Hungarian Immigration to Canada
The homeland of Canada’s Hungarians has a long and interesting history which helped shape these industrious and resilient people. Carpathian or the Middle Danube Basin of east-central Europe was an important waterway from pre-Roman times. The Magyars, who would come to be known as Hungarians, travelled from the foothills of the Southern Ural Mountains to settle in this temperate region. The Kingdom of Hungary accepted Christianity and spread to include the countries that we now know as Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and parts of Romania, the Ukraine, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Austria.
Later, the central lowlands of this region were ruled directly by the Ottoman Empire and the northern and western regions were controlled by the Habsburgs with Transylvania in the east under the rule of Protestant Hungarian princes. Conflicts and power struggles plagued the region and the revolutionary war of 1848–1849, inspired the first large wave of emigration to the United States of America and Canada, which was then called British North America.
In 1867, the same year that Canada became a country, Hungary became an equal partner in what was thereafter known as the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. After World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated and borders moved once again. Hungary was a state, one-third of which was transferred to Romania with the remaining portions divided between the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, and Austria. In his chapter from the Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples, Nandor F. Dreisziger explains that these historical factors have made it difficult to define just who is a Hungarian.
Since the 1880s approximately 120 000 people with Hungarian origins have migrated to Canada. The reasons Hungarian immigrants came to Canada were diverse with numerous push and pull factors encouraging their migration. Immigration from Hungary came primarily in two waves. The first wave was predominately pioneers in the late 1800’s and the second wave came after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Pier 21 was one of the entry points which welcomed many of these Hungarian immigrants, particularly the large group known as the Hungarian Revolution refugees that arrived in 1956, 1957 and into 1958.
The pioneering Hungarian immigrants who chose Canada were predominantly agrarian workers who first stopped for employment in Pennsylvania’s mines. It was in the 1880s when Paul Oscar Esterhazy decided to bring Hungarians to the Canadian prairies from Pennsylvania and establish a ‘New Hungary’. Newcomers built their communities and sent positive reports to relatives and friends back home thus inspiring a chain of migration. Canada was attractive to would be Hungarian immigrants because it offered free land for homesteading. In return for these lands, immigrants had to clear them, build houses and work their farm land. Lacking education and knowledge of English, many Hungarian immigrants were doomed to manual labour. Some Hungarians, however, were able to prosper due to their entrepreneurial spirit and very hard work. Many of these immigrants later became tobacco farmers in Southern Ontario.
When World War I began, immigration from Hungary stopped even though Hungarians were anxious to emigrate. Canada would not accept any people from ‘enemy’ lands so it was not until 1924 that Canada reopened her doors to Hungarians. Most of the Hungarians who were deemed acceptable to Canada were from those provinces where the land was lost and ruled by successor states. Again, most of the immigrants were agricultural workers or dispossessed landed gentry seeking opportunities to improve their prospects in Canada.
The Great Depression had a dramatic effect on migration. Only the family members of those already established in Canada who could ensure that they were not going to be public charges were allowed to immigrate. Many Hungarian-Canadians saved money to be able to sponsor their families, while others had to give up because they could not afford it. Unemployment was a major problem and many people worked for just 20 cents a day in railway construction.
In 1939, when Canada entered the Second World War against Germany and her allies (including Hungary) it was again impossible for Hungarians to immigrate to Canada because they were regarded as ‘enemy aliens’. It was not until 1947, when the flow of Hungarians resumed (10 151). This group of immigrants had left their homes during and after the Second World War, living in Displaced Persons camps awaiting permission to enter Canada. The people in this wave of Displaced Persons from Hungary were often traumatized by not just the war but the long wait and uncertainty they faced. They had no idea where they would go or what the future would hold for them. Many prospective Hungarian-Canadians volunteered as farm hands in order to be able to enter Canada. Many others were sponsored by Hungarian farmers who had settled in Canada through earlier waves of migration. In order to be allowed into Canada, many Hungarians had to sign a one or two year contract. Once they had fulfilled their commitment to work on farms Hungarian-Canadians often moved to larger cities where, in time, most succeeded in obtaining better jobs, although they were often not related to the field in which they had worked previously in Hungary.
After the Second World War, many Hungarians found the communist rule difficult to live under. Dissatisfied Hungarians led a revolt in October of 1956. The revolution lasted only 12 days. The Soviet Army invaded the country and crushed the revolution. There was no other choice for many Hungarians but to flee the country or face persecution and punishment. Within weeks of the end of the revolution, Hungarians began to come to Canada. It was a traumatic departure with over 30 000 Hungarians leaving between 1956 and the end of 1957. This was the largest number of Hungarian immigrants Canada had ever seen. Most of these refugees were young men with a good education or training in industry. The Canadian authorities and population warmly welcomed the Hungarian revolution refugees.
There were 285 students from a faculty of forestry school who had fled together with their 29 professors. They were offered the opportunity to continue their study at the university of British Colombia. Each province set up programs to assist in accommodating the refugees. Nearly 20 000 Hungarian Revolution refugees settled in Ontario because it provided a wide variety of opportunity and resettlement programs. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Roman Catholic Church and the First Hungarian Presbyterian Church performed marriages for newly arrived couples. In Alberta 70 civic groups participated in resettlement.
In recent years, a substantial portion of Hungarians arriving in Canada have first lived in Romania and Czecoslovakia where they settled temporarily before making the move to Canada. Since the early 1990s the flow of direct immigrants from Hungary has nearly stopped, however, Hungarian immigration from these neighbouring countries still exists.
Today, Hungarian-Canadians can be found in all walks of life. Hungarians have made notable contributions to science, finance, business, cinematography, computer technology, music and sports. For example, Hungarian-Canadian Janos (Hans) Selye (endochronologist, physician and researcher) is known as the founder of the concept of stress and was the first director of the institute of stress in Montreal in 1977. Andrew Sarlos, a Hungarian born Canadian, is an investor and financial guru, author and philanthropist. Peter Munk is an industrial tycoon and is the founder of Barric Gold and the multi-billion dollar Canadian construction and development firm Trizec Hahn. Jessica Rackocki is the IBA lightweight world boxing champion and Elvis Stojko, ‘King of Ice’, is a 3 time world champion, 7 time Canadian national champion and 2 time Olympic silver medalist.
Push and Pull Factors
- In the late 19th century Hungary’s population growth exceeded its food production and many peasants were without food to eat or land to work. Canada was enormous and faced a labour shortage that it hoped that immigration would solve.
- After the First World War Hungarians migrated because of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the conflict between Hungary and its neighbours over territory, and the Treaty of Trianon. By this time Canada could offer factory jobs as well as agriculture.
- Hungary was devastated by the Second World War. The post-war years saw another wave of Hungarian immigration including many Hungarian Jews who had survived the Holocaust and large numbers of Hungarian displaced people. Again Canada needed help working the land and in industry; many Hungarian professionals worked as miners, farmers and loggers initially and then sought jobs in their professions.
- In 1956 the Hungarian Revolution resulted in 37 500 Hungarian revolution refugees coming to Canada. The Canadian government streamlined the immigration process for Hungarians and in Canada the government covered the travel costs and supported the Hungarian Revolution refugees during their first year in Canada.
Andras, Dr. Rona-Tas. The Origin and Early History of Hungarians. July 26, 2006.
Magocsi, Paul, ed., Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1999.
Patrias, Carmela. The Hungarians in Canada, Ottawa, 1999 Canadian History Association.
Volume 27. www.collectionscanada.gc.ca..
“Crossroads of Culture-Hungarian Immigrants”, July 16, 2006.
Nobel Prize Winners and Famous Hungarians
Hungarian Immigration, Understanding Canadian Diversity in Alberta,
Alberta Online Encyclopedia
Smith, Carrie-Ann (Vice President, Audience Engagement),
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.