Immigration before WWII
Bishop Baraga was a missionary in Canada in the early 1850s. He was amongst the first Slovenians in Canada. In the 1920s most of the Slovenian immigrants moved into mining towns in Ontario because there was work in the mines. There were also many Slovenians coming from USA to Canada to find work in the mines. Later, some moved to the St. Catharines area to pursue farming. In Slovenia, families were large since there were many infant deaths and they could help on the farm. Farms were very labour intensive as mechanization was not as developed. The males also had to serve in the Austrian army or later in the Jugoslavian army. It was customary for the older male to inherit the farm. The others could stay on as hired hands or look for work elsewhere. There did not seem to be much opportunity if they stayed in Slovenia.
There were more opportunities in Canada for a better life. Canada’s immigration policy encouraged settlement in the west by offering low land prices, but the majority of the Slovenians did not settle as they expected to return to Slovenia after they earned their money. Canadian homestead policy offered a section of 160 acres of land for $10.00. Wages could have been as high as $30.00 per month.
To emigrate to Canada in the 1920s the Slovenian pioneers had to pass a physical examination and then pay approximately $200 for the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. It took between a week to 18 days depending on the type of ship and the amount of delays due to storms. Many of the immigrants were teenagers or in their early twenties. Some had to complete their compulsory military service before leaving. Ports of entry into Canada were: St. John, NB, Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal. Some arrived by way of New York.
After serving a one year contract many went to larger cities where jobs were easier to find. Once the depression happened many went into mining towns where jobs were secure, however they were dangerous. Kirkland Lake, Timmins, Sudbury. Or pulp and paper mills in Kapuskasing, farming in the Niagara region in Ontario, automotive in Windsor. Some went to larger cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Hamilton where they worked in factories, business or construction.
Once the depression occurred, there was no returning to Slovenia as the boarders were closed. Jobs were scarce. These hardships were hard to accept since they were expecting a better life in Canada. Then when WWII broke out there was no going back. There were many young single working men requiring boarding houses. These boarding houses were established to help the owner pay the mortgage as well as satisfying the boarders’ need for a place to stay. Usually the wife ran the household and did the cooking, cleaning and laundry for all the boarders.
Theatrical performances among Slovenian immigrants started in 1933 in Kirkland Lake, Ontario. The Triglav Choral and Theatre Society performed for 25 years.
Due to the unfortunate accidents in the mines, in 1933 a group of people in Kirkland Lake started the Slovenian-Canadian Mutual Support Association similar to the Slovenska Narodna Podporna Jenota (SNPJ) in the USA. Its purpose was to raise funds to provide assistance to needy members. Five years later it was renamed Bled Mutual Benefit Society. SNPJ formed in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba , Ontario and Quebec.
After 5 years they could become citizens which gave them rights, privileges and assured re-entry into Canada.
Children were encouraged to pursue education to improve their social and economic status since they were not given the opportunity.
As more Slovenians moved to Kirkland Lake because there was work available in the mines during the depression, a theatrical group and choir named Triglav Society was formed during the 1930s in Kirkland Lake. The population of Kirkland Lake exceeded 20,000 before WWII. Other choral groups that were started in Ontario included Zarja in Timmins, Zvon in Windsor and Vigred in Sudbury.
Also, in the 1930s a Franciscan missionary, father Bernard Ambrožič (uncle of Cardinal Aloysius Ambrožič) of Lemont Illinois, settled in the Niagara region. Then in 1937 a mission church began to form with most of the labour provided by Slovenians. The church was later renamed, St. Helens Catholic Church. However there was a painting of Our Lady Help of Christians placed in the church. Many years later is was moved to the new church in Toronto.
The St. Joseph Society was founded by Fr. Ambrožič in 1937 as a social community and support group for Slovenian immigrants in the Hamilton and Niagara regions. The Society also provided financial assistance to members in case of illness or other difficulties. In 1958 they purchased a hall on Beach road. It was sold two years later in order to help pay for the new church, St. Gregory the Great in Hamilton.
According to records in the National Archives in Ottawa, 145 Slovenian Canadians enlisted and served in the Canadian Armed Forces during WWII.