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Economic Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Slovaks/

The economic fate of the four waves of Slovak immigrants who entered Canada over the last century differed greatly. In the nineteenth century Slovakia was an overwhelmingly agricultural land, and the first two waves of immigrants were agricultural labourers who found work in Canada’s mines, forests, farms, and industries, generally as unskilled labourers at minimum wages. Women who had children usually took in boarders in order to supplement meagre family incomes.

Some women also worked as agricultural labourers at harvest time. If the women were childless or single, they often worked as domestics in the homes of well-to-do Canadians or cleaned office buildings. Although they were at the bottom of Canada’s economic ladder, Slovak immigrants were generally happy to have found work and to be making more money than they could possibly have earned if they had stayed in Slovakia.

Second-generation Slovak Canadians did a little better than their parents. They spoke English fluently, and virtually all finished high school. After graduation, most found either skilled work or white-collar clerical employment. The Great Depression, however, limited their economic and social mobility, as it did for most Canadians.

The third and subsequent generations of Slovak Canadians have joined the Canadian mainstream. They were swept up by the tremendous expansion in Cana-da’s economy, in its civil service, and in spending on secondary and post-secondary education in the 1950s and 1960s, and most became white-collar professionals. Slovak-Canadian men have increasingly turned to teaching, accounting, journalism, law, and medicine, while women have become teachers, health-care specialists, and clerical workers.

Unlike their predecessors, almost all of the post-World War II immigrants had completed high school, and many of the men had university degrees as well. They faced some difficulties in adjusting to economic life in Canada. At first, most could not speak English and many found that their degrees were not accepted in Canada. Law degrees based on Roman law were useless in a country that practised common law, and central European doctoral degrees were frequently not recognized as equivalent to North American PhDs. Therefore, it was common for highly educated post-war refugees to work initially at manual labour while they learned English, and many also attended school at night in order to re-educate themselves to meet Canadian educational requirements. Eventually many were able to re-establish themselves as white-collar workers or professionals. Most of their wives continued to be homemakers, as they had been in Slovakia. These post-war refugees greatly valued education and saw to it that their children, boys and girls, attended university and were able to find jobs as white-collar professionals.

The immigrants who arrived after 1968 have also done very well. Most were young and had university degrees, especially in engineering, when they arrived, and they were often employed in their area of expertise. They have also benefited from the Canadian government’s policy of refugee resettlement that, since 1968, has provided free housing and instruction in either English or French during the refugee’s first six months in Canada. The men in this group usually found employment first, while their wives joined the labour force only after their children had started school. Of all the waves of Slovak immigrants to Canada, this group has acculturated most quickly.