Slovak Cathedral of the Transfiguration


About Slovaks and Slovak Immigration
Part I. - Canada



The first significant emigration from Slovakia (then situated within the framework of the Kingdom of Hungary) occurred in the early 1870s and was the direct result of the numerous work opportunities to be found in the coal mines, steel mills, and oil refineries of the United States. Almost a decade later, many of these same immigrants moved from the United States into western Canada. Some were attracted by the heady prospect of obtaining free homesteads while others hoped to earn a better living in the coal fields of Alberta in the Crow’s Nest Pass area near Blairmore and at Lethbridge. In 1885, immigration agent Paul Esterhazy brought a group of Slovaks and Hungarians from Pennsylvania to settle the Minnedosa district in Manitoba and, in 1886, the area north of the Qu’Appelle River in Saskatchewan. In time, many began the trek eastward to Fort William and other small urban communities in northern Ontario. The end of the First World War and the founding of the Czechoslovak state brought many changes to the Czech and Slovak peoples, but the immigration of both groups continued.

After the Nazi occupation of the Czechoslovak state in 1938, many refugees fled the country and settled in Canada. In 1939, businessman Thomas J. Bata relocated staff from the Bata shoe factories in Moravia to Canada, thereby establishing a safe haven and the town of Batawa near Frankford, Ontario. With “liberation” in 1945 and a Moscow-dominated regime, free exit from Czechoslovakia ended but not until thousands of Czech and Slovak exiles and refugees had settled in Canada between 1947 and 1958. This well-educated group of immigrant professionals chose to settle in cities, especially those in Ontario and Quebec. An exodus of Czechs and Slovaks to Canada began again after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, an invasion that came to be known as “Prague Spring.” This group of young professionals settled in central Canada as well as in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. Their economic and social integration has been successful. The 1996 census figures, based on self-declared ethnic origin rather than place of birth, recorded a total of 71,915 Czechs (single and multiple response), 45,230 Slovaks and even 39,185 persons who were content to be labelled Czechoslovakian. Czechs and Slovaks have formed a multitude of ethnocommunity organizations in Canada. Some are fraternal and mutual benefit societies, others are cultural, political or social groups. Organizational homes or halls, the meeting place of choice for both communities, soon dotted the Canadian rural and urban land-scapes. Events celebrated include religious, historical, and patriotic anniversaries and special days.

Czechs and Slovaks have contributed in many different fields in Canada. Many Czechs have been attracted to business and industry. A relatively large group have established factories of their own, thus introducing new products and methods and providing many employment opportunities. The Bata family’s shoemaking empire, for instance, made and sold one million pairs of shoes per day during the 1960s. Slovak immigrants have also played a significant role in the life of Canada as businessmen, political figures, professionals of all walks, and sporting and cultural figures. Stephen B. Roman achieved meteoric success as the owner of the richest uranium mine in the world (Denison Mines). An outstanding Catholic layman, Roman was greatly responsible for the building of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration near his estate in Unionville, Ontario. Notables in journalism include George Gross, former sports editor, Toronto Sun, and Robert Reguly, former writer for The Toronto Star. Both Stan Mikita and Elmer Vasko of St. Catharines played hockey for the Chicago Blackhawks during the Golden Era when the National Hockey League consisted of only six teams. Slovaks have also taken their place on the Canadian political stage. Politicians of note include William A. Kovach, who sat as a Social Credit member in the Alberta legislature from 1948 to 1966. In Ontario, Toronto alderman George Ben was elected as a Liberal member in the Ontario Legislature in 1965. He was followed by Peter Kormos, who was first elected to the legislature in 1987 as a member of the New Democratic Party. Finally, in the federal arena, Anthony Roman was elected to the House of Commons as an independent in 1986 and Paul Szabo was elected as a Liberal to the House of Commons in Ottawa in 1993.

Source: Canada Digital Collection

Bohemians/Czechs and Slovaks

Czechs and Slovaks were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 1800s. By the mid to late 1800s, changes in boundaries and laws were again giving the Czechs and Slovaks in the Austrian sector some control over the use of their language and some voting rights. But, by the turn of the century, conditions were not much improved, and in some areas they had even worsened.

The Hungarian Empire was not as liberal with the Slovaks. In 1874 the Prime Minister had stated, "There is no Slovak nation"(1) and they closed the Slovak schools so children could not be educated in their mother tongue.

Few Czechs and Slovaks came to America before the 1800s but notable among the early settlers were the Moravians. They settled in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia. By the 1860s however, more were beginning to make the voyage and Chicago was the main centre for Czechs (Bohemians). Many of the early settlers to Canada came via the United States.

The Canadian Pacific Railway started to colonize their lands in the west in 1881 and Czechs and Slovaks made their way west. They settled at Kolin, in the District of Assiniboia (part of the province of Saskatchewan today). Others were recruited from various parts of the United States by Paul Esterhazy. On July 30, 1885 a party of mostly Slovaks was sent to Winnipeg, via Toronto from Hazelton, PA, where they had been miners. These people were sent to "Huns Valley," Manitoba.

In 1886 another party from the United States was sent to settle the lands on the Qu'Appelle River in present day Saskatchewan. The settlement was called Esterhazy after the man who had recruited them. Other settlements were started at Lethbridge, (today in the province of Alberta); Stair, Manitoba; Crow's Nest Camp, British Columbia (renamed Fernie); Derby, BC; as well as in Bellevue and Frank, North-West Territories (later the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan).

Since the immigration agents of the times often referred to all of these people as Hungarians one must not overlook this fact when searching the records.

source: University of Waterloo

The former Czechoslovakia was comprised of two major national groups—the Czechs and the Slovaks. They formed politically distinct Czech and Slovak Republics after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tear-down of the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s. The two groups speak closely related languages and share a common ancestry rooted in the Great Moravian Kingdom of the 9th century, but since the beginning of the 10th century, the Czechs and the Slovaks have followed different paths in their historical and cultural development.

After the Magyars destroyed the Great Moravian Kingdom, Slovakia became part of Hungary, while the Czechs created their own kingdom that flourished until the 17th century when it fell under the control of the Austrian monarchy. It was not until 1918 that the Czechs and Slovaks were joined in a common independent country, the Czechoslovak Republic. During World War II, the country was occupied by Germany, but liberated by Allied forces at the war's end.

Czech-Slovak immigration into Canada dates back to the second half of the 19th century. Exact numbers are unavailable since Czechs were classified by Canadian authorities as "Austrians" and Slovaks as "Hungarians" until 1918. There were a variety of settlements founded during that time. The first was Kolin in Saskatchewan in 1884, while the hamlet Prague in Alberta (a name retained for a school district near Viking, Alberta) was founded by second-generation, Czech-Americans from the United States.

The first Slovak settlements in Canada were founded in 1885 at a place called "Hun's Valley" in present-day Manitoba and also in Lethbridge, Alberta. Lethbridge soon became a major Slovak centre and the location of early Slovak church and community organizations. Early Czech and Slovak settlements in Alberta were also established at Taber, Pincher Creek, Nordegg and Blairmore. At Lethbridge and in the Crowsnest Pass, Czech and Slovak pioneers were coalminers, while in other areas they settled farms.

After World War I, the United States adopted an immigration quota system that limited the number of immigrants allowed into the country. As a result Slovak and Czech immigration to Canada increased significantly. From 1921 to 1931 the number of Slovak and Czechs in Alberta more than doubled, rising from 2,500 to 6,400.

Most Czech and Slovak immigrants who arrived in Alberta in the interwar years were farmers. Some were attracted to the sugar beet fields of Raymond and Taber. Many Slovaks arriving in this period worked in coalmines at Blairmore, Coleman and Frank.

Immigration numbers during and after World War II reflect the political events which took place in Czechoslovakia. New immigrants were primarily political refugees, and the largest numbers occurred after the communist coup d'etat in 1948 and the Soviet invasion in 1968. The newcomers in these years were mostly skilled workers and college or university graduates who integrated well into Albertan society. In the mid 1980s, Czechs and Slovaks formed the 12th largest ethnic group in Alberta.

Source: Alberitage


The first known Slovak immigrant to Canada was Joseph Bellon, who landed in 1878 in Toronto and started a wireworks factory. There are no exact statistics on the number of Canadians of Slovak origin. According to the 1981 census, the first to ask the question of ethnic origin, some 40 000 Canadians declared it as Slovak; in the 1996 census, the number increased to around 45 000 (20 000 single- and 25 000 multiple response). In fact it can be assumed that there are about 100 000 Canadians of Slovak origin. Slovaks are generally a deeply religious people; they are proud of their origin and were always quick to correct those who, until Czechoslovakia broke up in 1993, referred to them as CZECHS or Czechoslovaks.

source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Migration and Settlement

There have been 4 main waves of Slovak immigrants, inspired mainly by economic and political conditions in their homeland. The majority of early immigrants were manual workers from the US.

First Wave
Immigrants of the first wave (1885-1914) settled on farmland in the West. Later groups went to work in Alberta and BC mines, and for the CPR.

Second Wave
The second wave, estimated at 30 000, took place during the interwar years. Many were young skilled workers who emigrated to earn good wages in order to buy land in Slovakia. Others, however, sent for their families and went either to farming settlements in the West or to Ontario and Québec mining towns. The declaration of Slovakia's independence in 1939 created divisions in the community; those supporting it were denounced by Czechoslovak diplomats in Canada.

Third Wave
The third wave of some 20 000 arrived after WWII and included war refugees as well as those fleeing the communist takeover of 1948. Many were former government officials who gave new impetus to Slovak organizations. Most settled in the major urban centres.

Fourth Wave
The fourth wave was sparked by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. These refugees (some 13 000) were among the best educated to leave their homeland. Settling in urban centres, they contributed to the growth of Slovak organizations and found their place in Canadian economic, political and cultural life.

Social and Cultural Life
Social stratification among Slovak Canadians today is determined by date of arrival in Canada, the position held in Slovakia, the success achieved in Canada and the willingness to participate actively in Slovak organizations. The early immigrants created benefit societies because of difficult economic conditions and lack of state-supported welfare measures. Today these societies also perform important social functions, along with other institutions created during and since WWII. The Canadian Slovak League is the most important Slovak organization. It publishes Kanadský Slovák (The Canadian Slovak), and helps to maintain Slovak traditions. Literary works are fostered through Slovak publications in the Western world and in Slovakia. Slovak Canadian publications, especially newspapers, have in fact played an important role in assisting immigrants, but they have also reflected the political and economic divisions in the community.
The Catholic and Protestant clergy have played an important role as spiritual and community leaders, and Slovak parishioners of all denominations have helped immigrants to overcome linguistic and cultural differences. Parish life, especially for the first 3 waves, and Slovak organizations have helped to foster the Slovak language and enhance family cohesion. A notable example of the importance of parish life was the consecration of the Slovak Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Unionville, Ont, on 15 September 1984 by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Canada.

Group Maintenance
The political fate of the Slovaks in their homeland has been the main factor in preserving the group's consciousness and cohesion in Canada. Since Slovakia achieved independence in 1993, the focus of most Slovak Canadians is on their homeland and through various organizations and newspapers they keep abreast of events there.

Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia