An impoverished Ukrainian farmer is wooed to Manitoba, only to find his family and fellow settlers in grave peril from the elements, disease and discrimination in a new one-man play from playwright and musician Norman Nawrocki.
Nawrocki broadcasted the play via Facebook and YouTube on November 21. Performing from his Montreal apartment, Nawrocki — in a traditional embroidered shirt, vest and sash — portrayed Gido (grandfather) Wasyl, who has come to the shore of Patterson Lake, Manitoba, with his grandson.
Wasyl watches the pelicans on the lake — a motif of hope through sorrow throughout the story — and tells the story of how he, then a young man with a wife and baby daughter, came to Canada in 1899.
Ukraine was the “poorest country in Europe,” Wasyl says. A Canadian agent woos him with free land, and tales of how good he’d have it in Canada away from the demands of his masters.
When he and his fellow settlers board the “stinking old cattle boat” for Canada instead of the ocean liner they were promised, Wasyl begins to worry. He reassures himself “we are going to the promised land.”
The settlers take a train which “again, smells bad,” to Winnipeg and on to Strathclair, northwest of Brandon. On the train, children begin falling ill with scarlet fever. Three die.
In Strathclair the 200 settlers sleep on straw in barns and sheds as more children fall ill and die. A pack of Strathclair residents — settlers of British origin Wasyl calls ‘Angliki’ — surround the shed, yell and throw rocks. The terrified Ukrainians flee by wagon, leaving many supplies behind.
They arrive at Patterson Lake cold, hungry, sick and weak. The land is rocky and full of trees to be cleared before it can be planted. It’s May, but the weather is freezing. It takes a week for their tents and supplies to come from Strathclair, so the settlers build huts of branches. Forty-two children die.
By then, Wasyl knows the agent duped them.
The story is part family history for Nawrocki, whose family settled at Sandy Lake, not far away. He grew up in Vancouver, but still makes frequent trips back to Manitoba to see relatives.
He’d begun researching a novel based on his family’s story when he began to uncover the story of the Patterson Lake settlers, to which he had family connections. Over several years, he interviewed relatives, read archived newspapers, and hunted for old books in second-hand stores.
What he found shocked him.
“I had no idea things were so bad,” Nawrocki told the Co-operator. “The conditions were worse than I imagined.”
Though he’d heard some of the story from grandparents, uncles and aunts, it had never clicked that each settler had cleared their 160 acres by hand, Nawrocki said. He hadn’t realized that this was why his older relatives had big, gnarled hands — one aunt missing a fingertip.
He hadn’t realized how badly the ‘Angliki’ treated the Ukrainians — name-calling and discrimination that persisted for years.
The British settlers had the good jobs, good farmland, education and nice houses. The Ukrainians worked for them.
“They brought them here to use them (as cheap labour), and at the same time they despised them,” said Nawrocki.
Since presenting the play on November 21, descendants of the settlers have contacted him to confirm and add details to the story. Nawrocki said he intends to incorporate these into a more fulsome second edition of the play to be performed — he hopes — on tour, not from his apartment.
Beyond telling a sometimes forgot- ten piece of history, Nawrocki said he hoped the play would also make people contemplate how we treated immi- grants in the past, and how they’re still sometimes treated today.
“Where’s our humanity? Where’s our compassion?” he said.
It’s also a reminder to be thankful for what we have — even in the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns.
“Everything we take for granted to- day came with a price,” Nawrocki said.
The play “Ukrainians, Pelicans and the Secret of Patterson Lake” is available for viewing on Nawrocki’s YouTube channel.