This is the immigration story of the Johansen Family. (Danish Immigrants)

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Culture : 
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English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2016.484.1
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It was during the mid-1950s that our parents, Niels and Margrethe Johansen, began to realize that their dream of owning their own home was not likely to be fulfilled in Denmark under the economic circumstances that prevailed at the time. Our parents owned a truck and made a modest living providing hauling services for area farmers and recycling scrap metal. We lived in a rented apartment (half of a former farm house) in the little town of Skads, near Esbjerg on the southwest coast of Jylland. However, it was our father’s farming experience, having grown up on a farm near Ribe, that would become key to their decision to immigrate. It gradually became obvious to them that “Amerika”, specifically Canada, would offer better opportunities for the whole family.

Decision to Emigrate to Canada

After World War II, Canada’s economic prosperity and need for farm workers and skilled trades people invited Danish migration. Our parents became aware of this, after conversations with fellow Danes who were making the move. Therefore, in 1957, they decided to leave the relative comfort of their low-middle income life in southwest Jylland and emigrate to Canada for a better future. This was no easy decision, especially for Mom, as they had five children by the time they left Denmark (Kurt aged 12, Henning 10, Fred 6, Birthe 3 and Bente 2). Mom would sometimes say to friends and neighbours, half jokingly, that she was not against moving to Canada as long as she didn’t have to fly or sail. The journey to Canada and a job awaiting our father at a dairy cattle operation in Alberta was arranged through the Canadian National Railway’s Department of Colonization and Agriculture. According to information we recently gathered at the Danish Canadian Museum in Dickson, Alberta, our family was part of the “Third Wave” of Danish Immigration (post WWII - 1945 to 1970’s).

Cross-Atlantic Voyage to the New World

Finally, the big day came, June 20, 1957, when we were scheduled to leave Denmark by ship, with all our possessions, sailing from the harbor city of Aarhus on the east coast of central Jylland. Our ship was the “M.S. Stockholm”, the first and smallest ship of the Swedish America Line’s “White Viking Fleet” (its passenger capacity was only about 550). As the photo shows, the Stockholm was a white, elegant looking ship, relatively small for an ocean liner … an oversized yacht really.

Mom’s anxiety about traveling to a new land with 5 young children was heightened by the knowledge that we were about to board this particular ship. The year before, on July 25, 1956, sailing out of New York, the Stockholm had collided with an inbound Italian luxury liner, the Andrea Doria, in thick fog about 100 miles east of New York. The Andrea Doria sank within hours, but the Stockholm remained afloat, despite heavy damage to its bow, and returned to New York under its own power … but not before she had rescued and carried 327 passengers and 245 crew from the Andrea Doria to New York, in addition to her own passengers and crew. There she was repaired, fitted with a completely new bow, and returned to Sweden in November 1956 for resumption of service.

Mom found that the seas during the Atlantic crossing were very rough. Most of us experienced seasickness, particularly through the Skagerak Strait between the northern tip of Denmark and Norway-Sweden.

Toward the end of our cross-Atlantic voyage, we encountered dense fog east of Atlantic Canada … a common condition in that area and the same condition that surrounded the July 1956 collision of the Stockholm and the Andrea Doria. Through the dense fog, the Stockholm moved very slowly and sounded its fog horn at regular intervals, as did other ships in that busy shipping corridor. Overall, it was an eerie experience … the atmosphere on deck was suspenseful, as we listened and looked for other ships near our lane. We eventually passed through the fog without incident and proceeded at normal speed toward Halifax.

Our last night at sea was on June 26, 1957. After we enjoyed a wonderful “farewell” dinner, we mingled with other passengers and exchanged good luck wishes, autographs, contact information and so on. All in all, it was the kind of magical night that you didn’t want to end … although our parents were already thinking ahead to the following day when we would be arriving in Halifax.

Arrival at Pier 21 in Halifax

Late the following day, June 27, 1957, the Stockholm docked at Pier 21 in Halifax harbour. After leaving the ship and entering the Pier 21 building, we were guided to a big Examination Hall where we waited for our names to be called. There were several immigration and other officials at different tables to process the over 300 passengers that had just arrived. Eventually, our names came up and our parents were interviewed by one of the immigration officials, aided by a translator. In the end, we received our Canadian Immigration Identification Cards stamped to show our status as “Landed Immigrants”. From the Pier 21 complex, we then walked through an overhead walkway to where a Canadian National Railway (CNR) train was waiting to take us to our promised job in western Canada, in the Calgary area of Alberta.

Three-Stage Train Ride from Halifax to Calgary

First Stage: Halifax to Montreal

The CNR train cars waiting for us were old, with wooden benches. The transition to a more modern train occurred in Montreal. However, before we got there, we had to endure the wooden benches and other deficiencies in what some people called the “cattle train”. We arrived in Montreal early to mid-day on June 29, 1957. Here we were delayed several hours by flooding caused by a hurricane later identified as Hurricane Audrey, a tropical storm which had just arrived from the Gulf of Mexico, bringing strong winds and torrential rainfall. It was later described as one of the most deadly and destructive hurricanes on record, until Hurricane Katrina in 2005. No wonder the trains weren’t moving on schedule.

Second Stage: Montreal to Edmonton

Eventually, our train was allowed to move and our journey west resumed. This train was more modern and much more comfortable than the “cattle car” from Halifax. During periodic train stops, we were allowed to get out and stretch our legs which was most welcome. We nearly lost our brother, Fred, during one of these stops. He had gotten off the train, without Mom noticing, to get himself a piece of ice which had chipped off the big ice blocks that had just been loaded on to the train. Fortunately, a railroad employee and the train conductor got him back on board just as the train was beginning to roll. It goes without saying that a happy reunion followed.

Mom had been napping as we neared the town of Capreol, just north of Sudbury, Ontario. She woke in a panic as she heard the sound of flowing water and looked out the window…the train was surrounded by water. As we found out later, this was more flooding caused by the combined effect of Hurricane Audrey and another storm front moving up from the Chicago region (see photo at right obtained from the Capreol newspaper). Despite our initial impression and alarm, the reality was that the tracks were just barely covered by flood water and the train was rolling slowly along the tracks, causing water to be pushed out and away from the train, thus producing the sound of flowing water that had caught our attention. We were delayed for the better part of a day at the Capreol train station until the water level receded enough that we could proceed to our next stop, Edmonton, Alberta.

Third Stage: Stop-over in Edmonton before Continuing to Calgary

During a week-long layover in Edmonton, Our father went ahead to Calgary by himself to check out the promised job situation, leaving the rest of the family temporarily at a small hotel (ironically named the Grand Hotel) in Edmonton. After a week or so, he returned with bad news … the job had been given to someone else. The farmer apparently claimed that, because we were late in arriving (in fact, no more than 1-2 days due to the flooding in Ontario-Quebec), his dairy cattle operation couldn’t wait. Our parents, Niels and Margrethe, decided to proceed to Calgary anyway, trusting (hoping) that the CNR/DCA would help them find other employment in that area.

Fourth and Final Stage: Edmonton to Calgary and the Importance of the Danish Canadian Club to the Johansen Family.

After we arrived at the Calgary train station, our luggage and trunk, containing all our worldly possessions, were unloaded on the platform. Where to now? Fortunately, some kind Danish-Canadians saw our predicament and helped us get to the Danish Canadian Club (DCC) in downtown Calgary where we would be able to regroup. On our way to the DCC, eldest son, Kurt (age 12), noticed the streets were full of “Cowboys and Indians”, some on horseback and some on foot. He thought to himself: Wow, we’ve found the “Wild West”, which he had read about in Denmark. What we didn’t know at the time, but soon found out, was that we had arrived in the middle of the annual Calgary Exhibition and Stampede.

After we arrived at the DCC, another kind person ordered a round of porridge for the kids as we hadn’t eaten anything for hours. Porridge never tasted so good. With the help of the proprietors at the DCC and caring Danish-Canadians who happened to be there at the time, our father was guided to the local employment office. While he continued looking for another job, the rest of the family stayed at the DCC where we were allowed to amuse ourselves playing a piano among other things. After a while, our father returned with good news. He had found a job working on a turkey farm located near a small town named Carbon, about 90 km northeast of Calgary. The turkey farm was owned by an elderly Norwegian-Canadian gentleman named Alfred Hoivik, who also owned a second farm located on higher land (referred to as the “upper farm”) a little further from the town of Carbon.

That first night in Calgary, July 10, 1957, sleeping accommodations were arranged for us through DCC members. Mom and the girls (Birthe and Bente) were taken to the home of one kind family for the night while our father and the boys (Kurt, Henning and Fred) were taken to the home of another family. The hosting families made us all feel at home … Kurt remembers seeing his first TV western that night (reinforcing his perception of having found the “Wild West”).

The next morning, we were all taken back to the DCC where we waited to be picked up and taken to the Hoivik turkey farm…the whole family was excited about finally being on route to our first home and job in Canada.

Two Years of Farm Life near Carbon, Alberta

We were picked up in a big farm truck by a man named Karl Gundlach who worked for Alfred Hoivik taking care of the “upper farm”. He and his wife, Helga, had emigrated from Germany in 1951. As our parents could speak some German, their relationship with the Gundlach’s proved to be very helpful, socially as well as practically, during our first year in Canada.

As we approached the turkey farm on July 11, 1957, it looked almost idyllic, located on a hill overlooking a creek that we came to know as Kneehill Creek. However, as we got closer, and with their previous expectation of a job on a dairy farm still in mind, our parents soon realized that this was going to be a big adjustment. The scene before us came as a shock. There were turkeys everywhere as the fencing was in poor condition.

The house was furnished when we arrived. The furnishings were not fancy, but all the basics were there, including an old-fashioned coal and wood-burning stove and a small bar-sized fridge. We had free housing, a cow for milk, coal for heating, the use of a pickup truck and a $160/month salary that our father earned for managing the turkey farm and helping out at the upper farm. In addition, Mr Hoivik allowed us to slaughter a turkey once in a while and to eat all the turkey eggs we wanted. So, despite the bewilderment and doubts at arrival, it wasn’t long before we were all beginning to feel more optimistic about our new home and life in Canada. My parents felt very grateful to the many generous neighbours by the farm and people they met in Carbon, who helped us out in various ways.

Balancing Turkey Farm and Upper Farm Workloads

In addition to turning the house into a comfortable home, there were a number of jobs around the turkey farm that needed to be done before winter: the fences still needed major improvements, the barns needed paint, and a vegetable garden needed to be started, in addition to the daily chores of feeding and otherwise taking care of the 3,000 turkeys. However, our father was also expected to help out on the upper farm, which was a relatively big operation (including over 700 hectares of land, about 70 cattle, a horse and other animals). His daily routine would usually consist of feeding the turkeys in the morning, then driving up to the upper farm where he would help Karl Gundlach as required, and returning to the turkey farm at the end of the day.

As that first eventful summer was winding down, and fall was just ahead, it was time to prepare for the boys to start school in the town of Carbon, about a 2 km walk from the turkey farm. Kurt was going into grade 6, Henning into grade 4 and young Fred was just starting grade 1. Because we had lived at the turkey farm since July, the community had gradually become aware of our presence, so the teachers were prepared for immigrant students who would need special assistance for a while. Each day, the boys would bring new words home that they would share with their parents and young sisters. As one of the teachers told Mom, “the boys are learning fast”. Gradually, more and more English was spoken around the house.

In the fall of 1958 we moved to the upper farm, as Karl Gundlach had resigned and moved his family into the town of Carbon to work for the municipality. This was a big change for our parents as it meant a significant increase in their workload, having to take care of both Hoivik farms. In addition, the house at the upper farm, basically a converted chicken coop, was not as spacious or comfortable as the one at the turkey farm. The boys, especially Kurt, who knew how to drive motor vehicles despite being three years from licensing age, helped their parents with the farm work as best they could, particularly during the summer months when school was out.

Our youngest sister, Irene, was born on December 16, 1958, at the hospital in Drumheller. She is the only one of the Johansen children who was born in Canada and the only one born in a hospital.

Dream Finally Realized: Our Own Home

By mid-summer of 1959, inspired by a Danish friend already living and working in Calgary, our father decided there was an opportunity to make more money working in the home construction industry in Calgary. He and Mom therefore thanked Mr. Hoivik for two wonderful years and left the upper farm for good.

Approximately four years after arriving in Canada, in July 1961, we moved into our own home in southwest Calgary, thus fulfilling a dream that our parents, Niels and Margrethe, had carried with them from Denmark. While some families that we had met or heard about decided to go back to Denmark for various reasons (job problems, transition problems, or just simply because they missed life as they remembered it in Denmark) the Johansen family, on the other hand, never looked back and flourished in Canada.

All six Johansen children went on to enjoy productive and rewarding lives, justifying the risk that Niels and Margrethe had taken in 1957 when they decided to emigrate to Canada with five children. Niels passed away in October 1984. Margrethe, nearing the age of 93, is in reasonably good health and continues to enjoy her family which has now expanded to include her children’s spouses, eight grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Despite our move to Canada, we still value our Danish heritage and culture. As our family has expanded over the years, we can now truly call ourselves a multicultural family which we all enjoy.

(excerpts taken from “Our Danish Heritage” by Birthe M. Parker and Kurt Johansen, with the help of our Mom, Margrethe Johansen).

Special Note: For the Johansen’s and our extended families, the Danish Canadian Club in Calgary has felt like part of the family since 1957. Many of us are members and we have enjoyed many events, meals and family celebrations there over the years. The wonderful food and atmosphere is so traditionally Danish. We never tire of going there. We would also like to thank the residents of Carbon, Alberta, and our neighbours while living on both farms, several of whom helped us in those early years with their warmth and generosity.