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Girl in Hungarian dressThe reasons for the Hungarian presence in Alberta is similar to all settlers that have traveled to Canada from Eastern Europe and the regions of the Former Soviet Socialist Republic. Most Eastern Europeans left their homelands to find political and religious freedoms disallowed them under the Imperial and then the Soviet regimes. However, while the reasons for their seeking a homeland are similar with their fellow Eastern European neighbours, their settlement patterns are quite unique. While many Eastern European settlers, particularly the Ukrainians, chose to set up rural bloc settlements in the central and northern parts of the province, the Hungarians spread themselves across the province, but particularly the south and within urban centres, mainly in Calgary.

The Hungarian experience witnessed four successive waves of immigration to the province beginning in the 1870s. At the time, much as in the case of the Estonians, Ukrainians, Latvians and other Eastern Europeans under the realm of Imperial Russia, peasant landholdings under the Imperial regime had been subdivided so minutely that many Hungarian peasants no longer possessed enough farmland to cultivate and support their families. With a declining economy and the mechanization of the agricultural industry putting many farmers out of work, many Hungarians were forced to look elsewhere for work in order to survive. Many traveled west, ending up in the coal mines of Pennsylvania prior to moving up to Canada and west to Alberta. It was this first wave of Hungarian settlement that saw the largest movement out of Hungary but, out of the 640, 000 that left their homeland at this time, only 5000 made it to Canada, and significantly fewer to Alberta. However, even though only a handful of these immigrants made it as far west as Alberta, they laid the foundation for those who would follow decades later.

The first Hungarians to arrive in Alberta did so with the tremendous efforts of Paul Esterhazy. Mr. Esterhazy spearheaded the campaign to get the Hungarians out of their unhealthy occupations in the Pennsylvania coal mines into a more beneficial life of farming the lands in the great open west. In October 1886, 130 men arrived in what was then the Northwest Territories to bolster the numbers at the Esterhaz settlement however, a tragic fire levelled the settlement and Esterhazy ended up having to arrange for work for these newly arrived men in the coal mines of Lethbridge. Of the men that went to work in the Lethbridge mine, very few stayed as, starved and mistreated by their employers, they opted to return to Pennsylvania. However it was to be these events which, ironically, would bring larger numbers of Hungarian people to Alberta.

Hungarian displayThe mine owners were happy to have the Hungarian immigrants as they were hard workers and provided cheap labour. The Hungarians that remained at the mine in Lethbridge settled there, and eventually grew in numbers. They formed several societies such as the Hungarian Sick Benefit Society which provided insurance for the Hungarian miners and served as a central gathering location for all Hungarians in Alberta.

World War I created much hardship for the Hungarian people in Alberta. They suffered internment, loss of their right to vote and general prejudice. However, once the war had ended thousands of Hungarians began to arrive at the Canadian border, in an attempt to escape the post-war chaos and earn money enough to survive. After World War I the American government tightened its immigration policies, making it particularly difficult for all people from Eastern Europe to enter. As a result, Eastern Europeans then shifted their focus to Canada. It is no surprise then that it was during the interwar period that Alberta experienced its largest influx of Hungarians. Hungarian displayAgain, the new arrivals were generally farmers and labourers, young men looking to make enough money to afford their passage home and bring their families a better life in the homeland. The Depression of the 1930s crushed many of those dreams. It was a difficult time for all Albertans, but particularly so for those new to Canada who did not have a good command of the English language or many possessions. The result was that most of these men remained in Canada, setting up Hungarian enclaves at places like Warburg and Brooks.

The advent of World War II put immense pressure on the Hungarian populations across Canada. Although Hungary declared itself to be a neutral at the onset of war, when the Hungarian government announced its allegiance to the Axis, Hungarians across Canada who had not taken out Canadian citizenship began to feel the effects. Many were put under surveillance, fingerprinted and treated as enemy aliens. The effects of World War II were lasting on the Hungarian population in Alberta. Many felt intense pressure to assimilate as much as possible into Canadian society, giving up their traditions, language and aspects of their culture -- in some cases even going as far as to change their surnames to more anglo-sounding versions.

The end of World War II ushered in another era of Hungarian immigration. Many of these new immigrants were displaced persons fleeing their country and attempting to escape Russian oppression. This wave of immigration was markedly different due to the fact that many of these Hungarians were from the middle classes, possessed of higher education and could provide skilled labour, and therefore settled in urban areas such as Calgary and Edmonton.

The fourth wave of immigration was borne out of the turbulent post-war atmosphere in Hungary. After several years of harsh communist rule, Hungarians rose up against the harsh policies administered in their country by the communist party. The Revolution came to a violent end which caused the collapse of the communist government and the installation of an oppressive Soviet military occupation. Thousands fled from Hungary and made their way to North America. The Canadian government greatly facilitated their arrival, removing almost all restrictions where Hungarians were concerned. This wave of refugees consisted of primarily young, well-educated people. Upon arrival in Alberta many took professional positions which helped to bolster the position of Hungarians in Canadian society. They started numerous social and cultural groups, and were instrumental in ensuring the elevation of their people's standing within Canadian society. 

The history of the Hungarian people in Alberta is not without struggle and perseverance. Although today the Hungarian people are not highly visible, they remain culturally strong and identifiable in their dance, music, cuisine, arts and contributions to Alberta as a society.

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