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Title: Canada's Hungarian Communities a Century Ago - The Hungarian Presence in Canada  •  Size: 37617
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Introduction     History     Recollections    



Canada's Hungarian Communities a Century Ago

Nándor Dreisziger



1905 was an important year in the evolution of Canada. It was in that year that the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan came into being; they were carved out from the Northwest Territories that had been administered until then from Ottawa. Although there had not been a similarly dramatic event in the history of Canada's Hungarian community that year, we can say that 1905, or at least the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, also saw important developments in the evolution of this country's Magyar ethnic group. This article will describe the state of Canada's, more precisely of the Canadian West's Hungarian colo­nies a century ago.


The first groups of Hungarian immigrants came to settle in Cana­da in the mid-1880s.  Before then only individual or small parties of Hungarians strayed to Canada's shores. These pre-1880 arrivals were either visitors or were sojourners who did not intend to settle permanently in what before 1763 used to be known as New France, and after that year as British North America.


The Magyar newcomers who came in 1885 and 1886 were direc­ted by Canadian authorities to the newly-opened Canadian West. We should remember that the Canadian Pacific Railway, Canada's first trans-continental transportation link, was completed just at that time. The Hun­garians who came then were originally peasants or agricultural labourers and arrived from the United States where they had gone to work a few years earlier to the coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio. They had been promised that on the Canadian Prairies they could get free land and could return to their original lifestyle of cultivating the soil.


The pioneer farming communities these early Hungarian arrivals founded did not prosper for long. It was only about a decade later, when peasant immigrants began arriving in Canada directly from Hungary's villages, that the first viable Hungarian farming colonies became established in this country. By 1905 a few of them had even begun prospering.


The Dominion of Canada, as Canada became known in 1867 when some of Britain's North American colonies joined in a confederation of their own, was still a young country in 1905. Until that year it consisted of only seven provinces. A mere generation earlier the Canadian West, that vast stretch of land from Lake Superior to the Pacific Coast, had been mostly devoid of population, in particular of agricultural settlers. While the more fertile regions of the prairies had started filling up by the end of the century, urban development was still lagging behind.  At the time of the fourth Canadian population census in 1901, no urban centre between Winnipeg (population 42,340) and Vancouver (population 29,432) was inhabited by over 5,000 people. Edmonton and Calgary came close, Regina had a population of only 2,249, and Saskatoon, a mere 113.


What agricultural population there was on the Canadian Prairies was scattered on isolated homesteads. These were usually situated kilometres from each other. In this world of isolated farmsteads there was a patchwork of "ethnic islands" as immigrants from various parts of Europe (and, to a lesser extent from Eastern Canada and the United States) tried to settle in proximity to each other. The result was the emergence of colonies of European immigrants with distinct ethnic characteristics.  By 1905 there would be districts in which Ukrainian homesteaders predominated, while in others Scandinavians, Germans, French-Canadians, Slo­vaks, Rumanians, just to name a few. By 1905 there were a handful of such Hungarian districts as well, but in comparison with the Ukrainians for example, these were almost negligible in number.


One important reason for the slow development of Hungarian colonies on the Canadian prairies was the fact that Hungarians were rather late in coming to Canada in large numbers. Before 1900 Hungarians who wanted to try their luck in the New World were far more likely to do so in the United States, where economic progress was more robust, or in some of the more prosperous Latin American countries such as Argentina or Brazil. Annual immigration of Hungarians to Canada before 1900, and for a few years even thereafter, amounted to a few hundred newcomers only, as opposed to the thousands or even tens of thousands who were going to the United States.


Precise statistics on this migration are difficult to find partly because of the practice of Canadian authorities to label everyone coming from the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary as an "Austrian," and partly because some of the people who cane from the Hungarian half of the Monarchy were not Hungarians but were Slovaks, Ruthenians, Germans, etc.  Contemporary Canadian census statistics are also useless for estimating the size of Canada's Hungarian community at the turn of the century, even after census takers abandoned the practice of listing every immigrant from Austria-Hungary as an "Austrian," because then they started to lump Hungarians together with other East Europeans such as the Lithuanians. Because of these problems with the demographic data, our best estimate of the Canadian West's Hungarian population in 1905 can only be a guess: two, perhaps three thousand. When we keep in mind that Hungarian settlements were scattered over an area the Canadian West that was many times the size of Hungary, we can imagine the difficulty of communications, let alone meaningful social interaction, among the people of these scattered colonies.


Another reason for the delayed development of pioneer homesteading by Hungarian peasant immigrants was above all the fact that newcomers from Hungary, like newcomers from many other places of the world, found life on the Canadian prairies difficult. The hardships they encountered were numerous: the long, cold winters; the enormous distances; the lack of vegetation familiar to them; the unpredictability of weather and climate; the frequent infestations of harmful insects: black flies, mosquitoes and in some years, locusts.


Piled on top of these physical hardships were the social and spiritual ones. Homesickness, social isolation and profound loneliness, were the hallmarks of life on the Canadian Prairies where European im­mig­rants had to make the difficult adjustment from lives lived in a closely-knit and geographically compact villages, to ones in the physical isolation of a prairie homestead. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, the rates of failed attempts at pioneer homesteading were very high, not only among newcomers from continental Europe but also among homesteaders from other parts of Canada, or from the British Isles, or the United States. "Failure rates" for attempts at pioneer homesteading were 45% in Alberta and 57% in Saskatchewan.


No statistics exist as to what percentage of Hungarian pioneers sooner or later abandoned prairie farming, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that the ratio was very high. While leaving the prairie farm — whether for urban centres in the Canadian West, or the cities of Central Canada — alleviated some of the physical hardships of Hungarian new­comers, it often did not solve the problems of social isolation and spiritual malaise. Hungarian immigrants who exchanged pioneer existence for life in more established regions of the country were often left just as lonely and homesick as they had been on the prairie farm.


Perhaps the most important cause of the loneliness and social isolation of Hungarian immigrants to early twentieth century Canada was their inability to learn English and therefore to communicate with their non-Hungarian neighbours.  The vast majority of Magyar newcomers at the time were peasants with little or no education. Learning another language was very difficult for them, especially since they worked on isolated farms or among other immigrants who spoke rudimentary English at best. 


To overcome this problem of social isolation, Canada's Hungarian immigrants were left to their own devices. It was up to them to establish their Hungarian social circles and organizations. What Hungarian immigrants to Canada often missed most, both on the prairie farms and in their little immigrant colonies elsewhere in the country, was organized religious life. Not surprisingly, soon after their settlement in a Hungarian "ethnic island" on the Canadian Prairies they often tried to establish at least the rudiments of formal religious life for themselves. This meant that they strove to create parishes or congregations of their own or, at least, tried to arrange for the visits of priests or ministers to their little communities.


These efforts were a part of the larger aspirations of early Hungarian-Canadian society to re-establish in their new country at least some of the institutions that they had been accustomed to in their native land. In this quest, Hungarian immigrants, more often than not, were faced by myriad obstacles, some of which would prove insurmountable, at least for the first years of their stay in Canada. In this quest they were faced with many difficulties, both the kind that were external to their communities and those that were internal to them.  


Factors external to the Hungarian immigrant community that hindered in the building of religious organizations included the great distances between Hungarian colonies. There was also the aloofness and at times even hostility that East European newcomers to the country encountered among Canadians. Among the internal factors that played a role in impeding the emergence of organised religious life among Hungarian immigrants were such circumstances as the small size of most early Hungarian-Canadian colonies, the scarcity of effective community leaders, the social divisions within these colonies, and last but not least, the deep-rooted denominational fragmentation of Hungarian society both in the mother country and in the new one. Despite these difficulties, in the two decades after the mid-1890s, a small number of the "old" Hungarian-Canadian communities made considerable progress in organizing their religious and social life. 


It should be emphasized that the organizations that emerged in the communities of Hungarian immigrants in the Canadian West were a pale shadow of those that these people had been familiar with in their native land.  This statement is especially true of the religious ones. In Hungary the churches, and especially the Catholic Church, was a prosperous and hierarchical institution that played a dominant role not only in the religious life of the country but also in education, cultural and even in economic affairs. What emerged in Canada's Hungarian communities had, in the beginning, little to do with the centres of church influence. Later, the Canadian churches, and especially the country's Catholic Church, would take note of developments at the grassroots level and would try to influence and even control them. Before that happened, the Hungarian pioneers were on their own in most cases when they strove to establish religious life in their communities.


The establishment of Hungarian ethnic institutions, and among them the ethnic churches, was already taking place in a handful of Hunga­rian colonies at the turn of the century.  For reasons that would be too complex to explain we will take only three of these colonies and trace the history of the institutions they built to 1905.  It so happens that one of these colonies was predominantly a Protestant one, the second was Roman Catholic, and the third a mixed one, but unlike the other two that were colonies of homesteaders, this one was an urban one.  In the next few paragraphs we will examine the Hungarian colonies of Békevár, of Eszterház-Kaposvár and of Winnipeg as they existed in and around the year 1905.


Békevár, Hungarian-Canada's earliest Protestant pioneer settlement     


The colony of Bekevar (originally Békevár), in Saskatchewan (near the present town of Kipling), was one of the most prosperous settlements of the Magyar immigrants to Canada at the turn of the nineteenth century.  It is also the best known one to historians as a result of the researches that the late Professor Martin L. Kovacs (1918-2000) of the University of Regina had done during the 1970s and 1980s.  


The majority of the Hungarian pioneers of the Bekevar area came from the village of Botrágy (in what then was Bereg County in eastern Hungary, today's northwestern Rumania); from Tornyospálca as well as a few other villages in Szabolcs County (still a part of eastern Hungary); with a sprinkling of newcomers from elsewhere, from the villages of Karcag and Kisújszállás of the region of Kunság (east-central Hungary); and from Csetény (Veszprém County, in Transdanubia, west-central Hungary). Although from Tornyospálca came several Greek Catholic settlers and from elsewhere a few Roman Catholics, the vast majority of the Hungarian inhabitants in the Bekevar region belonged to the Re­formed (Calvinist) Church. In fact, the Bekevar colony, a Magyar ethno­cultural island on the Canadian Prairies, was as much an ethnic island as it was a religious one. Its earliest pioneers were Calvinists who made strenuous efforts to recruit their co-religionists as settlers. Among the recruits they invited was Kálmán Kovácsi, a Reformed church missionary from the Debrecen, the city Hungarians regard as the "Calvinist Rome." He arrived in 1901 and served as the Bekevar community's religious leader for almost a decade.


In Bekevar religion, religious teachings and practices, and especially the study of the Bible, were taken very seriously. Every family had a copy of the bible that was consulted and read regularly. Some people memorized large parts of it. These bibles were handed down from generation to generation. Almost equal attention was paid to the singing and memorization of hymns. The more dedicated members of this scriptural community coalesced in a lay fraternity called the Christian Spiritists' Society. More a cultic group than a congregation, this organization and its cultural equivalent, the Self-Training Circle, were instrumental in establishing the Bekavar colony as a leading Hungarian culture centre in Saskatchewan.


Before the construction of schools in the area (which could accommodate religious services on Sundays) and, especially, before the building of a church to house the congregation, the residents of Bekevar took turns hosting Sunday services.  Minister Kovácsi boarded with one then another of the families in his congregation.


These rudimentary beginnings of organized institutional life in Bekevar lasted for a few years only.  By about 1905 the community had received its first (one-room) school building, which they named the "Kossuth School." The township next door, which also had a fairly large Hungarian settler population, opened another school that was known for some time as the "Magyar School." These buildings, but especially the former, would serve for many years as the locale of the Bekevar Calvinist congregation's Sunday services. The construction of a substantial church building was also put on the agenda. It was meant to be the crowning achievement of Bekevar's Hungarian community's work. 


The evolution of organized ethnic life in Bekevar from the rudi­men­tary and informal arrangements to the establishment of orderly social and religious routine set the pattern of development of community life in the more prosperous of the Protestant Hungarian settlements of the Canadian Prairies.  The evolution of predominantly Catholic communities of Magyar pioneers showed a somewhat different pattern.


The Roman Catholic community of Esterhaz-Kaposvar


Since Catholic immigrants from Hungary outnumbered Protestants about two to one in the pioneer Hungarian-Canadian settlements of the Canadian West, it is not surprising that one of the first Magyar colonies established there happened to be a predominantly Catholic one.  It was the colony known as Esterhaz-Kaposvar (originally Eszterház-Kaposvár) in eastern Saskatchewan, about 20 km east of the present-day town of Esterhazy.


The roots of this colony go back to the second half of the 1880s when Count Paul Oscar Esterhazy (1831-1912), a Hungarian settlement agent operating from the United States, brought a group of immigrants to the Canadian prairies from the mining and smelting town of the American mid-west. Esterhazy, a veteran of the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-49, was probably neither an aristocrat nor a legitimate member of Hungary's princely family of the Esterházys, but he must have been an excellent salesman.  He managed to get several dozen immigrants from Northern Hungary (today's Slovakia) sold on the idea of starting life anew as Canadian farmers, and also succeeded in convincing Canadian immigration officials that he could get a large number of settlers for the virgin prairies of Saskatchewan.


Unfortunately for Esterhazy, his plans for a viable, prosperous and populous Hungarian colony were not realized until about a decade later when Hungarian peasant newcomers began arriving in the colony (as well as nearby places) directly from Hungary. Despite of his partial success in his colonization venture, Esterhazy was honoured by Canada when a small settlement (with hardly any Magyar settlers) was named after him in the early 1900s. It eventually developed into the town of Esterhazy, Saskatchewan.


One of the first "ethnic" institutions that appeared in this colony of Esterhaz-Kaposvar was a Catholic parish. At first the Hungarian pio­neers of this little community were served by non-Hungarian speaking priests assigned to them by the bishop of St. Boniface.  The parishioners had little influence over the affairs of their parish as the bishop expected his priests to handle their flock in a patriarchal manner.  Still, the community of Esterhaz-Kaposvar was much better off than most of the Catholic Hungarian parishes that came into existence later: it had a priest of its own.  Furthermore, some of the priests that served the parish managed to advance the colony's development. Perhaps the most remarkable of these was the Belgian priest Father Jules Pirot. Pirot arrived in 1904 and soon undertook two ambitious projects. He began to learn Hungarian and he breathed new life into a campaign to have a church constructed for the parish.


The Hungarian colony of Winnipeg


The first urban centre in the Canadian West that had a little Hungarian colony was Lethbridge, Alberta. Hungarian immigrants, mainly trans-migrants from the United States, began working in that community's coal-mines as early as the mid-1880s. In the late 1890s more Hungarians arrived, newcomers who came directly from Hungary. By 1901 there were enough of them to establish the First Hungarian Sick-Benefit Society of Lethbridge. The association collected regular fees from its members and paid modest support to those who lost their income because of illness. When the Reverend Peter A. Vay, a Hungarian priest on a tour of the Magyar communities of North America, visited Lethbridge a few years later, he reported meeting hundreds of Hungarian residents in the town.


By then Lethbridge had begun to be surpassed as the home of the largest Hungarian colony in the Canadian West by Winnipeg, capital of the Province of Manitoba and the fastest-growing commercial centre in Canada west of Toronto.  It was the place where most Hungarian newcomers passed through on their way to the virgin lands of the Canadian prairies. Eventually a few of them began settling in the city.  Soon after 1900 a small Hungarian colony came into existence. Oral tradition among these early Winnipeg residents had it that the first Hungarian to settle in the region was Péter Nagy, a refugee of the 1848-49 Hungarian Revolution against the Habsburgs. Nagy built his farmhouse near what in the 1850s was called Fort Garry, in the lands that had been administered in those days by the Hudson's Bay Company. By 1900 this farm had become a part of the urban development of the city of Winnipeg. One of Nagy's descendants was still living there at the time. 


Only a few years later, the city had a Hungarian colony numbering into the few hundreds.  The First Hungarian Sick-Benefit Association of Winnipeg was already functioning and plans were being made for the establishment of a Calvinist congregation.  It would be led by the newcomer Lajos Kovácsi, the brother of Kálmán, the already-mentioned minis­­ter in Bekevar.


Progress and then Setbacks, 1906 to 1918


The half-dozen years that followed 1905 constituted the most promising period in the early evolution of Canada's Hungarian community.  Immigration from Hungary grew by leaps and bounds, reflecting the rapid development of the Canadian West until almost the eve of the First World War when economic expansion slowed down. The general prosperity allowed for the rapid development especially in the well-established Hungarian colonies. Signs of progress could be seen everywhere.  In the colony of Esterhaz-Kaposvar the stone church Father Pirot had envisaged after his arrival there in 1904 became a reality two years later. In the colony of Bekevar a church was constructed later, in 1912. It was a fine, distinguished building. In Winnipeg the above-mentioned Calvinist cong­re­­gation became a reality in 1906. The following year the city's Hungarian Catholics established a sick-benefit association of their own.


More important perhaps than the construction of churches and the establishment of still more Hungarian organizations was the fact that in Winnipeg for example a small group of educated, middle-class Hungarians had gathered.  Under their leadership came the first attempts at publishing Hungarian-language newspapers. These attempts coincided with the first try in Hungarian-Canadian history to create a nation-wide (or, at least, Canada West-wide) umbrella organization of Hungarian parishes and organizations.  These efforts were accompanied by a campaign to get Hungarian-speaking teachers for the schools of Canada's Hungarian colonies.


The campaign for a Hungarian federation and especially for Hungarian schools was unsuccessful.  Serious disagreement developed between the largely Protestant advocates of "Hungarian schools" and the Hungarian Catholic colonies of the Canadian West or, more precisely, the Canadian West's Francophone Roman Catholic hierarchy that was adamant to retain control over the education of Roman Catholic immigrants.  Even when the disagreement had subsided, the "importation" of Hungarian speaking teachers became a problem because there were few volunteers for such work and those who came found their pay inadequate and rarely stayed for longer than one school-year.


Finally, when war broke out in the summer of 1914, all progress in Canada's Hungarian communities ground to a halt. Immigration from Hungary was halted. Austria-Hungary being an ally of Germany meant that most Hungarian newcomers to Canada became "enemy aliens."  This made many of them subject to police measures: among other things there were restrictions placed on their movements. Not surprisingly under the circumstances a few Hungarian-Canadian leaders left Canada during the early part of the war for the still neutral United States. Later a few Hun­ga­rian organizations ceased functioning. And, after the war, laws were passed in the Canadian West that made the setting up of "ethnic schools" illegal. This development put an end to the idea of "Hungarian schools" even if Magyar-speaking teachers could have been found to teach in the schools of Hungarian settlements.


Though most Hungarian pioneer farmers felt discriminated against during the First World War, many of them managed to prosper because the price of wheat and other produce kept rising between 1914 and 1918. But general prosperity and progress did not return to the Hungarian-Canadian communities of the prairie provinces until the mid-1920s when immigration resumed from Hungary and economic growth recommenced in the country. But that is another story that best be told some other time.




This study was based on the research I had done for a long article ­"The Quest for Spiritual Fulfilment among Immigrants: The Rise of Organized Religious Life in Pioneer Hungarian-Canadian Communities, 1885-1939," Magyar Egyháztörténeti Vázlatok – Essays in Church History in Hungary, 16, 3-4 (fall-winter 2004): 95-124. The article was published in 2005.

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