Canada – Land of Longing

Posted on May 26, 2009 by Thomas Kraft

Translated by Josh Stenberg

Alfons März was born in 1930, the son of a bicycle mechanic and a domestic worker in Neumarkt, Upper Palatinate. His youth was profoundly marked by the Second World War, with only his youth and good luck saving him from combat duty during the war’s dying days. As an important transport hub near Nuremberg, his home city had been hit by bombing, though the damage was at first not so extensive. However, when the American troops advanced, a Hungarian SS brigade mounted an embittered defense of the city. They shot the mayor as he tried to affect an unconditional surrender, white flag in hand. During the subsequent fighting, the heart of the old town was almost completely destroyed, but was to be faithfully reconstructed after the war.

The adolescent Alfons März, who had attended elementary school for a few years, was able to live in his family’s undamaged apartment while he pursued an apprenticeship to be a pharmacist that did not, however, result in steady employment. Although the athletic young man worked at various odd jobs, there were no apparent career prospects for him in the immediate post-war period. So, with several friends his age, he traveled to the Ruhr Area, where strong men were always needed in the coal mines. But the young people dreamt of a different life. Previously, they had made inquiries about the possibility of leaving to try their luck abroad. Like many others, the small group from Neumarkt considered the traditional immigrant nations, such as Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada. Why they ended up with Canada can-since none of them is still alive- no longer be determined. Perhaps the young men, nature lovers and avid hunters, were captivated by the idea of a vast land certain to make any outdoorsman’s heart beat faster with its lakes and rivers, its enormous forests and the Rocky Mountains. So, towards the end of the 1940s, Alfons left Germany for Timmons, Ontario, where he found his first job in a gold mine. Then he settled in Niagara Falls, which at the time was the site of an enormous project to tunnel beneath the falls for electrical generation. In Niagara Falls he met Jessie, a young Canadian widow whom he married in 1953. In response to an offer from the Falconbridge nickel mine in Sudbury, they moved in 1954 to Sudbury, Ontario. He kept working there until a serious accident in 1972, in which an elevator he was riding plunged down the shaft. Incapacitated, he had to undergo frequent operations and never worked again, dying a few years ago. Alfons had bought himself a small house, a car and a boat, and with family and friends he spent every free moment at Trout Lake or Lake Penage, fishing and hunting, barbecuing and taking saunas. As far as his small pension allowed it, he traveled almost yearly to visit his relatives in Germany and almost never missed a class reunion. Except for his love for German beer, he became a textbook Canadian: ice hockey, fishing, snowmobiling, men’s clubs with darts and betting on horse races. Alfons was rough around the edges, but he was a thoroughly genial man who found his luck in the land between the oceans, while never forgetting his roots.

The not atypical fate of Alfons März is emblematic for a whole generation of young Germans who sought their private and professional fortunes in Canada after the war. In the late 1940s and 1950s, before prosperity had returned to Germany, economic woes, high unemployment and scarce prospects joined force with the hope of a better life in a country that in many ways seemed ideal.

Channel-surfing through the current emigrant reality-shows-cum-soap-operas of German commercial television or checking out the countless “wanderlust ” or immigration websites and chatrooms devoted to exchanging information, it would seem that the motivations of today’s restless Germans to settle in Canada are not substantially different from those of the post-war generation. It is almost always the economic reasons which make the idea of a fresh start in an unknown land seem so attractive: unemployment, financial insolvency, fear of the future, uncertain old-age care, declining social status, bureaucracy and a general lack of prospects. The high-tech dropout from the Rhineland now working in a bed and breakfast, the Austrians with their fishing lodges, the Munich mechanic who starts his own company after the difficult first years, or the two girlfriends, who leave behind their ex-husbands and looming unemployment, and find success as logistics specialists in a Canadian export-import firm; all of them made a virtue of necessity and extended their vacations into permanent residence.

And of course these people also dream the “Canadian dream” of freedom and adventure, of the land’s vastness and its pristine nature. Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807-1887), a well-traveled scholar by the standards of his time, remarked that “Germans cannot really abide happiness or grandeur. Their type of ideality depends on longing.” This misapprehension has generated much private and social disappointment. Canada is neither the promised, perfect land nor, despite its size and sparse population, a kind of amusement park or vast nature reserve. Of course, there is all that water, the Rocky Mountains and the empty northern territories; but Canada’s self-image is basically that of a modern, urban country with great economic potential and a high standard of living. It is in this ambiguity, this meshwork of vision and reality, tradition and modernity, past and present, that one finds the roots for the dreams and visions of the people who have confronted this country, who adore it, and who seek their fortune there. Perhaps it is no coincidence that two of the novels which will be introduced during this book fair play on this feeling of longing even in their titles: “What we all long for” by Dionne Brand and “Certainty” by Madeleine Thien.