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Westward Ho! Settling a Nation via Colonist Car

You arrive at Pier 21 in Halifax, Canada after a weeks long journey across the ocean. Maybe you have several children in tow, or you’re a young person completely alone, or maybe you’re a newly wed who hasn’t seen your husband for what feels like forever. You disembark the ship, exhausted and sick from your journey at sea, but this was only the first leg. You board a train and brace for another seemingly endless stretch of days across the vast Canadian landscape by rail. For thousands of immigrants who went on to begin their next chapters in Western Canada on board a Colonist Car, this was the experience.

Introduced in the 1880s, Colonist Cars were a response to the incredible amount of immigrants landing at Eastern ports desiring to settle in the West. The first Colonist Cars were grain boxcars converted to hold passengers with the addition of wooden benches. Later, with the addition of sleeping berths and cooking facilities, Colonist Cars became more specialized. Whether sparse boxcar or upgraded train, the voyage across the vastness of Canada was a challenging journey and an awe-inspiring first look at the immense Canadian landscape. Stories shared with the Museum from those who experienced the Colonist Cars first hand demonstrate the variety of emotions, from joy to sadness, frustration to fear that this journey evoked.

Click each image to see the full size photo.

Robbie Waisman“So much land yet no room.” Robbie Waisman, a Jewish war orphan and holocaust survivor, was just 17 when he landed in Halifax in December, 1948. Hoping to continue on to Montreal where he could use his French, or Toronto where he had some connections, Robbie instead ended up on a Colonist Car headed to Calgary. “…I wasn't told that I was going to Calgary until I was already on the train” says Robbie. Making the best of the situation, Robbie was soon mesmerized by the Canadian landscape streaming by, “you could see forever,” he said, and couldn’t help thinking of the many who were not on this journey, “it occurred to me that so many people could have been saved in this vast country. So much land and yet no room for Jewish refugees during the war.”

Pauline DubueHelp along the way. For Pauline Dubue, an English war bride who arrived in Halifax in 1946 to rejoin her husband, travelling across an ocean and then aboard a train with two infant daughters required great strength of character. The young mother didn’t turn down help when it was offered, “on our arrival… two soldiers came up the gangplank to help me carry my children” she remembers. The soldiers bundled Pauline and her babies onto her Colonist Car, and fellow travelers pointed out the water machine to make hot bottles of milk for her infants. That first night, the water machine mysteriously disappeared, and Pauline “had to walk down the train to the kitchen and timidly ask if I could make up the children’s bottles,” she says remembering that she had to “put up with some whistles from the cooks!” When Pauline arrived in Ottawa, members of the Red Cross swooped in to guide her, and she was met by “crowds on the platform and everyone was clapping,” hardly believing she was finally at the end of her journey, Pauline recalls she was “overwhelmed both physically and emotionally.”

Feike Prins“He had no way of contacting his family.” Feike Prins immigrated to Canada in 1950 from the Netherlands, and recalls with trepidation not of his own journey, but of the misadventure of another passenger when two cars unhooked, separating a man from his wife and ten children. The man, Feike does not remember his name, had been on a different car playing cards with Feike and some other passengers. When he tried to get back the car was gone, along with his family, having disconnected in order to carry on to Alberta on another track. “He had no way of contacting his family and he was only wearing his long underwear,” explains Feike, “we all gave him some clothes and money so he could get off the train in Montreal and ride it back to meet up with his family. I always wonder what happened to him and how he made out.”

William Kreeft“I coloured the whole train black.” Three-year old William Kreeft emigrated with his family from the Netherlands to Halifax in 1952, and then onwards to Alberta via Colonist Car. Though William wasn’t much more than a toddler, memories of the uncomfortable train journey impacted him greatly. Little William remembers being uncomfortable, scared and dirty during the train journey. Later, “when I entered Grade 1, the class was asked to draw a picture of a train,” remembers William “I did so and coloured the whole train black.” William’s teacher spanked him for misbehaving, “and for not taking a realistic view of trains,” but was forgiven after his mother “explained to [the teacher] what my experiences of trains had been.”

James S. LonieHelping those less fortunate. Scottish immigrant James Lonie found the Colonist Car accommodations “decrepit” and was concerned for his fellow passengers, “a young French couple with a young baby … had smuggled a French loaf and a sausage from their home with some powdered milk for the baby,” he remembers, “this was to feed them till they reached their destination on a farm in Manitoba.” The more fortunate James had been able to buy dining car tickets with his passage ticket and used his trips to the dining car to bring back supplies “I was able to bring bread and rolls and real milk from the dining car to help out.”

Ronnie King - “The greatest country in the world.” Dutch immigrant Ronnie King emigrated from the Netherlands to Halifax, in 1955 and then onwards to Calgary by Colonist Car. He remembers his entire family being awestruck by the Canadian scenery. Ronnie’s older brother Bob needed to take a souvenir, “occasionally the train would stop for a few minutes in the middle of nowhere,” said Ronnie, “and once Bob jumped off with one or two others to pick some cat-tails, and the train started moving, with everybody screaming at these would be hobos to get on the train.” Bob did get back on the train safely, but Ronnie remembers being “scared for my big brother, that we’d lose him, and never see him again.” Later on, Ronnie is thankful for his parents’ “foresight to move to what the world would come to recognize as the greatest country in the world.”

The many memories, voices and viewpoints of a shared experience are what makes the Colonist Cars one of the most fascinating features of Canadian immigration history. Alongside the Museum’s permanent exhibit, Heritage Park’s Journey of a Lifetime exhibit and play will be stopping at the Museum September 14 to 25. This special Canada 150 project features a 45-minute play that will immerse audiences in more stories of the courageous immigrants who rode the Colonist Cars towards the promise of a better life. A must-see for any who want to learn more about this fascinating moment in Canadian immigration history.