Migration, Arrival, and Settlement

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Belarusans/Madeline Ziniak

The first known Belarusan immigrants to Canada settled in the Red River colony of present-day Manitoba in 1817. Michael Bardovich, Jan Miron, and John Vasilkousky were Roman Catholics from western Belarus who fled their homeland to avoid arrest for participating in anti-Russian activities. They joined the De Watteville regiment in England and were taken from Montreal to Red River by Lord Selkirk, who gave them land in exchange for services.

Belarusan immigration to Canada in 1905 came from the western and central regions of the Russian Empire – namely the provinces of Brest, Grodno, Minsk, Mogilev, Smolensk, and Vilnius. Early immigrants, many of them Jews, provided the Belarusan peasants with an incentive to emigrate. They portrayed Canada as a land of opportunity; if something was very good or valuable, people would say: “That’s Canada.” Abundance of land and work and similarity in geography and climate attracted Belarusan immigrants to Canada, where they hoped to become wealthier before returning to Belarus. Unmarried male immigrants did not study English or purchase homes. World War I and the Russian Revolution, however, forced them to realize that they were in Canada for good. A number of the male immigrants married women of Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian descent, as well as German and Finnish, and many did not marry at all.

Intense oppression in Polish-ruled western Belarus and severe economic depression caused the next wave of immigration to Canada, from 1925 to 1928. These immigrants, unlike their predecessors, possessed a national consciousness, strongly expressed in the radical peasant group Hramada (Union), which Poland outlawed in 1927.

By 1944 the annexation of all Belarusan territories by the Soviet Union launched more emigration to Canada. As well, Belarusan prisoners of war from German camps were fleeing the new Soviet regime. Immediately after the war, 800 western Belarusans arrived in Canada with other members of the Polish Second Corps and signed contracts to work on farms in Ontario.

Belarus was not listed as a source country in Canadian immigration statistics and many Belarusans were identified as Polish, Russian, or Lithuanian; available data suggest that some 12,000 to 15,000 arrived immediately after World War II. Some sources suggest that as many as 100,000 emigrated from Poland, with one-third settling in Canada. The term “White Russian,” sometimes used to refer to Belarusans, in practice became a synonym for Russians, especially those opposed to the “Red” (Bolshevik) Russians. Fear of being repatriated under the terms agreed to at Yalta also made many Belarusans reluctant to claim their country of origin, particularly among the peasant class.

The 1991 census indicates 1,015 Belarusans by single response in Canada and 1,815 by multiple response; Soviet sources estimate as many as 100,000. The actual number is probably 50,000 to 70,000, with half residing in Ontario and a majority of those living in Toronto. Large numbers are found in Hamilton, London, Oshawa, St Catharines, Sudbury, and Thunder Bay. Others live in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Montreal, Rouyn, and Winnipeg. Smaller numbers are found in British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.