My Mother’s Story

Canada is defined by refugees.

By Paula Simons

My mother was a refugee, and Canada was her refuge.

My mother died this August, a few days before her 81st birthday. And as I sat down to write her eulogy, I kept thinking about the confluence of events that brought her to Alberta, and about Alberta’s legacy as a home for people fleeing war and terror.

My mum was born in late August of 1939, just days before the declaration of war. She took her first breaths in a Mennonite colony in what was then the USSR but is now Ukraine. She was the product of a so-called mixed marriage: Her father was Mennonite, her mother Lutheran. Ukraine was convulsed by famine, and the Mennonite communities were victims too of Stalin’s iron fist.

But things got exponentially worse when the Nazis invaded in 1942, leaving German-speaking Soviet citizens caught in a vise between two evil dictators.

Any illusions, or delusions, that ethnic Germans may have had that Hitler’s forces would liberate them from Stalin’s tyranny were grotesquely mistaken. The Mennonites were pacifists. That didn’t stop my grandfather, a gentle, bookish man, from being forced to serve in the German army. He was among the millions who died on the Eastern Front. My redoubtable grandmother, a widow with three small children, somehow made the trek from Ukraine, through Czechoslovakia, to Germany. When the war finally ended, they had made it into the American sector of occupation. They were wildly lucky. Under the terms of the Yalta agreements, all Soviet citizens were supposed to be repatriated to the USSR. Thousands of ethnic Germans were deemed traitors and sent back to internal exile—or worse. My mother escaped that fate. Some of my grandfather’s Mennonite relatives, who’d moved to Manitoba and Saskatchewan before the war, saw the names of my grandmother, my mother and my aunts on a list of “displaced persons” and sponsored them to come to Canada.

My mother and her family arrived in Montreal in June of 1948 aboard a ship called the Tabinta and travelled west by train. My grandmother ended up in Barrhead, about 120 km northwest of Edmonton, where she worked as a housekeeper and washerwoman while the family lived in a converted chicken coop.

There were no ESL classes at the Barrhead school. No settlement services for new immigrants. And 1948 can’t have been an easy time to be a German-speaking refugee. But some kind teachers at that little public school took care to ensure that my nine-year-old mother learned to speak elegant English and to read and write it fluently.

In a time of crisis and chaos, there’s a temptation to pull up the drawbridge. But we need to find a way to resume admitting refugees and immigrants.

When I was growing up, our house was full of books, including the classics: Tolstoy, Flaubert, Henry James. When I was young I assumed those books must belong to my dad. He, after all, was the one with a university education. My mum had only finished high school. But that was my own internalized sexism and snobbery. Those books all belonged to my mother, a ferocious autodidact, who had gotten her own education via public libraries and public radio. The CBC was her university. She listened to Peter Gzowski and Alberto Manguel and Margaret Visser and Shelagh Rogers and Eleanor Wachtel and read the books they recommended. That’s why our house was filled with CanLit: Robertson Davies, Margaret Lawrence, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields. Small wonder I became a reader—and a writer.

My mother’s story is exceptional in some ways—but in other ways it parallels the experiences of thousands of Albertans, whether they arrived here from Eastern Europe, like my mum, or from Chile or Vietnam or Eritrea or South Sudan or Myanmar or Syria. As a community we have been defined and redefined by the waves of refugees who have found new hope and new homes here. That’s a lesson we need to remember as we remake refugee and immigration policy in a time of global pandemic and hardening borders. In a time of crisis and chaos, there’s a natural temptation to pull up the drawbridge. But we need to find a way to resume admitting refugees and immigrants to Canada, a system that protects us all without abandoning those who sorely need refuge.

My mother’s story holds another lesson too. If we want refugee stories to be success stories, we need the publicly funded programs and the public infrastructure that allow people to learn English (or French), to get a post-secondary education, to start their own businesses, to find rewarding employment, to find their way in a different place and a different culture. We need to remove barriers, to confront prejudices, to give people who have come here, victims, perhaps, of trauma, the best chance to begin again.

I have lost my mother. But I will never forget her legacy. I hope I never fail to honour it.

Paula Simons is an independent Senator, a former columnist for the Edmonton Journal and a long-time Albertan.

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