Wednesday, March 29, 2006
We Were All Illegal Once
As the Tory crackdown on undocumented workers continues, TorontoSun.com - Toronto And GTA - Illegal workers go into hiding, it occurs to me to write that this country was built on the backs of illegals.
I'm not just talking about our current situation where, for example, in Toronto the local construction industry is powered by a large underground labor force. I mean the situation that has always been.
For the average Canadian, if they look at their parents, or their parents parents, they will eventually find someone that came here "on the dodge" or with the their papers "not entirely in order" or under suspicious circumstances of one kind of another.
For example, there was my great-grandfather on my mother's side.
I heard his story from my grandmother, when my mom's family (originally Pushenko) decided to hold a Reunion on Granny's farm outside of Yorkton, Saskatchewan. That was sometime in the mid-70s, and I was about twelve or thirteen years old years old.
Grandma's farm was a hoot for a townie kid my age. Two big red farmhouses stood in a field of grain the size Lake Ontario. As dad drove us up the road to the place, I could see several bitterns
at the edge of the field to our right, standing stock still with their long necks pointed sky-ward as they attempted to hide from our vehicle by acting like wheat.
We parked in a big grass cul de sac at the center of a cluster of houses and storage buildings. Through the open doors of Grandma's barn I spotted the biggest, ugliest motor craft I had ever seen. It was like a small square shack plopped down on wheels, with a rolling-pin strapped to the front of it.
Mom said: "When your grandfather was alive he used to drive that old combine up and down the fields to harvest the wheat."
Dad said: "Harvest some of those birds too. They stiffen up when they hear the combine engine coming." (His family were also farmers originally, but from down the road in Alberta).
Mom said: "Some of the wealthier farmers have little tvs inside the cab, and a bunk-bed, and even a shower in some cases. They don't go very fast, and on a big farm you can just point them straight and relax until a timer goes off that tells you to turn around."
Wow! I saw myself cruising across the wheat ocean in one of these things, watching tv and taking showers whenever I wanted!
But Uncle Fred, who drove the combine and did most of the serious farming now that my grand-dad had passed away, wouldn't be on site until the rest of the Pushenko's began showing up this weekend. I had to be content to sneak inside the cab of the old combine at night when everyone else had gone to sleep and run my hands over the controls, dreaming of traveling...
But this story isn't about an old combine.
What happened was, as the week passed and my brother and I settled into our quarters in the guest house (which we had to ourselves!), Grandma walked us around the farm and showed us the highlights. One cool place was, in the midst of the flat yellow wheatfields, a small wood that bordered a pond with perch. There was a path through this, and a tree that I could climb near the water. I saw myself going up and sitting on the sturdy branch that over-hung the pond, casting a line into the water.
So on Thursday, when the rest of the family went into Yorkton to shop for the upcoming reunion, Grandma found me an old fishing rod and I dug up some worms and ran off into the wood to catch some perch.
It didn't take me five minutes to cast a hook into the back of my head, though. I have no manual skills whatsoever. Luckily, when I fell out of the tree I landed in the pond itself, which was about six feet deep at this end. I struggled out of the water with the hook stuck in my skull, and the hooked worm kicking against my left ear.
Grandma, who was in her kitchen making perogies, fixed me up in no time, and stuck a bandaid over the puncture mark. Then for some reason she decided to share a little secret: "Come with me," she said, and led me to her bedroom on the third floor of the main house. Once there, she opened a chest and pulled an old framed picture from inside of it.
"This is your great grandfather Jan, as he was when he left the old country."
There were two men in the picture, dressed in old world peasant dresses, with white shirts underneath and laces down the front.
"Which one is Jan?"
"The dark dress, with the hat. The other man was his friend Petr, who settled North of the city."
Now, my great grandfather Jan Poshenko and his friend Petr were Ukrainian, big fat Hunkies, so they were built like two cubes made of meat, about five and a half feet across in any direction. It is difficult to describe their appearance in female garb. I might start by saying that they both looked like Gertrude Stein. And although the term "Big Bull Dyke" had not been invented when they boarded the boat out of Odessa in 1905, it fit pretty well. They had carefully stuffed something down their dress tops to simulate the female shape, and the results were impressive, if not erotic.
"Jan and Petr left the old country after the first wave of Ukranians had already landed in Montreal and taken the train out West to the plots of land given to them by the Federal government," Grandma explained. "Most of the first ones out here were men, but then the government began looking for single women to ship out after them, so they would have something to marry and settle down with."
"And when you got down to the docks, the process was not scientific. You held your papers up and a little Canadian man in a bowtie picked you from the crowd, or didn't. He would say "You, you, and you...not you," and your fate was settled. Jan and Petr understood that they had a better chance to make the crossing as women than as men, so they "borrowed" clothing from Petr's sister. Ukrainian women and Ukrainian men come to look very similar after they reach a certain age, especially if they've spent their lives on the farm."
"Your Great Grandfather's ship was kept in port two days by a storm in the Eastern Mediterranean, and he knew that if he was seen dressed as a man (he carried the proper clothes in his suitcase) he would be set ashore, so he remained in this dress and tried not to come above deck where the light was bright and people could see his whiskers."
"All said, he wore this dress for six days, until the boat was far enough into the Atlantic that they could not think to turn it around."
I said: "Was this picture taken in the Ukraine?"
Grandma replied: "No, Jan and Petr kept their dresses in their suitcases as they came West on the train. They were let off outside of Yorkton, pointed in the direction of the empty quarter that was to become their farm, and told to start walking. A few years later, when they had become established a little, they took the two dresses from where they had hidden them, washed them, and posed in them one more time for this photo. just so they should never forget what they had done to come to this great land of Canada."
Grandma died in 1995, and I never did see or even hear of that picture again. But the memory has always stayed with me: my great grandfather, aboard the boat out of Odessa, come to build Canada in a dress.