Hungary is a landlocked, ethnically diverse country in central Europe. Its population is just under ten million. The majority Magyar population lives alongside German, Slovak, Serb, and Romanian minorities. Hungary has a storied past, falling under the control of both the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires before joining with Austria to form the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 1800s. After World War II, the country fell under Communist rule, a regime that lasted until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Hungary has since become a member of the wider international community, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999 and the European Union (EU) in 2004.
The first wave of Hungarian immigration to Canada took place toward the end of the 19th century. These pioneer immigrants were mostly poor peasant farmers. At the time, Hungarian population growth exceeded food production and many peasants were without food or land. At the same time, Canada was faced with a labour shortage and was beginning to look beyond its borders to overcome this problem. Hungarians sailed for Canada in the hope of earning money and of returning home to buy enough land to support a family.
However, for many Hungarians, life in Canada fell short of their expectations: they were discriminated against because they weren’t considered white like the British or other northern Europeans. As such, they had to accept dangerous, low-paying jobs no one else wanted. Many Hungarians ended up farming or mining.
Some of the first Hungarians in Alberta settled near Lethbridge. There, they worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) in the coal mines and some farmed in the summer. Others established a Hungarian community in Raymond where they farmed sugar beets for the local sugar factory. Many of these Hungarians had farmed sugar beets in Hungary and were familiar with the work.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought an immediate halt to Hungarian immigration. Canada and its allies were aligned against the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the conflict. In addition to stopping immigration from Hungary, Canada placed restrictions on Hungarians living in Canada. Hungarian-Canadians were classified as enemy aliens and were ordered to report to local police stations; some were even interned. In 1917, those Hungarians who had arrived in Canada after 1902 were disenfranchised.
Despite these discriminatory policies, Hungarian immigration resumed at the end of the war, although now Hungarians leaving their homeland not solely because of the lack of farmland, but also because of the results of World War I. These included the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the conflict between Hungary and its neighbours over territory, and the Treaty of Trianon. Because of Hungary's role in the war, the treaty imposed punitive measures on Hungary.
At this time, Hungarian immigrants included not only farmers but also some professionals and civil servants. Many of these immigrants settled in Ontario where they moved between jobs farming and working in factories. As the first group of immigrants, many of these Hungarians hoped their stay in Canada would be a short, money-making one. As such, the majority of immigrants were young men. However, when making money again proved more difficult than expected, many sent for their wives, fiancées and children. In this way, Hungarian communities were formed.
Hungarians’ sojourn was further extended with the onset of the Great Depression. Hungarians were often the first to be laid off as farm and factory owners kept their British and northern European employees on the payroll.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 proved positive for Hungarians living in Canada. The war provided many with their first steady, full-time employment and, by allowing others to joing the army, gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty.
In 1945, the end of the war saw a third wave of Hungarian immigration, As a result of the war, many of these people, including many Hungarian Jews who had survived the Holocaust, were left homeless: there were displaced persons (DPs).
Unlike earlier waves of immigrants, this third wave included many professionals. Despite their high levels of education, many were still forced to work for at least a year in jobs traditionally held by Hungarians (e.g., mining and farming). Slowly, these immigrants began moving to the larger urban centres to find work more closely related to their professions. Of the 12,000 immigrants who arrived in Canada as displaced persons, around 8,000 settled in Alberta — mostly in the Calgary area.
The fourth and final wave of Hungarian immigration occurred in 1956-57. In 1956, a massive uprising tried to drive Soviet troops from Hungary. The Soviets responded by sending tanks to quell the demonstrations. Over 2,500 Hungarians were killed and a further 250,000 fled the country. Of these, 37,500 would find their way to Canada. The Canadian government sped up the immigration process for Hungarians and made them a priority over other groups. In addition, the Canadian government covered the immigrants’ travel costs and supported them during their first year in Canada.
Many of these immigrants were highly educated. They included engineers, professors, nurses, and students. Of the over 3,000 Hungarians who came to Alberta, most chose the cities — particularly Calgary. Some adjusted quickly to Canadian life because of their professional background and because many Canadians viewed the immigrants favourably for standing up to the Soviet Union. Others, however, were unable to find professional jobs and had to take work as labourers.
Since this last wave, the number of Hungarian immigrants has declined. After the 1956 uprising, the Soviet Union closed Hungary’s borders, making it difficult for more people to flee. The collapse of the USSR brought great hope to many Hungarians who stayed behind to rebuild their country. In 2001, Hungarian-Canadians numbered 267,000. Of those, 41,000 lived in Alberta. The largest populations were in Calgary (16,000) and Edmonton (10,000), respectively.
The Hungarian population in Canada and Alberta has remained a vibrant one. Cultural groups such as the Cifra Hungarian Folk Music Ensemble of Edmonton and the Vadrozsa Hungarian Folk Dancers of Calgary have retained Hungarian traditions in the province.
Hughes, Susan. Coming to Canada: Building a Life in a New Land. Toronto: Maple Tree Press, 2005.
Keyserlingk, Robert H. Breaking Ground: The 1956 Hungarian Refugee Movement to Canada. Toronto: York Lanes Press, Inc., 1993.
Palmer, Howard, and Tamara Palmer, eds. Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.
Panulics, Lajos Miskolci. The Long Road: Hungarians in Southern Alberta. Calgary: Corvin Publishing, 1983.
Patrias, Carmela. The Hungarians in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1999.