visitors, like me, were front-page news.
Les Solberg, the son of another farmer-relative there, who was about ten at the time, tells me a rather amusing anecdote. The first day I visited them, I asked his mother, Thelma, where the W.C. was (W.C. is an old English term for water closet, meaning toilet). She thought I was asking where British Columbia (B.C.) was, so she answered that it was far away, and I would have to travel through Alberta to get there! Even on the prairies, that’s a long way to go to pee.
After a couple of weeks on the farm, I went to Regina and attended at the “Immigration Office” at the address given to me in Norway. It was a “hole in the wall”, on the second floor ─ a single, small office, with a desk and a bespectacled man behind it, his feet on the desk and a copy of the Regina Leader Post in his hands. “I have come to find a job”, I said, for I was told by the Canadian Consulate in Oslo, Norway that this office would help me. I showed him the papers I had been given in Norway. “You want a job?” he asked, seeming surprised to see me. “ Here”. He spread the newspaper out on the counter, pointing to the “help wanted” page. “ You call these”, he said, “and you can keep the paper”.
With a relatives help, I eventually landed a job as labourer at Interprovincial Steel and Pipe (IPSCO), a “pipe dream” of the Saskatchewan NDP (Tommy Douglas) government that turned out to be a pretty good “dream. Tommy Douglas later had another big “dream” –Medicare. It did not happen without struggle. There was a doctor’s strike, and doctors were brought in from Britain and other places. Eventually the doctors association accepted defeat, and in no time were happy as larks with the new arrangement; now they did not have to chase patients for their money, and realized that their incomes were in fact enhanced when the province paid their bills. A funny cartoon ran in the Regina paper at the time, showing a “witch doctor” applying for a job at the hospital.
IPSCO (Inter-provincial Steel and Pipe) has an interesting history. In the late fifties, someone had the bright idea to start a “mini-mill”, before mini-mills were common, in the middle of the prairie. The nay-sayers, of course, said it couldn’t be done. However, the promoters (and the government) knew that the farmers had a lot of old, worn-out cars, tractors, and other farm equipment, all good scrap steel, lying around the farm yards, and they would go around to the farms and buy this scrap very, very cheaply ─the farmers were happy to get rid of the junk. It was a brilliant idea, and it worked ─eventually. However, the mill had real problems the first couple of years with producing quality steel. For some reason, the steel plate would be pitted, and they had us sitting with air grinders for hours grinding to smooth the pits away. This, of course, degraded the steel, and reduced the prices they could charge.
They eventually brought in a fellow from Texas, by the name of O’Connor, who discovered where the problem lay: they were heating the steel ingots too quickly, causing small air bubbles to form inside the ingots. This would cause blisters, or pits, when they rolled the ingots into steel plate. Once they fixed these problems, they were, literally, on a roll.
I had just bought my first car, a 1952 Mercury Meteor. It cost me four hundred dollars. Once, I was proudly driving my movie-date home, and had trouble finding Third Avenue (in Regina, the avenues are numbered). “I can’t find Turd Avenue”, I told her. She began to giggle and laugh. “Which avenue”, she said, laughingly. “Turd avenue”, I replied, somewhat nonplussed. This scenario was repeated a few times, I would say Turd Ave, and she would break out in laughter. I became rather frustrated. “ What’s so funny? ” I asked. “ Do you know what you are saying?” she inquired. “You are saying Shit Avenue!”
My English improved, but the Saskatchewan winters did not. I also missed the mountains, the water and the trees; and fresh fish. Fish, I was told, is something Catholics eat on Friday. I did not want to return to Norway without making my fortune, and having a car was just too much fun. Besides, maintaining a car kept me pretty well broke. Well that, and taking girls to the drive -in movies.
I decided to move on, either to British Columbia or to Ontario. Fate again intervened. One of my friend’s mother and her sister were going to Windsor, Ontario to visit their brother there, and they told me that if I was going east, they would hitch a ride and pay my fuel and motel rooms. So it were, that in the summer of 1962, I traveled from Regina, Saskatchewan to Windsor, Ontario, with two “old ladies” as passengers, my belongings in a suitcase and my guitar in the rear window of my 1952 Mercury Meteor.
Windsor was rather depressed, economically, still suffering from Ford Canada’s move to Oakville in the late fifties, so I decided to drive to Toronto, the big city, to try my luck. I arrived after dark, driving along the then two-lane 401 and missing the city all together. I turned back on highway two, or Kingston Road, and somehow ended up on the Gardiner Expressway, again bypassing downtown and turning off at South Kingsway; finally ended up on Queen Street. Tired and hungry I spied a sign saying, “Rooms only $ 3.00 per night”. I turned into their parking lot and registered at the Spadina Hotel; a dump of a place, even then. Such was my entry into the city that was to be, except for a two-year hiatus in North Bay, my home until now.
Over the next few years, I rattled around in various jobs; selling cars and working for an insurance firm; then the CNR, while trying to get an education part-time.
I managed to finish high-school, go to university (while working full time) and have a career in middle and senior management; until I started my own firm which I ran for twenty years, before selling it and retiring. But, that is another story.
Working for the railway gave me some stability and a reasonable income, and in 1965, I qualified for citizenship (you had to wait five years then), and I decided I wanted to partake fully in Canadian society, which included voting in elections. I went to the Citizenship Court on Saint Clair Avenue in Toronto. There were about twenty or thirty of us getting our citizenship that day, and each of us was questioned independently in an office before the ceremony. I was asked to name the three levels of government, and managed without too much difficulty. Then we individually took the oath. However, when I was asked to swear allegiance to Canada and the Queen, I committed a verbal faux pas: I swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth and her hairs (heirs)! I don’t think the Judge even noticed. I have always maintained that I did not swear allegiance to the Queen — just her hairs. After the “ceremony” we were asked if we wanted a Catholic or a Protestant Bible; then given one to take home. I wonder what would happen today if our current crop of immigrants were asked that question (in those days, you were asked to state you religion on job application forms also. How things have changed!).
One experience that awoke my patriotism was the “Great Flag Debate” of 1964-65. The flag issue became highly politicized and polarized. I was rooting for a flag –any flag. I was not anti-British, on the contrary, I had (and have) great admiration and affection for the British and the democratic civilization we inherited from them. However, I could not understand why Canadians, born here, would prefer British hegemony and its colonial symbol, the Union Jack.
I remember the various design proposals and the partisan arguments for and against. The Conservatives and Diefenbaker led the faction against the flag which the Pearson Liberals were trying to introduce; and there was a competition for a design. I recall one design having the Union Jack incorporated, as in the Ontario flag today; another runner-up was a design similar to the present, but with blue bars. The red won out, and as they say, the rest is history.
The emotions of the flag debate have faded over the years; and the flag is now accepted as if it always was our flag. With our own flag, the monarchy was also pushed to the margins; helping to assuage the French-Canadian minority in Quebec, who were just awakening to greater political assertiveness and cultural pride. My sentiments in this area were largely with the Quebecois; though those feelings have moderated in the ensuing years. I don’t see the monarchy as an impediment to Canada’s nationhood. In fact, it might be our bulwark against unwanted American influence; but that early experience, and especially Lester Pearson’s determined fight for the flag, formed my political attitude and cultural beliefs for the future. I don’t think the Liberals walk on water any longer, but Lester B. Pearson is still my hero!
We humans are rather tribal in nature. As a country, we need something in common on which to focus; like a flag. Something our various ethnic groups can embrace together; that is above our narrow sectarianism and provincialism; a mark of our national entity. It takes work and much effort to fuse our many creeds into a nation. The flag is a symbol of unity and an imperative for nation building.
At one time, I was tempted to go to the States; the Norwegian quota was always open under the old quota system, and my American relatives wanted me to come there. But I stayed, and I am glad I did. America is a fine country, and certainly had many opportunities for success (as well as options to fail) for a young man; but Canada is a gentler and kinder place for the average person, and I consider myself fairly average.
It’s a huge country, this Canada, with five different time zones between the east and the west coasts. It also has a great variety of scenery and topography. I have been fortunate to travel, on business and for pleasure, to every major city in Canada. I have also driven across the country, both ways. Every time I travel, I am filled with wonder –the beauty of the eastern provinces, with their lovely seaboard; the European-flavoured, cosmopolitan Quebec; and the Laurentians; sophisticated yet quaint Ontario with its robust large cities; yet home to picturesque villages like Saint Jacobs, Elmira and classy Stratford, just to name a few; the big sky immensity of the prairie provinces; the majesty of British Columbia’s mountains and its beautiful shore lines. Words fail me but my hearth sings.
It reminds me of a story told, about a fellow living in Vancouver, B.C. whose niece was coming from England for a visit. The itinerary was boat from Liverpool to Halifax, thence train across Canada. On departure from England, the father telegraphed: “Daughter leaving today. Please meet her in Halifax”. The brother telegraphed back: “You meet her — you are closer!”
When comparing Canada and the US; I think of my trip through Saint Andrews by the sea in New Brunswick; and Bar Harbour, Maine. Saint Andrews was a sleepy, pristine village; you almost felt embarrassed to speak to loudly lest someone would tell you to be quiet. Bar Harbour, by contrast, was a hustling, bustling and loud place where crab fishermen were flogging their catches; seafood restaurants beacon you hither and thither, and everyone had something to sell you. In some way, it has entered my memory as an example – perhaps unfairly – of the difference between us and our American neighbours.
However, it takes more than scenery and individuals to make a country. It takes all the people, and common goals, to forge a national unity. One way is to support our athletes. Such activities as coming together under the Canadian flag and to cheer on our athletes at the recent Olympic Games in Vancouver help to coalesce Canadian identity and pride. Seeing our athletes winning, or even just do well, enhances our collective self-esteem, cohesiveness and patriotism; a necessary ingredients in building a nation; especially as diverse a nations such as ours. Watching our courageous young people struggle and achieve in these Olympics made my cup overflow with pride. Though I was born and raised in Norway; I found myself cheering when we beat the Norwegians in hockey and in curling. Anything else would be unthinkable. My Norwegian relatives were puzzled that I would not cheer for Norway. I was not cheering and I am not puzzled. The enthusiasm and adulation shown by the Vancouver crowd, and the rest of the country, was emotional and a sight to behold. In Toronto, they had to close Yonge Street to accommodate the revellers. I think I saw an example of “national bonding;” a reflection of a country coming of age. Of course, the Olympic are about more than nationalism; it also enhances internationalism –the brotherhood of nations. When people are competing on the sports-fields, they are not fighting on the battlefields.
Recently, there was a discussion about our national anthem; following the governments suggestion that they might want to make some changes in the lyrics. When a large majority of people spoke up against it, the government retrenched. Various ideas about change surfaced, and some seem quite valid. A few stands out:
1. Make it gender neutral
2. Delete “native” land
3. Delete reference to God
The gender issue does not require much studying. Women constitute half of our society. The “native land” issue is another matter which, frankly, I had not considered before; but as an immigrant myself, it makes perfect sense. Unless, that is, you are referring to the only “native” people here –the Canadian aborigines. God, of course, is a question of belief, and in this cornucopia of races, ethnic and religious groups we call Canada; including “God” might also be divisive; unless you define God to be inclusive of all creeds and beliefs. Not to mention a substantial group of confirmed atheists.
Perhaps we should have a competition (as we had with the flag) to write new lyrics, comprehensive and inclusive of all our citizens.
Much water has run under the bridge since my early days in Canada. I have had success and failures; it’s been two steps ahead and one step back. My failures were my own; my successes, however, were aided by the fertile “soil” of my adopted country. As a foreigner with broken English and limited education, I was never discriminated against; I never felt at a disadvantage. Of course, not all Canadians welcomed me with open arms; and why should they? But, they did not shut me out either. Toronto, then, was not the cosmopolitan, multiracial and multi-cultural city it is today; the largest non-British immigrant group were the Italians; and they did have had their share of ridicule for their lack of English, and their quaint, “old country” habits. But, they overcame and were accepted, and are now amongst the most successful of all immigrant groups. That’s also the story of Canada.
My only incident of what one could today possibly call “discrimination,” was when I first arrived in Toronto. Looking at the help wanted column of the newspaper, I called a firm seeking a “customer service representative.” I hardly knew what the job title meant, and was certainly not qualified; and when I called the number listed, a man answered rather abruptly, saying “you want to be a customer service representative? You cannot even speak the damn language”! I decided right there and then, that I would learn this “damn language” even if it killed me. Well, I did, and it didn’t!
Now, in my twilight years and retired, I have time to reflect and wonder. As I move around this marvelous cosmopolitan city, our Toronto; I absorb, imbibe and delight in this world in microcosm –the the GTA. We are not perfect; we don’t always agree, and we differ in many ways; but in this kaleidoscope of a country; in the end, we are all Canadians.
We are a bit like crayons... Some are sharp, some are pretty and some are dull. Some have weird names, and all are different colours; but they have to live in the same box.
With excerpts from “A Son of A Gun “ –One immigrants story (2006)