Community Life

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

In addition to the family, the fraternal-benefit society is a pillar of the Slovak-Canadian community. When they first migrated to Canada in the late nineteenth century, Slovaks found little in the way of social services or support from local or higher levels of government. If someone fell ill, was injured, or died, neither the employer nor the government stepped in to help. Therefore, Slovak immigrants had to help themselves through fraternal-benefit societies. Such organizations grouped together Slovaks from the same region, or with the same religion, gender, or political orientation. Each fraternal society collected dues from its members and paid out a certain amount to a member who fell ill or was injured or to his family if he died.

Slovak-American fraternal societies began to appear in 1883, and numbered fifty by 1890. In that year local fraternal societies began to federate into national bodies such as the National Slovak Society, with headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the First Catholic Slovak Union, with head offices in Cleveland, Ohio. Many others sprang up in subsequent years: the Slovak Evangelical Union (1893), which eventually had headquarters in Pittsburgh; the Slovak Catholic Sokol, founded in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1905 and with headquarters there; and the Slovak Workers’ Society, established in Newark, New Jersey, in 1915, but eventually with headquarters in Chicago. Since Slovak men at first excluded women from their fraternal societies, the women established their own societies: the Živena (Giver of Life) Society in New York City in 1891; the First Catholic Slovak Ladies’ Union in Cleveland in 1892; and women’s “wreaths” of the Slovak Catholic Sokol, which appeared shortly after it was founded in 1905.

The earliest Slovak immigrants to Canada initially established branches of Slovak-American fraternal societies. Thus, the first Slovak-Canadian fraternal-benefit society was Assembly 52 of the National Slovak Society, founded in 1891 in the coal-mining town of Ladysmith, British Columbia (on Vancouver Island). Before World War I, Slovak immigrants also established branches of the National Slovak Society, the First Catholic Slovak Union, and the Slovak Catholic Sokol in Lethbridge, Canmore, Blairmore, Coleman, and Frank in Alberta; in Fernie, Natal, Trail, and Corbin in British Columbia; and in Fort William, Ontario. After the war, these same societies established new branches in Timmins, Montreal, Toronto, Windsor, and elsewhere, but by this time they had to compete with the first Canadian branches of the First Catholic Slovak Ladies’ Union, the Slovak Evangelical Union, and the Slovak Workers’ Society, among others, in the major Canadian Slovak settlements. By 1934 over 100 branches of Slovak-American fraternal societies existed in Canada.

By the mid-1930s, however, the American-based societies had competition from fraternal societies that were wholly Canadian. The Montreal restaurant-owner František Ćapković decided in 1924 to establish a Canadian fraternal-benefit society for Slovaks. When some of the restaurant’s Czech customers also wished to join, the local Czechoslovak consul-general encouraged $apkovic to set up a Czechoslovak Benefit Society and subsidized it with a monthly contribution of $60. Its goal was not only to promote self-help among Czechs and Slovaks but also to promote “Czechoslovak” unity. Yet, by the late 1920s, rifts had begun to open between the Czech and Slovak members, and one of the founders, Gabriel Kurdel, left the society and moved to the west. Between 1929 and 1931 he established several Slovak-Canadian fraternal societies in the west and in northern Ontario. In 1931, meanwhile, the First Slovak Benefit Society (with eight branches) split off from the Czechoslovak Benefit Society (with nine branches). The various Slovak fraternal societies finally formed a federation and became the Canadian Slovak Benefit Society in 1946. At its height in 1965, it had 38 branches with 2,035 members, which made it the second-largest Slovak-Canadian fraternal-benefit society.

The largest Slovak-Canadian fraternal society had American roots. During World War I, several hundred Slovak Canadians were interned by Canadian authorities as enemy aliens because they came from Austria-Hungary, which was at war with Canada. The Slovak League of America sent an official delegate to Canada in 1915 and 1916 to persuade the Canadian government to release the interned Slovaks. The league argued that most Canadian Czechs and Slovaks, like their American counterparts, supported the Czecho-Slovak liberation movement, which was hostile to the Central Powers and supportive of the Allies. Canadian authorities allowed the league’s delegate to visit the internment camps and accepted his recommendation that Slovaks who favoured the Allied cause be released. Starting in Fort William, Ontario, in 1916, grateful Canadian Slovaks established branches of the Slovak League of America in Corbin, British Columbia; Flin Flon and Winnipeg, Manitoba; Toronto and Oshawa, Ontario; Montreal, Quebec; and New Waterford, Nova Scotia.

The Slovak League of America was not a fraternal-benefit society, however, and Slovak Canadians were disappointed to discover during the Great Depression that it could offer them little relief. Therefore, at a meeting on 12–14 December 1932 in Winnipeg, the Corbin, Winnipeg, and Montreal branches of the Slovak League of America decided to establish the Canadian Slovak League, which remained strongly Slovak-nationalist in its orientation but also became a fraternal-benefit society. When its membership peaked in the mid-1960s, the Canadian Slovak League had 55 branches all across Canada (but principally in Ontario and Quebec) with 3,247 members, making it the largest Slovak-Canadian fraternal-benefit society.

Meanwhile, Slovak socialists also reorganized themselves. When the Great Depression began, the six branches of the American-based Slovak Workers’ Society withered, and the survivors grouped themselves into Workers’ Education Clubs in 1931. In 1934 they joined the Communist Party of Canada, and two years later they federated as the Slovak Cultural Society. During World War II, they finally established the Slovak Benefit Society. By 1965 it had 27 branches with 1,200 members and was the third-largest of the Slovak-Canadian fraternal-benefit societies.

Finally, Canadian Slovaks also continued to support American-based fraternal societies. In 1965 the second-largest Slovak fraternal-benefit society in Canada was the First Catholic Slovak Union, which had 2,988 Canadian members. The First Catholic Slovak Ladies’ Union and the Slovak Catholic Sokol, among others, also continue to have members in Canada. Thus, it is clear that the Slovaks in Canada have close ties to the much larger Slovak-American community.