This is the Life: Syrian refugee crisis brings to mind family history

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As, along with much of the world, I followed the Syrian refugee crisis as it hit the headlines last week, I couldn’t help but think about how easy it is to take our own lives for granted. While most of us likely don’t have a refugee story in our family history, unless we have surnames like Louie, Luke and Basil, we do have histories of immigration.

In a phone chat with my 87-year-old mother this week I asked for a refresher as to how my ancestors got to Canada. She has plenty of physical ailments, but Mom’s memory is still sharp and quick.

My dad’s father, Jim Eckersley, came to Canada from Lancashire in the mid-1920s, an adult travelling with his parents and siblings. They bought a small farm just south of Fernie. He would marry Teresa Jarina, whose Czechoslovakian parents would arrive first in the eastern U.S. before making their way across the continent to settle in the now mostly forgotten Michel-Natal area near Sparwood, where mining jobs were the major draw.

Mom’s father, Harry Bath, married his wife Rose in England, then left her behind with a child as he and Rose’s brother set off for Canada in search of a better life. Harry first worked as a farm labourer in Saskatchewan. He loved the work, but moved westward when he realized he would never earn enough to bring his wife and child over to Canada. He arrived, also in the mid-1920’s, in Michel, where coal mine jobs paid better, even though work days were irregular. Sad that his lungs, damaged by a Nazi mustard gas attack while he fought in French trenches in the Great War, would be subjected to a lifetime of coal dust and often impure air.

Two years after his arrival in Canada, Rose and baby Ron were able to join him.

For my four grandparents, life never was easy. With not much education, they scratched out livings from logging and mining, raised their families and ended up in Fernie, away from the soot-blackened houses, yards and roads in Michel and Natal.

Rose died of cancer in 1959 and Harry worked a few more years before retiring. I can still remember the night in the late 1970s when Angela and I, with my Uncle Ron, paid our last visit to him as he laid in the hospital, semi-conscious and gasping for air that even an oxygen mask couldn’t force down into his hardened lungs. He died a few hours after we left the hospital that night.

Pop Eckersley had a happier retirement, as he fed his passions for gardening and woodworking at their West Fernie home. But Jim and Teresa’s final years were less happy. They lived in an apartment after they sold their home, he slowed by heart ailments and she now blinded by the diabetes she had suffered from for years.

Wealth was one thing none of my grandparents ever experienced. They couldn’t even afford cars near the end of their working lives. None ever made the trip back to Europe. I doubt that it was ever a consideration as they struggled to keep up with the costs associated with home ownership. They were proud Canadians, though, appreciative in the knowledge that they, or their parents, had taken the risk of sailing into a great unknown in search of opportunity.

In comparison to the waves of refugees and unsettled immigrants who have come to Canada’s shores, they were simply economic opportunists. They brought next to nothing with them except a willingness to work. Three were lucky enough to have been born in England — that gave them a slight upper hand even if they weren’t well educated. My grandmother’s family would always be referred to as squareheads or bohunks, simply because they came from a country a few hundred miles to the east of England.

As I listened to and read about the plight of millions who have streamed out of Syria, I thought back to the all-too-regular times in Canadian history when immigrants from too many other countries have arrived with little else than hope for a better future. And I was disgusted by Stephen Harper’s ice-cold assertion that Canada has the most generous immigration policy in the world. The simple fact is that the Conservative government has been enthusiastic about immigrants who arrive with piles of cash to spend and invest — one need look no further than the Lower Mainland to find the proof in the cost of housing. Canada will not solve the big picture problem that is the Middle East, and under a Conservative government we won’t even try. But we should offer a ray of hope to more families than we have accepted to this point.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

 

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