Who Was Uncle Nick?

By Myrna Kostash

The black and white photograph, such as those taken with a Brownie box camera, shows a man, perhaps 40 years old, with the sun- and wind-burned face of a farmer, a thick hank of dark hair falling across his forehead. He wears a worker’s denim bib and coveralls, and kneels on one knee in the middle of a flat, plowed field. The edge of the field is the horizon and it cuts dramatically at an angle to the sky. The man, who looks straight into the camera with a bit of a smile, holds an armful of cucumbers.

The photo has fallen out of my mother’s album, which lies on my lap. On the back of the photo there are two inscriptions: in the lower right corner, partly obscured by the little glued paper triangle that had held that corner in place on the page of the album, “1934.” In a larger hand, recognizably my mother’s and in pencil, “Baba’s brother Nick, Lethbridge, 1941.”

Who?

I ask my cousins on my mother’s side: Who was this Nick Kosovan, our Baba’s brother, uncle to our mothers? They haven’t the faintest idea—although one vaguely remembers a story about a “fratricide” in the family—nor has my (younger) sister. No one remembers a photograph. Yet there he was, in a field near Lethbridge, looking every inch the immigrant homesteader at an admittedly uncertain date, excised from the family story as we heard it from our grandmother and our mothers.

I knew all about my Baba’s sister Sophie, who lived in Lethbridge and who would come up by Greyhound bus to visit us all in Edmonton—but there was never an inkling or a whiff of a brother who might have been expected to come visit as well. We all knew the dramatic and tragic tale of a brother, Yuri, in Ukraine who had been violently wrested from the bosom of the family by “bandits” in an atrocity vaguely associated with the immediate end of the Second World War. But a Nick, peaceable in a cucumber patch in Lethbridge?

Why hadn’t they told and retold a family legend of a working-class hero booted out of Canada by the stooges of capital?

I scanned the photo and emailed it to a second-cousin, Petro Kosovan, who lives in Zabolotiv, western Ukraine. In Ukrainian, Petro replied: “This is Mykola, ‘Nick,’ one of seven children including four brothers, your Baba’s siblings. At the time of the 1917 Revolution, he was an activist and participated in meetings. Then he went to Canada (where his sisters Sophie and your Baba already lived) and there he again took up revolutionary activity. He was arrested and deported back to Ukraine. Myrna, I don’t know anything more exact but this is what I remember from my father’s conversations. If I learn anything more, I’ll write you.” December 23, 2012

(He never would.)

Nothing about what then happened to him?

“Nothing I recall.”

Questions bedevilled me. I wondered in what sort of “activism” Nick engaged, there in a village in Galicia near the Romanian border, worlds away from the Bolsheviks and their revolution in St. Petersburg. From a mention of his village, Dzhuriv, in a Soviet gazetteer, I read that Dzhuriv had incubated an active centre of the (illegal) Communist Party West Ukraine in the 1920s and that Nick’s brother, Yuri Kosovan, had been a member.

And there had been peasant strikes.

What is a peasant strike?

Inspired by the Irish Land War of the 1870s to 1890s, wave upon wave of work stoppages broke over landlords’ estates in Galicia—400 villages in eastern Galicia alone, in 1900 and 1902. And again in 1906, inspired this time by the Revolution in 1905 across the border in the Czarist Russian Empire. In Galicia the paltry wages, physical abuse and constraints on access to forests and pastures pushed the tenant farmers and labourers beyond endurance. They occupied the land they worked, fought off strikebreakers, brought the wrath of soldiers down upon their heads. Ukrainian Radicals and Ukrainian Social Democrats—parties already planting branches in Canada—supported them.

Sometime in the 1920s a group of men sit around a camp fire in the Crowsnest Pass and reminisce. They are Galician immigrants, labourers from Sniatyn district in (now) western Ukraine, from Zabolotiv and Illintsi, and they break stones all day long that will be hauled to the coke ovens at Hosmer, BC. They reminisce about “how our peasants once rebelled in the neighbouring villages, initiated by those in Illintsi.” This was more than nostalgia, this was a collective dreaming of a peasantry that would throw off the landlord’s yoke forever and “become free citizens in their own land.”

Was Nick already dreaming? Perhaps he had heard these stories too, as a lad in one of those 400 Galician villages. Did his father, employed hauling casks of beer from village tavern to village tavern, join the strikes? No such story has come down to us. Had he read the newspaper, Hromadskyi Holos (Community Voice) or one like it? There he would learn that, failing all else in the way of revolution in Galicia, “a free community of our countrymen will arise in Canada”? His sisters, Palahna and Sophie, made the journey to Canada in 1911. It would take Nick another 20 years to join them, radicalized, perhaps, by the village socialist intellectuals, the ones with the newspapers and pamphlets in their satchels, who wrote that property was theft.

“Many [of the emigrants] may not have been able to read and write, but they nonetheless understood much,” historian John-Paul Himka has written. “They knew what injustice was and they were learning how to organize to fight it. These were the men and women who stepped off the boat onto Canadian soil.”

How did Nick get into Canada with such a background? How did he find circles of “revolutionary activity” in Lethbridge? What had he done to get arrested and deported?

Mykola/Nick Kosovan apparently arrived in Lethbridge in the middle of the brutal Depression, when municipal budgets could ill afford public works and services, let alone relief for the unemployed. By late 1929 Lethbridge city council had met in emergency session to consider how to meet the escalating demands for relief, as an emboldened Ku Klux Klan of Canada protested the employment of “Orientals” and Slavs when red-blooded white men themselves had become public charges. Did Nick find grunt work in the mines—the KKK didn’t think much of the United Mine Workers either—in Diamond City, Shaughnessy or Taber?

Nick has arrived in Lethbridge, is living with sister Sophie and her husband, and this is their land where he kneels with his armful of cucumbers, and behind him the cabbage patch, and on the far horizon, stooks of hay. Let’s say he then goes to the beet fields, to work, one of the lucky immigrants to get a job.

Lucky? This is not how the Beet Workers Industrial Union viewed it: In an undated pamphlet, its title handwritten in block letters, they accuse “FASCIST MOB ATTEMTS [sic] TO TERRORIZE BEET WORKERS.” It opens with a flourish: We Beet Workers of Southern Alberta, after being driven to a starvation level through cut after cut in the price of our labor, have organized, as the only means of resisting further depths of misery, and regaining some measure of a decent standard of living.”

Mr. Google has taken me straight to an article by John H. Thompson and Allen Seager, published in the journal Labour/Le Travail in 1978, “Workers, Growers and Monopolists: The ‘Labour Problem’ in the Alberta Beet Sugar Industry During the 1930s.” If Nick had been looking for work, here was his chance: planting, thinning, weeding and hand-harvesting sugar beets. “Most farm hands would do almost anything else before they would accept beet work.” But immigrants from the “non-preferred nationalities,” from east, central and southern Europe (Ukrainians, Czechs, Italians) would, and beet farmers were being pressed to hire them. The unthinkable alternative was the “little yellow fellows” now excluded from even this menial labour.

“Beet cultivation was tedious, back-aching stoop labour.” Except for seeding, there was nothing mechanized about it and beetworkers crawled on their knees along the rows of plantings to do it: 115 hours of hand labour to work an acre of beets, more than 10 times what an acre of wheat required. Nevertheless, until the Depression cancelled any expectation of a living wage, beetworkers could earn at least $200 a month and were provided a “habitable house” and a
garden plot.

It was downhill from there, as the glut of urban jobless women and men and the new immigrants all competed for the same scraps of contract labour, ever depressing its wages: beetworkers saw their contract rate slide from $21 an acre to $17 despite steady productivity increases. Perhaps inspired by Communist union action in the coal fields, the beetworkers organized as the Beet Workers Industrial Union, persuaded Peter Meronik, a blacklisted Ukrainian coal miner now eking out his living as a music teacher, to be their president, and issued their demand for the 1935 growing season—$20 per acre cash contract, all contracts to be signed in the presence of a field committee elected by the workers—and stuck to their guns. Inevitably, the Beet Growers’ Association yelled “Communism!” and appealed to the provincial government to protect them from the Reds.

May 4, 1935: Worker newspaper reports evictions and vandalism in sugar beet country. Supported by their Industrial Union, many hundreds of beetworkers, having refused to sign contracts, were tramping around the countryside encouraging (intimidating?) other workers to join their strike. Premier William Aberhart himself received accounts from a Taber grower that unruly “Roumanians, Bulgarians, Slaves [sic]” were harassing and interfering with “scabs” trying to get to work in the fields. Then, Worker reports, “fascist gangs of 150” retaliated, “made up of storekeepers, school teachers, preachers elevator men, reactionary, exploiting farmers, and two RCMP men.”

The BWIU’s own pamphlet described how the mob had ransacked “our shacks while we were at a meeting, seized our meagre furnishings and personal effects, and after legalizing this mass Housebreaking act by obtaining the assistance of two members of the RCMP, dumped suitcases, bedding etc. into the road allowance where our meeting was taking place.”

This may have been the moment of Nick’s story that second-cousin Petro’s little narrative remembers: his arrest and deportation.

In 1931 the strikes and protests in and around the coalfields of Estevan, Saskatchewan, had culminated in Black Tuesday’s riot and the killing of three miners at the hands of the RCMP. In that year alone, Canada deported some 4,300 immigrants, among them the loathed and feared labour organizers of the left. In the meantime, seeing their opportunity to decontaminate their communities of “communistic elements,” over 70 city councils in Canada had sent resolutions to the federal government to demand increased deportations, as the cost of relief was now beyond their means, not to mention the cost of police operations launched against the unemployed who had a habit of marching around town squares, shouting revolutionary slogans—or at least calls for bread.

In August 1931 the Communist Party of Canada was declared an illegal organization under section 98 of the Criminal Code. Now the only evidence that was needed for political deportation was proof that the immigrant—even though a naturalized citizen—was a member of a communist organization.

“Red scares” rolled through society. Even I had bad dreams as a child, of being pursued by men in long, black coats: Russians.

Kicked off the beet fields, unemployable and lined up with the others for relief, was Nick about to be deported? In the six years 1930 through 1935, some 17,000 immigrants were deported from Canada for having become a “public charge.” Or had he been among those accused of “seditious conspiracy” or of vagrancy—tramping around the countryside, pamphleteering among his low-born countrymen who seethed with resentment with every weed they yanked out of the stubborn clods of Canadian earth? In 1934, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, 94 per cent of applications for naturalization were being refused, and “confidential RCMP assessments led to refusals on the basis of political or labour activism or perceived ‘bad character.’ ”

If they were deported to Poland (eastern Galicia), they may have survived whatever prosecution the Polish authorities meted out. But Mykola/Nick has simply vanished.

Why doesn’t Petro know more? Why don’t I?

Baba and Dido in Canada were ardent Soviet sympathizers. Why hadn’t they told and retold a family legend of Nick Kosovan, working-class hero booted out of Canada by the stooges of capital?

Of course they hadn’t; they were frightened. Let Party leaders and union organizers take the risks and consequences of defying Law and Order. Baba and Dido, with their tenuous claim to Canada’s rights and privileges, would keep their heads down. Celebrate a Bolshevik agitator on the family tree? Naturalization would not have protected them. Protest a deportation of a relative? Shame and stigma. “Red scares” rolled through Canadian society on a regular basis, an emotional reality my grandparents never outlived. Even I had bad dreams as a child, of being pursued in the alley behind our house by men in long black coats: Russians. In their bad dreams, they were being run to ground by the RCMP.

In 1984, on my visit to the Kosovan ancestral village, Dzhuriv, second-cousin Paulina transcribed into a small notebook the names and relationships of everyone I had met, namely the children of my Baba’s siblings, which is to say my mother’s cousins, and their children, my second cousins: a plethora of Maria, Petro and Marusia, of Elena and Paraska and Olya in the plural. She included their (Soviet-era) occupations: accountant in a sugar factory, trucker for a juice-extraction factory, tradeswoman in a factory, bus driver, locksmith in a furniture factory, shop assistant. They worked at the heart of the Soviet economy, having putatively won the class struggle Nick went to Lethbridge to wage.

In 1988 I met Paulina again, this time in Kyiv, in Ukraine of the perestroika [restructuring] years, and, now able to speak intelligibly in Ukrainian, I flesh out Baba’s Ukrainian kin with Paulina’s voluble help, one more time. So I hear again of Baba’s father Petro and of her mother, Paraska, who died young, leaving seven children. Of how two of them, Baba and Sophie, got away to Canada. The other two daughters, Maria and Elena, continued to live in the village. Brother Yuri was killed by bandits in 1945, brother Stefan and his wife Dotsia lived high above the village in the woods, and brother Nikolai/Mykola/Nick? He lived eight years in Canada and then returned to Dzhuriv. No deportation, then? No revolutionary aspirations? End of story.

But I have added alongside these notes, in different ink, although I have no recollection of writing this: “Nikolai hanged himself.” In the middle of this research, I excitedly emailed Petro again, about this new information I had completely forgotten from 40 years ago.

Petro: “I know nothing of this.”

Nobody’s talking.

Let me start again, about Uncle Nick, the radical from Dzhuriv, with his armful of cucumbers, who I am not supposed to know.

Myrna Kostash lives in Edmonton. She is the author of many books, including All of Baba’s Children (1977).

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