Roman was Russian or maybe Ukrainian. The folks of his town went from one to the other with each shift of the restless border. From the bitter cold of the 1905 winter came a worker’s revolt. Tsar Nicholas reacted first with concessions but soldiers were soon attacking trouble-makers, including those with books deemed dangerous. Roman’s uncle imperiled his family for reading, among other things, the poetry of Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko whose words inspired the oppressed to feel power and the shamed to know pride.
With rumours of soldiers on the way Roman’s parents told him to run. The eighteen-year-old hitched rides and jumped trains until finding the coast. He snuck aboard the first lackadaisically secured ship he could find and hid beneath a lifeboat’s thick tarp. After two days at sea he emerged dirty and hungry and agreed to work for his fare.
A long and roiling journey took him to Rio de Janeiro. For nearly two years he hacked roads to resources through the Amazonian rain forest. One steaming afternoon a workmate rhapsodized of a place with more high-paying jobs than people – Canada.
Roman bought a ticket for the first northbound ship but was tricked. Declared a stowaway, he was forced into back-breaking labour as the hulking cargo vessel steamed around the world. After nearly a year of depredation he gazed longingly at the Statue of Liberty. Excited for his first leave in months, he and two friends signed for their meagre pay but then were grabbed, lashed, and thrown onto their bunks; they’d been duped into re-upping for another year.
Just before dawn a sympathetic crewmate cut the ropes and helped them sneak to the deck where they leapt into the cold, dark water. Three unkempt young sailors shuffled through the Battery’s morning mist. A gentleman with an expensive suit and friendly smile said they looked lost. In his best but broken English Roman explained that they were on their way to Canada. The man laughed and said they must be the luckiest boys alive because he worked at the Canadian consulate. The sorry little gang were given train tickets to Montreal.
Montreal was a French city run by the English, and all on the backs of those speaking a hundred tongues. Roman found a job in a large and dirty iron works and happiness in the city’s thriving Ukrainian community. After a particularly trying shift he was told that steel factories offered safer work and better pay and that an American had just started a new steel company in Ontario. Within days he was on a train to Ontario.
Hamilton was a tough, hard-hat town. Factories hugged Burlington Bay, shady bosses held sway in the multi-ethnic east side, and everyone called the towering Niagara escarpment that watched over it all the mountain. The place brimmed with the power and potential of the industrial age. Roman was among the first employees at Hamilton’s Dominion Steel and Casting Company that became Dofasco. Roman was a molder. He created castings into which molten metal was poured to make machines, the bank vault now part of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and even the Hoover Dam’s turbines. He built weapons for the First World War and in the Second his three daughters were among the women who traded dresses for overalls to defeat Hitler.
Upon retirement, Roman purchased a farm near Port Dover. He grew corn and every year turned 11 acres of grapes into sweet wine. His grandson worked the farm each summer. He walked his great-grandson among what to the little boy were towering corn stalks and he tried but failed to reassure him that chickens were not terrifying.
Today, above my piano, is a painting of my great-grand father’s Port Dover farm. It is more ideal than real; perhaps like elements of his adventurous escape. But that’s okay. Societies need myths that define and inspire and so do families. Like the tenacious Ukraine, my family is a little dysfunctional at the edges but rock-solid at its core. In the New Year, we’ll welcome a baby. The child will embody an audacious confidence in tomorrow, 1905’s legacy, and Roman’s latest gift.
Meanwhile, Russia is back fighting for imaginary lines and Shevchenko’s poems are again on Ukrainian lips. As we watch egos and power and money at war let’s pause to consider the people in those border towns who wake up each day and do their best. I know, as do thousands of others living in Canada today that their struggle will echo for generations and in ways we can’t imagine.