Thursday, November 9, 2023

A Remembrance Day story of bravery, second chances, gratitude and trains

I have often shared stories of my father's side of the family, since my grandfather and all my uncles worked for the Canadian Pacific or Via Rail at one point in their lives. One story I have not told is the story of my mother. And yes, railways play a large part in her story as well. I am sharing this story now, as it is close to Remembrance Day in Canada and this part of my family's story is quite compelling.

My grandfather on my Italian side (we called him Nonno) came to Canada following the end of the Second World War. He had been forced to serve in the Italian army under Mussolini and then had to retreat back to Italy while avoiding the Germans, when Mussolini was assassinated and the Italians left the Axis powers. 

The story about my grandfather goes that he and his friends found themselves disbanded as part of an occupying force in the former Yugoslavia. When the army disbanded, they had to ditch their uniforms and sneak across the entire country under the cover of night, to avoid Germans, who were hunting down Italians as traitors. My Nonno relayed to my uncle that they had to rely on the kindness of the people whose country they were occupying, to provide them food, clothes and places to sleep. What made things worse for his group was that one of their comrades was injured and could not walk. 

He told my Nonno and the other troops to leave him there, but they made the decision that he was not going to be left behind. Instead, they fashioned a sled and used their belts to drag him across the country until they safely returned to Northern Italy. The did it because they all agreed they couldn't face his family if they left him in Yugoslavia. It's an amazing story and it's the only war story that I know of in my family. It's hard to imagine someone I know being forced to survive like that. 

My Nonno came to Canada on his own and took a job as a track labourer for the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Crowsnest Pass area in British Columbia. There he worked until he could earn enough money to secure passage for his family to come to Canada (Both of my grandfathers worked for the CPR). My Nonno never forgot what Canada had given him: A second chance. He lived in the Italian community in Windsor and was one of the people who built the Fogolar Furlan Italian community centre. To the day he died, he always had an Italian flag and a Canadian flag where he lived. This shot below is a rare image of him and my Nonna in Windsor in the 1950s. That little guy wandering around is my Uncle John (Giovani).

My mother came to Canada when she was seven years old. She didn't remember much of the ship that took her from her home in Northern Italy to Halifax. But she told me that her first memory of that time landing in Halifax at Pier 21 was how cold it felt, which shocked her. She told me as well that she remembered sitting on long wooden benches at the Pier 21 processing facility, as her family was brought into Canada. I had a chance to visit this historic site and it was a powerful experience for me, a first generation Canadian on my mother's side. Her entry in Halifax would have been around 1956. It's quite possible that she was brought to Windsor by a steam engine. Possibly. This would have been right around the full transition to diesel F units.

I wonder about her route. I doubt it took her through Ottawa. If it had, she would not have gone through the Tremblay Road station, as the downtown Union Station was still operational, next to the Rideau Canal in the 1950s. But if she was on a train with diesel power on CP, it would have looked something like this below, I think. This is the eastbound Dominion with an E unit in 1967. It would definitely have been on cars that were maroon and grey,

Could she have ridden on an old heavyweight maroon coach like these on the CPR Christmas Train in Finch Ont.? I wonder.

From Halifax, my mom only told me how utterly long and exhausting the train ride was that brought her all the way to her new home in Windsor, Ont. I can't imagine how much of a shock it would have been to immigrants to truly experience the immensity of this country for the first time, which is unlike anything in Europe. I don't know what railway she would have taken, but I assume it might have been a little of both the CNR and CPR, given where her trip started and where it ended. I can also imagine there were likely connections to be made in Montreal at the old Windsor Station (Windsor Station in Montreal, explain that to an immigrant heading to Windsor!) and in Toronto at the Union Station.

My mom ended up growing up in Windsor, where she graduated from an all-girls school, St. Mary's Academy, before embarking on a career in teaching. She told me growing up in Windsor was tough in the 1950s and 1960s, as Italians were subject to fierce discrimination, which is understandable given their role in the Axis powers under their dictator. 

But it was a happy ending for my mom, as she found a peaceful life in Canada, free of the uncertainty and poverty in post-war Northern Italy. She didn't tell me all that much about her entry into Canada, except to say that it was an eye-opening experience on the train. 

My Uncle John, My Nonno and me at Heritage Park in Calgary in the early 1990s.

I wonder how many other families have similar stories about this country involving a train bringing them to their new home. Every Remembrance Day, I have mixed feelings, given my family history. I am thankful for those who served for my benefit. I have only ever considered myself a Canadian. I am lucky that my grandfather on my father's side was exempted from military service, since he was missing a finger on his trigger hand. 

Despite my Italian family's history, which began on the wrong side of the Second World War, this country gave them a second chance, and much of that was due to the sacrifices of the brave Canadians who served for my family's freedom. For that, I am thankful and I remember.


Explosino said...

Kudos on being a reliable source of insightful content. Thank you!

Steve Boyko said...

What a story! It's impressive what our ancestors went through to get to Canada.

Michael said...

I can only imagine how many stories there actually are spread out across this country.