Ep. 59 O Canada!

Gerhards immigration record headers

Gerhards immigration record

That’s it folks. The only record of Gerhard’s entry to Canada.

There is a handwritten, barely legible record of Gerhard’s arrival in Halifax on September 5, 1947 which you can get by making a request under the Access to Information Act. If you have access to Canada’s “big book of immigrants” known as Canadian Government Return – Canadian Immigration Service and you look on Sheet 27 of Volume 4, Page 181 you’ll find Gerhard. His birthplace is listed as Nokolaipol[sic], his nationality, originally listed as Ukrainian, is crossed out and Dutch substituted. It is clear from this that he also played the “Dutch Gambit” (Holländerei) successfully. Gerhard confirmed he had never been in Canada before, had never been refused entry to or deported from Canada and that he intended to stay in Canada. To the question “Can you read?” he had answered “yes” but the languages he was fluent in were German, Russian and Ukrainian. He may have told a white lie answering “lumberman” to the question “What trade or occupation did you follow in your home country?”; conveniently that was also the answer he gave to the next question which was “What trade or occupation do you intend to follow in Canada?” Other questions inquired whether he had any physical or mental defects or if he was tubercular, all were answered no. “None known” was the answer to the question regarding the names of his closest relatives in the country from which he came. Better not to involve Lydia. The question regarding the amount of money in his possession was simply answered “no.” With this information Gerhard had met the requirements to live in Canada, was granted landed immigrant status and released to his guardian – the Nipigon Lake Lumber Company.

Eight hundred and thirty other Displaced Persons, including 31 Mennonites, became landed immigrants that day as they recovered from the seasickness of the rough crossing and the insistent interrogations of Canadian government agents.

GERHARD En route the authorities pressed us to find out who among us had been with the SS. One night on the high seas the investigation commission forced us to strip to our waists and raise our arms. Naturally there were those among us who were young and had been pressured to receive an SS tattoo.

When we arrived in Halifax we were allowed to leave the ship but not the boys who had the tattoos. We were deeply worried what would happen to them. We believed they were being sent back to the Russians, but we were wrong. After a while our brothers-in-misery were approved by the proper authorities. They were told that Canada is a free country and if you behave peacefully, all will be forgotten. The whole world had a great respect for the SS.

What to make of a comment like that? Did Gerhard believe Nazis could enter Canada regardless of their wartime deeds because immigration officials respected the SS? Did Gerhard believe the entire world shared his own respect for the SS? Gerhard had not left the German military very far behind him, even at the writing of his memoirs many years later.

In the years preceding World War Two, Canada was “highly selective” in which immigrants it permitted to enter the country. Today we would substitute racist for highly selective. Humanitarian considerations didn’t exist. In 1938-39 Canada denied Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia permission to come to Canada, despite repeated requests. “These refusals were justified under the existing immigration regulations and strongly influenced by Canadian assumptions about Jewish immigrants.”[1]

Canadians feared immigrants would take their jobs, or ruin the economy, or be a financial burden on society, or upset the “proper” racial mix of the population. Canada based its decisions on stereotypical notions of various ethnic groups. However, three factors forced Canada to change.

First, Canadians finally realized the depth of the catastrophe occurring in Europe: the millions of homeless, the starvation, the broken social structures. Young civil servants sent overseas to support the United Nations refugee organizations returned and impressed upon the Canadian government the urgent situation.

Second, it was clear returning soldiers were no longer hewers of wood and haulers of water. “Returning soldiers were seeking work in cities.  Seasonal work such as logging had become relatively unattractive to the veterans who were looking for permanent, lucrative, largely urban, work.”[2]

Third, the pulp and paper industry was taking off and needed men in the woods. Pulp and paper companies had lost the labour of prisoners of war who returned home. The industry and the Canadian government arranged for displaced persons from Europe to become wards of the pulp and paper companies, repay their travel costs and perhaps stay in the bush a year or two, before moving on.

Prisoners of War Stacking Cords of Wood

POWs stacking cordwood.

After passing through the selection and immigration process, displaced persons (DPs) arrived in Halifax and became the responsibility of the Department of Labour and the employers holding DP contracts. When healthy DPs arrived, this was a relatively seamless process whereby individuals were given train tickets to their final destination before they left the ship.[3]

Each new landed immigrant “had been selected by Canadian teams in Europe, screened, and offered contracts to work as pulpwood cutters in Canada for a period of ten months. Although many had family remaining in Europe and no real work experience in the pulp and paper industry, they were grateful for the work, the chance to settle in Canada and build a life for themselves and for those waiting for their turn to cross the Atlantic.”[4]

Netherlands Ambassador Dr. J.H. van Roijin and Mrs. van Roijin greeting Dutch immigrants arriving by ship in Montreal, June 1947

Netherlands ambassador and his wife greeting Dutch immigrants June 1947 in Montreal.

I’m sure government and industry officials hoped they would receive the cream of the pulpwood cutting crop from Scandinavia, where the best woodcutters were rumoured to reside, but the reality is they were receiving war-damaged desperate men willing to do or say anything to get out of Europe.

… there was an expectation … that the teams would find experienced, specialized, skilled loggers among the DPs.  It quickly became apparent that among the applicants claiming to have experience in the woods, most had been limited to the occasional tree removal on family farms, not professional work in the remote bush.[5]

Gerhard’s own experience as a woods worker in the Gulag lasted two days and he was rewarded with three days in the punishment cell.

… among these first workers were men who had lied or hidden aspects about their pre-war occupations. Some had been students, professionals, or other kinds of white-collar workers with a minimum of lumbering, mining, or construction experience.  It did not take long for managers to catch on and to agree to ignore this aspect as long as they worked hard.[6]

Tim Dodd was a fireman for the CPR when the displaced persons first arrived in Canada. Speaking at a refugee reunion he said: “You truly did start from nothing. We used to drop you off usually in unlit clearings deep in the bush, miles from any town. There would be only a couple of trucks backed up to the track. The refugees were crammed into low-grade rolling stock. We were appalled at the conditions in which they were arriving.”[7]

But Gerhard had died and gone to heaven.

* * * * *

Gerhard in the bush

That’s Gerhard with mustache and beard in the middle.

Even before arriving in Canada, workers were taught English and what was expected of them in Canadian society. The Preparatory Commission for the International Refugee Organization (PCIRO) gave woodsmen waiting to ship out for Canada at Diepholz, Germany a vocabulary list in English and German designed to give them the basics for lumber camp life. Basic vocabulary included:

“bag, boat, box, Canada, coat, cook, country, fire, food, put, road, sharp, sign, take, thing, get, go, great, hat, horse, house, hook time, together, train, wood, work, keep, make, meal, mister, [and] morning.”  The list also included “special words,” such as “axe, boss, bunk, bunkhouse, camp, cook house, file, fir, province, saw, skid, [and] spruce.” 

Some basic phrases were included in the loggers’ vocabulary list.

  1. I am John Schmidt.
  2. This is my bag.
  3. There are great woods in Canada
  4. This is a spruce tree.
  5. And that is a fir tree.
  6. Mr Brown is the camp boss.
  7. Put your things in the bunk house.
  8. We take our food in the cook house.
  9. We get to Canada by boat and to the camp by train.
  10. Your saw is not sharp.
  11. Take a file and make your saw sharp.
  12. Limb the tree with the axe.
  13. Skid the wood with the horse.
  14. The road has a sign.
  15. Do not make a fire in the wood.
  16. Put your things in the box.
  17. When do we go to work?
  18. We go to work after the morning meal.
  19. Put your hat and coat on the hook.
  20. Keep your things together.
  21. Canada is a great country.
  22. There are nine provinces in Canada.

 This fifty word vocabulary was designed to get men to the job site, start work safely, and settle in.[8]

GERHARD We climbed aboard a CPR train and after a long trip we landed at a train station called Nipigon Lake, in Ontario. Here we boarded a truck and were driven 15 miles into the woods. During the trip I saw a little bear climbing a tree. When we arrived at Group Camp 43 the tables were filled with every kind of food you could imagine. For the first few days all we had to do was eat. Whenever you wanted to eat, you could eat as much as you wanted. We had never eaten this well, nor would we ever again, because I could never afford to.

It wasn’t all feasting. Each of the men had signed a ten-month contract to perform back-breaking work that no longer appealed to returning Canadian soldiers. And Gerhard was having the time of his life!

The Contract

I _____ do hereby undertake that if admitted to Canada I will accept employment in Lumbering Pulpwood or Logging operations work with such employer as may be approved by the Minister of Labour for Canada or his representatives at the wage rates and under the working conditions prevailing in the locality of employment for comparable classifications of employment and that I will conform to the prevailing rules and working regulations of the employer by whom I am employed.

 I understand that I may be required to reimburse the employer for transportation from Port of Disembarkation in Canada to place of employment but that if I remain in the employment for a term of ten months no such charge will be made. I understand in agreeing to take such employment that employment is guaranteed by the employer for a minimum period of ten months.

 Dated at ____ this __ day of ____ 1947

Signature of Displaced Person

I certify that the above undertaking was interpreted to me in my own language and that the contents thereof are fully understood.

Signature of Displaced Person



Gerhard cheerfully signed and went to work.

The men were given a stand of trees to work in. They “needed to clear their stand of windfalls and brush; take down trees across their cleared roadway; trim the branches off fallen trees; and cut them into appropriate lengths, leaving four inches or so for wastage. After a day’s quota had been cut, the worker then had to pile the lengths of wood on skids parallel to the road to be moved by horse, or later, by truck. When lengths were long, this job of piling the day’s cutting was ‘generally conceded to be the toughest part of the job…’”[10]

GERHARD We were given tools: a Swede saw and a nice axe. We were paid $4.50 for every cord of wood produced, but we had to pay $1.20 per day for room and board. At the most we made two or three cords per day depending on the nature of the forest. If the trees were small, we had to cut a lot more.

At first we broke the saw blades quite often, the blades would be pinched and then they broke.

In the winter when the forests were dressed in white, we had to transport the wood we had cut in Fall over the lake and stack it in cords eight feet long four feet high and four feet wide.

I had the privilege of working on a team with Henry Regehr. We had big work horses to care for and fed them three times a day.

Workers slept on “steel beds, mattresses, blankets, sheets and pillows.” Heating was “suitable,” provided by a wood stove and some buildings had electric light.  Food was plentiful and well received by camp residents.hauling trees Supplies were available for sale at the camp store. Recreation facilities such as “recreation rooms, radios, reading material” and sometimes “occasional moving pictures” were also available. DPs were warned before arrival of the “handicap” of blackflies and mosquitoes, but also promised that repellant would be available at the camp store. When workers needed medical care, it would be available, for “a very small fee.”[11]

The work was hard but life was good. No matter how difficult the working conditions they were immeasurably better than life in Germany. They had jobs and better food than they had eaten in years, and “they had goals; fulfill the contract, learn English, and bring any remaining family to Canada.”[12] There was no going back.

Gerhard’s period of forest labour soon ended. He had arrived late in the woods season and after six months the season was over. If he found a job before the next season began, he would be released from the final four months of his ten-month commitment. He had enough money to take the train to British Columbia to stay with his aunt Anna Siemens who had immigrated in 1929.


In Canada, Gerhard wrote in a little black booklet the things he did not want to forget: names and addresses of people he knew in Germany, Paraguay, Winnipeg, Buenos Aries, Michigan, pages of birthdates, weddings and death dates, lists of food and clothing items sent overseas and poetry. It’s the poems that tell us more than names and addresses ever could (my translation, author unknown):

A Better Man

The second poem is by Ferdinand Freiligrath and appears in Franz Liszt’s Liebestraume No. 3.

O Love

Carter Joseph Lavoie with a load of logs, Township of Moonbeam, Ontario, circa 1920 photo Canadian-French Civilization Research Center

Joseph Lavoie cutting pulpwood in Ontario in 1920.



[1] Julie Frances Gilmour, “The Kind of People Canada Wants”: Canada and the Displaced Persons, 1943-1953, Phd. thesis, University of Toronto, 2009, page 12.NOTES

[2] Gilmour, op. cit., page 63-64.

[3] Gilmour, op. cit., page 156.

[4]  Gilmour, op. cit., page 1.

[5] Gilmour, op. cit., page 116.

[6] Interview with Kostas Astravas, 6 October 2008 cited in Gilmour, op. cit., page 166-167.

[7] The Ontario Round Table, Fall 1972, page 3. No author listed.

[8] LAC, RG27, v.3531, 3-26-38-1, pt. 2, Preparatory Commission for the International Refugee Organization, Department of Resettlement, Canadian Loggers’ Scheme, Short List of Sentences in English and in German cited in Gilmour, op. cit., page 201.

[9] LAC, RG27, v. 277, 1-26-2-1, part 1, 13 June, 1947, Cable from A.H. Brown to G. Haythorne, Department of Labour, cited in Gilmour, op. cit., page 147.

[10] TBHMS, Series B 28/1/1, Great Lakes Paper Company Fonds, The Link, v.2, n. 1, January 1949, 45, cited in Gilmour, op. cit., page 182.

[11] LAC, RG27, v.277, 1-26-2-1, pt. 1, Administrative-Immigration, Lumber and Logging, 10 June 1947, “Information for Workers Volunteering for Employment on Canadian Logging Operations in Northern Ontario,” cited in Gilmour, op. cit., page 183.

[12] Gilmour, op. cit., page 179.

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