The "Sopron Division of Forestry" in Canada
Part 2: The Great Trek: From Salzburg to Powell River
The train was to leave Salzburg on the evening of December 29th, 1956, but just before departure a small problem arose. Just as we were to board the train, it appeared that for twenty students there were no tickets (I was among them), for either the train or ocean voyage. As we found out later, these tickets were given to a group of outsiders by the Austrian organisers. The majority of our group decided that nobody boards the train. This created a great panic for the Austrian officials, but they promised that the group of 20 would soon follow. With the assurance of those who stayed behind, they managed to convince the rest to go, confident that they would be reunited in Canada. If all else failed, they would send tickets for those left behind from overseas. Finally the train left for the journey to Ostende. From there it was ship to Dover, and finally a train to Liverpool.
Those, who started on the evening of December 29th, boarded the 26 000 ton Empress of Britain at 11:00 PM on December 31st. They were able to celebrate the New Year aboard this luxury liner, but many of them were preoccupied by their thoughts about the future. Those who stayed in Salzburg celebrated there with similar thoughts. They left by train on the 6th of January, 1957 and boarded the ship Columbia, a 9 000 ton Greek freighter, on the 7th at Le Havre. According to Adamovich and Sziklai (1970), the composition of the group before the exodus was the following:
January is the stormiest month in the North Atlantic Ocean. The ocean’s fury was experienced by the passengers on both ships, but particularly on the Columbia, where the waves arched over the passenger cabins many times. After one of these occasions the captain reassured the passengers that this was the last trip the Columbia would make, since it had been sold to Canada by Greece for scrap metal! Nevertheless, to help the situation in Austria, they had taken on board a few hundred Hungarian refugees, who needed passage to their adopted country.
Many people were seasick on both ships. One of the students, who became extremely ill, exclaimed during one of the storms that Lajos Kossuth did not know what he was talking about, when he urged Hungarians to become seafarers.
Those who left from Liverpool arrived at the port city of Saint John, NB, on the East Coast of Canada, on the 8th of January. Unfortunately, because of the strike affecting the Canadian Pacific Railway company, they could not continue their passage toward the western shores of Canada until the 19th of January. This gave us our first glimpse into the “freedom of society” so prominent in Canada, which we read about before but never experienced. Those who spent 11 days in Saint John were greeted by -30 degrees Centigrade weather, so they could not leave their housing accommodations because they had no proper clothing to cope with the cold. On the 14th of January a field trip was arranged to visit the campus of the University of New Brunswick. The guided tour of the Faculty of Forestry was a particularly memorable occasion for both the students and the professors.
The small group of latecomers arrived at Halifax on January 15th and continued by Canadian National Railways to Montreal, where they waited for the arrival of the main group. The two parties finally united on the 20th of January for travel together toward the West.
The five days of travel from Montreal to Abbotsford in BC would have been an enjoyable site-seeing trip, if we could have seen out the windows, but because of the typical Canadian winter temperatures of -10 to -30 degrees, the windows were frozen over. Sometimes we blew our breath onto it for hours, (we had plenty of time!) so that we could open up a 5 cm spot to peek outside. The group travelled on a special train but at the larger cities (Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton) we stopped and were greeted by university students and older Hungarian emigrants who congratulated our group and surprised us by handing over small gift packages. After we crossed the Rocky Mountains, the windows started to thaw out and we could enjoy the vista of the westernmost province of Canada, British Columbia. We arrived in Abbotsford on the 24th and were accommodated in the old air force barracks as a temporary measure. We were still 250 km. from our destination, Powell River.
We were greeted very kindly in Abbotsford. The Dean of Forestry was there with a number of forestry students. Also, there was a government official, a Catholic priest from a Hungarian congregation, a preacher representing the Reformed Churches and Hungarian delegations from Vancouver and Abbotsford, who welcomed us into their communities.
A few days after we arrived, the English language classes started. The teachers were local people who organised us into small groups. It was very difficult for us in the beginning, as most of us did not understand one word of the language and the teachers did not speak Hungarian. Slowly we managed to get accustomed to this method of education. The gymnasium was also available for our use, so we could enjoy some sporting events beside the language studies.
In the beginning of February, we were taken to visit Vancouver and we spent most of the day at the University. This was the occasion, when the well known photograph of the whole group was taken on the front steps of the Biological Sciences Building. We were treated to a special luncheon and afterwards we went to the gymnasium to see the UBC basketball team play against another university team. We started to cheer the UBC team in Hungarian, “Hajrá! UBC, Hajrá! UBC”, and the score soon started to change and UBC won. Later in the day we visited the downtown area of Vancouver and Stanley Park. In the evening we were split into smaller groups and taken to family homes for a special dinner. It was a frustrating time for many of us, as we did not understand what was being said by our hosts.
The immensity of the university campus and the well equipped sporting facilities made a great impression on us. So did the large trees we saw in the forests of Stanley Park.
We started our move to Powell River on the 18th of February and it lasted for three or four days. Each bus trip lasted a whole day and it was enjoyable. We saw villages and towns on our way, (including Vancouver), and had to take two different ferry rides to cross the inlets. Many times we travelled through forests and on the coast, under tall rocky cliffs.
Powell River is a small industrial town on the shores of the Georgia Strait. On the far side of the water we could see Vancouver Island. The name of the town originates from the stream draining Powell Lake into the ocean. Most of the residents of the town were working for the pulp mill. The camp where we were housed was a temporary accommodation for the workmen who expanded the mill the previous year. It was renovated for our benefit in January and February. Since November 4th, this was the first place that we could call as our “HOME”. The facility had bedrooms for two students each. We had a communal kitchen that served Hungarian food, clean and well equipped washrooms and toilets and space for meetings and other uses. Very soon, we felt we were in a new family environment. Our main purpose was to study English, but we also had time to enjoy sports (soccer, tennis, table tennis, volleyball, basketball and fencing), to organise cultural events, to have some fun-times and to go on walks in the countryside to explore our neighbourhood. Our soccer team was a respectable opponent of the clubs from the surrounding villages and the Indian Reservation. Unfortunately, when we played against the soccer team from UBC at the end of March, they beat us by a 5-0 score.
Our English teachers were dedicated, retired school teachers from the village, who kept us in the classrooms for 6 to 8 hours a day. The class sizes were from 15 to 20 students. To this day we remember them with great admiration.
The management of the camp was in the hands of our own administrative staff, supervised by Vincent Forbes from the Immigration Department and Jennie Strong from the pulp mill. The kitchen was managed by our own very respected and admired Paula Néni, the mother-in-law of one of our professors, Ferenc Szy. A few of the professors from UBC came to give us lectures and information about Canadian forestry, with the aid of interpreters. One was Miklós Udvardy, who was a professor at UBC and the other was Károly Hámori, a student at the Theological College at UBC. At many occasions we were visited by Rev. Albert Zsigmond, a Catholic priest from Vancouver, to celebrate special masses for us.
Shortly after our arrival, we started to rejuvenate our Youth Club (Ifjúsági Kör) with the election of a new president. Gyula Juhász, a fifth year student and Miklós Grátzer from fourth year were nominated. Miklós Grátzer won and shortly afterward organised a steering committee which helped to establish a choir and a dance group. They participated in special event celebrations arranged by the town community. There were a few Hungarian families living in Powell River already and we maintained close contact with them.
The organised language courses lasted until the end of April, but searching for summer employment started earlier. Everyone was hoping to find some position in the forest industry, so that we could gain firsthand experience about Canadian methods. The administration of our camp and the Faculty of Forestry at UBC both came to our aid. Unfortunately, things did not happen as easily as we expected with our Hungarian background experience. Soon we found out just how difficult it was to find jobs in a society where “free trade” was the rule and our “insider” knowledge was missing. The big surprise was the scarcity of positions available in the forest management field. During the summer we learned that the Canadian workers were much more proficient than those back home in the socialist system. Consequently, a much smaller number of employees were needed to accomplish the same amount of production. The economic recession of 1957 made our position even more difficult.
Even so, by the second half of May, the majority of the students had some employment. Most of it was in logging camps, doing physical work. It was a “special” position, if someone was hired to work on a survey crew for road construction or on a cruising team. Some were disappointed that they had to do physical work, but it did have the benefits of good earnings and learning to converse in English. In the following years we came to understand that most of the university students in Canada had to work each summer to earn enough money for their tuition and their living expenses during the school year. During the summer months we learned the most about the Canadian way of life and social customs.
In searching for work, the teaching staffs, particularly the older ones, was not as fortunate as the students. It was very disappointing for them, that they could not gain any experience in Canadian forestry practices. Maybe this is the reason, why Kálmán Roller writes so negatively about the job opportunities of our first summer in the book “The Sopron Chronicle” published in 1986.
Those, who did not get employment or were working near Powell River, stayed in the camp for the summer, together with the wives and the children. The camp and Paula Néni’s kitchen functioned until early September. The summer was very enjoyable for them. The weather was great; the crystal clear waters of the lake were warm and enjoyable for swimming. By July, the waters by the seashore were also ready to be enjoyed, which was a new and exciting experience for them.