‘Indescribably sad and depressing’: A gallery of letters from Canadian pioneers and immigrants who absolutely hated it here

Nice counterpart and reminder that life has always been challenging for immigrants, particularly the first generation in earlier times:

If you were born in Canada, chances are good that your family tree contains at least one person who spent much of their life absolutely hating this place.

Despite our treasured national mythos as a promised land of wealth and opportunity, our history is littered with tales of people crying or screaming with anguish after taking their first steps in the True North.

A gallery of examples are included below. While many would learn to thrive in the new country, history books usually leave out the part where the mere sight of Canada sparked utter horror in new immigrants.

“As we sped across Ontario with its rocks, hills and tunnels, we were afraid we were coming to the end of the world. The heart of many a man sank to his heels and the women and children raised such lamentations as defies description.”
Ukrainian immigrant Maria Adamowska, describing her train journey west in 1899.

“I became anxious when I wondered what kind of a person would be here to greet me. He had a good physique like I had seen in his photo, but he was simple-minded. I was so sad — I despaired.”
Japanese immigrant Ishikawa Yasu, who came to Victoria in the early 20th century as a “picture bride”; a woman paired with a husband in Canada purely through photographs.
— Excerpted from Good Wives and Wise Mothers: Japanese Picture Brides in Early Twentieth Century British Columbia.

“She and the children left her husband. She said: ‘You can keep your Saskatchewan, I’ve had enough!’ She was a beautiful woman. She came from around Montreal. She often came over. She ranted and raved about her husband. ‘Isn’t it appalling of him to bring us to country like this! Freeze … did we freeze!’”
Saskatchewan pioneer Rachel Périgny-Desmarais, describing the departure of a neighbour.
— Excerpted from “Other” Voices: Historical Essays on Saskatchewan Women

“The Canadian prairie with its long winters and impermanent rectangular houses conveys something indescribably sad and depressing.”
Montreal-based German consul Karl Lang in a 1913 report warning fellow Germans against further immigration to Canada.
— Excerpted from A History of Migration from Germany to Canada, 1850-1939.

“I came because my daughter is here and I wanted to be close to here … but I am not happy here … I keep hoping that once I learn the language it will be better for me here. But the language is very hard. Sometimes I just cry because it seems I will never get it into my head.”
A mid-1970s interview with a Polish immigrant identified as Ludwiga.
— Excerpted from The Immigrants, by Gloria Montero.

“I don’t look lonely, do I? And I’ve been on the land all my life.”
Canadian Minister of Immigration Robert Forke attempting to reassure British journalists in 1927. At the time, many British households were receiving troubling letters from recently immigrated family decrying the loneliness of life in Canada.

“There are all kinds in this army of the disappointed; the thin, peaked-faced, unhealthy-looking east-end Londoner; the brawny man from Battersea; the sallow mechanic; the city tradesman; the clerk.”
From a 1908 report by The Globe describing unemployed British immigrants who had come to Canada with visions of “easy wealth.”

“When it was difficult to find work he would be cross with the children, even with me. I tried to understand the changes in him. I knew he was worried. But one night I couldn’t stand it anymore and I started to scream at him, to scream and to hit him. And you know what he did? He cried. My husband cried like a child.”
A mid-1970s interview with an Ecuadorian immigrant identified as Angelina.
— Excerpted from The Immigrants, by Gloria Montero.

“He will find at first that the travel and change of life will raise his spirits; then will come a period of depression, under the rough task of beginning in a new country, to be followed by the feeling of security of home and subsistence, which is the most solid blessing to a man.”
From an 1873 immigrant guide to British Columbia. That same guide warned women and “men not accustomed to rough work with their hands” to stay away.

“If the people knew what poor emigrants have to go through, there would not be many come to Canada. Though, thank God, I have known none, yet I have seen plenty of their miseries.”
An 1837 letter by an unknown author published in Great Britain to warn away future emigrants to Canada.

“After they landed, Mrs. Patterson used to tell that she leaned her head against a tree, which stood for many a year after, and thought if there was a broken-hearted creature on the face of the earth, she was the one.”
From an 1877 history of Pictou, Nova Scotia describing one of the area’s earliest settlers.

“Three months ago a Hollander committed suicide due to despondency and poverty and there’ll be more … There are a lot here who would very much like to return to Holland.”
A 1928 letter written to a Arnhem, Netherlands newspaper in which Dutch immigrants to Canada attempt to warn others from going to Canada.

“The central government, the provinces, and the railroads are all trying as hard as possible to win immigrants. They distribute brochures that praise Canada to the heavens. Care, particularly with regard to these publications, is strongly urged.”
Another early 20th century German government pamphlet warning its citizens to stay away. This one warned that “the greatest part of Canada is uninhabitable for Europeans.”
— Excerpted from A History of Migration from Germany to Canada, 1850-1939.

“Our host … had written to us to boast of the prosperity he had attained in such a short time. He said that he had a home like a mansion, a large cultivated field, and that his wife was dressed like a lady … How great was our disenchantment when we approached that mansion of his … it was actually just a small log cabin.”
Another entry by 1899 Ukrainian immigrant Maria Adamowska.

Source: ‘Indescribably sad and depressing’: A gallery of letters from Canadian pioneers and immigrants who absolutely hated it here | National Post

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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