From Servitude to Self-Determination
Written By: James Walker
The earliest Croatian immigrants came to Canada in the 1920’s, in search of a better life than those provided by their home villages. At first, Croatian immigrants were mostly male, and took jobs at the brickyard in Port Credit, but women began to immigrate to join their husbands in the later 20’s and throughout the 30’s. Many of these wives had never been more than fifteen kilometres outside of their home village when it came time for them to join their husbands in Canada, and were justifiably nervous. Sometimes alone, and often scared, they would travel by road to the Croatian capital, Zagreb, before taking a train to the French coastal port of Cherbourg, where they would depart by ship for Canada. These women only had the letters of their husbands to rely on for information about their new home, and were very unsure of what lay ahead of them.
While every Croatian came to Canada with a willingness to work extremely hard, women faced more barriers than did men. There was a perception that a woman leaving the home to work would shame her husband, as it would look like he could not provide for his family. Women did not, at first, get further from the home than harvesting cherries on the farms around the brickyard that their husbands worked at. Some women kept boort (running a boarding house in the family home). While these boarding houses were technically a joint venture between husband and wife, it was the wife who did all the work. One interviewee remembered it as “hell work,” and said that she wouldn’t wish it upon an enemy. The unceasing physical labour began with making breakfast for 5-7 men and packing them lunches for the work day. While the men were at work, the boort keeper would be occupied with cleaning, cooking, baking, washing, and ironing. Keeping boort also put strain on family relationships because they were on show for all to see.
While work took up the majority of Croatian immigrants’ time, there were still a few rare occasions for sociable gathering, such as picnics, weddings, and fundraising events. For the former, Croatians would ride in trucks from Hamilton and Toronto to spend time with their countrymen and women, while immigrants who were keen to embrace a valued role in Canadian society would organize the latter. Gender constraints still applied at these events, with women doing most of the food preparation and serving, but men also helped to cook lambs and pigs on spits.
Attention was lavished on the children, and it was clear that parents and their offspring were in an intensive lifelong relationship which would continue after the children moved out into their own houses.
During the 1930s, Croatian immigrants began to move out of the brickyard’s village and into the surrounding farmland, where they often set up grape farms on land that was similar to their native terrain. World War Two saw Croatian women move into semi-skilled labour positions in munitions and aircraft factories, and despite losing their jobs once the men returned from war, a precedent had been set. Croatian husbands may not have liked the idea of their wives working in a factory, but it had become far more socially acceptable than it once was, and women gained independence. A page had turned in the history of Croatian women in Canada: they were no longer only wives and domestic workers.