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Celebrating Canada History Week, with a look to the past

Black and white photo of people in a wheat field in Canada

Photo courtesy of Gerhard J.Ens.

Edited by Anaheh Ghookassian Khoygani, Ottawa, Canada

To celebrate Canada History Week, from 18 – 24 of November, UNHCR is bringing you four inspiring refugee stories of people who came to Canada before the year 1950, when UNHCR was created.  This year’s theme, “Working for the Future: a Century of Change in How Canadians Work” showcases stories of change in the workplace and labour history across the country.  These short stories are all about people who came to Canada and established successful careers and businesses.  They are the journeys of families who contributed to Canadian society and transformed their communities.  They all share a common sentiment—the feeling of pride and joy in calling Canada their home.


The Rubinek family

A black and white photo of a couple sitting at a table in Canada

Farina and Israel at their home in Ottawa after their return from Poland. Photo courtesy of Saul Rubinek.

Saul Rubinek’s family arrived by ship as refugees from Germany in 1949.  While Rubinek was himself born in a refugee camp, his mother and father came to Canada before his first birthday.  His journey and experience is at the heart of his personal passion-project, the documentary film, So Many Miracles, which brings to light the family memento that his parents held onto all these years.  The now acclaimed Canadian actor, director and producer, whose career brought him from the Ottawa Little Theatre to Hollywood, highlights the way his parents found hope and celebrated their past by keeping true to traditions.


The Procyk family

A black and white image of people sitting around a table in Canada

William Procyk with his parents, sister and brother. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Christine Wheeler’s father was only six years old when he began his journey to Canada as a Polish immigrant in 1939.  William Procyk, came alongside his parents and siblings, and eventually moved to a farm in Wilsonville, Ontario, to establish what is today a family-lead, nationwide business success story.  Procyk kept the promise to his father by expanding the family farm and passing down the fruits of his labour to his children, now second-generation immigrants who call Canada home.


The Ens family

A black and white photo of young boys standing side by side outside in Canada

Gerhard Ens, second from the left, tallest in the picture, with brothers and friends. Photo courtesy of Gerhard J.Ens.

Gerhard J. Ens’ late father, who came to Canada as a Mennonite refugee in 1923.  Ens worked hard as a teacher, minister, and radio broadcaster, and eventually raised a family in Manitoba.  He was ordained in 1958 and worked with the Mennonite Collegiate Institute, and later founded the Manitoba Mennonite History Society in the same year.  As a profoundly religious man, Ens felt very lucky to be Canadian and worked hard for his family, his faith, and his country.


The Graziadei family

A sepia family portrait of a family in Canada

Based on The Immigration Story of Rocco Antonio Graziadei, arrived from Italy via the United States of America, 1882. Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [S2017.629.8].

Rocco and Carmella Graziadei travelled far and long before calling Ottawa their home.  In 1881 the soon-to-be parents, motivated by their dream of a life full of opportunities, decided to emigrate from Italy to North America in search of a better future for their growing family.  After several relocations from New York City to Port Huron to Toronto, they purchased property in Ottawa and were able to establish their travelling orchestra.  The family was invited to perform at Rideau Hall for the Governor Generals many times.