Slovakia, the land of the Slovaks, is located in Central Europe and borders the Czech Republic and Austria to the west, Poland to the north, Ukraine to the east and Hungary to the south. Slovak Canadians are a deeply religious people, family oriented, and proud of their origin and language, always quick to correct those who refer to them as Czechs or Czechoslovaks. They have been coming to North America since the second half of the 19th century and have contributed significantly to the economic, social and cultural development of Canada. In the 2016 Census of population, 72,290 Canadians reported being of Slovak origin.
In recent history, for almost three-quarters of a century, Slovakia was the eastern half of Czechoslovakia, a state created in 1918 following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the 1939–45 German occupation of the Czech and Moravian part of the country, Slovakia was independent but allied with Germany. Czechoslovakia was re-created in 1945, became communist in 1948, embraced democracy after the collapse of communism in 1989, but then broke up to form two independent states in 1993 — the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The first known Slovak immigrant to Canada, Joseph Bellon, landed in Toronto in 1878 and started a wireworks factory. There have never been exact statistics on the number of Canadians of Slovak origin due to the fact that Slovaks and Czechs were counted together as Czechoslovaks in the Canadian census. According to the first census to allow them to identify themselves as Slovaks, some 40,000 Canadians in 1981 declared as such; in the 2006 census, the number increased to 64,150 (20,970 single and 43,180 multiple responses); and in the 2016 Census it reached 72,290 (20,475 single and 51,815 multiple responses).
Immigration History and Settlement in Canada
There have been four main waves of Slovak immigrants, all of whom typically came because of troubling economic and political conditions in their homeland. The majority of early immigrants were manual workers, many of whom had first immigrated to the United States, whereas postwar immigrants included a high percentage of highly educated and professional people.
Immigrants of the first wave (1885–1914), numbering some 5,000, settled on farmland in the West, brought there by promises of land grants from the Canadian government. Later groups went to work in Alberta and British Columbia mines, and for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). They were the first to establish Slovak benefit and fraternal societies.
The second wave, estimated at 40,000, arrived during the interwar years. Many were young skilled workers who came to earn good wages in order to buy land in Slovakia. Others sent for their families and went to farming settlements in the West, or to Ontario and Québec mining towns. They created Slovak organizations in Canada and followed closely events in their country of origin. Among prominent members of this wave were Stephen B. Roman, who became a uranium magnate and president of Denison Mines, Frank Sura, contractor and developer, and Stefan Hreha, founder of the weekly Kanadský Slovák/The Canadian Slovak and its first editor. The declaration of Slovakia's independence in March 1939 and its subsequent alliance with Germany brought about divisions in the Slovak Canadian community, and those supporting it were denounced by Czechoslovak diplomats in Canada.
The third wave of some 20,000 Slovak immigrants arrived after the Second World War, and included war refugees and those fleeing the Communist takeover of 1948. Most settled in the major urban centres, in particular Toronto, Montréal and Winnipeg, where they found employment in industry, education, the tertiary sector, as well as in the professions. This wave included some of the most prominent members of the community, including Rudolf Fraštacký, a founder of Metropolitan Trust Company, Dusty Miklas, contractor and developer, Kornel Piaček, founder of Alpina Salami, Inc. in Montréal, and Joseph (Jožo) Weider, creator of the Blue Mountain Ski Resort in Collingwood, Ontario. Many members of this wave made significant contributions to the Slovak community in Canada, especially to the activities of the Canadian Slovak League.
The fourth wave was sparked by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. These refugees — some 13,000 — were among the best-educated to leave their homeland. Settling in urban centres, they contributed to the growth of Slovak organizations and found their place in Canadian economic, political and cultural life. Among them are Joseph Hoffman, contractor and developer, Julius Behul, who became editor of Kanadský Slovák/The Canadian Slovak, and Ladislav Guderna and Tibor Koválik, both renowned painters.
Since the collapse of communism in 1989, more than 6,000 Slovaks, according to the 2016 Census, settled in Canada. Unlike previous immigrants, these newcomers, now able to return their homeland at will and read the Slovak press on the Internet, have tended to be less active in Slovak organizations; they often participate, on the other hand, in social and cultural events organized by these bodies.
Since Slovakia was a constituent part of a state until the 20th century, the Slovaks in Slovakia as well as those in Canada were divided on their nation’s future. Of the four immigration waves, the first one was the least politically active, as its members came primarily for economic reasons and with no political experience in their homeland. It is the next three waves that defined the community’s political life. The creation of Czecho-Slovakia in 1918 was welcomed by Slovaks until it became clear that Slovakia would not get the autonomy promised at the state’s creation, and also because Slovak national life and language were threatened by the Prag Government’s ideology of Czechoslovakism.
The reincorporation of Slovakia into Czechoslovakia after the Second World War and the Communist takeover in 1948 deepened the division in the Slovak Canadian community. The brief wartime independence convinced many that Slovakia did not need be a part of Czechoslovakia, whereas others supported the common state and hoped that it would give Slovakia autonomy. All opposed the Communist regime.
This division between Slovak-oriented and Czechoslovak-oriented Slovak Canadians had already been evident when they created their organizations and their press. The Canadian Slovak League, founded in 1932 in Winnipeg, and its official organ, Kanadský Slovák/The Canadian Slovak, launched in 1942 in Montréal, representing the majority in the community, initially favoured autonomy, and later, during the Communist period, independence and democracy for Slovakia. The Czechoslovak-oriented Slovak Canadians created some organizations but, in the end, joined with the Czechs in Czechoslovak ones to support the common state while opposing its Communist regime. In 1970, Stephen B. Roman and Joseph M. Kirschbaum established the Slovak World Congress in Toronto to bring together Slovak organizations not just in Canada and the United States, but also abroad, to coordinate their activities on behalf of Slovakia’s struggle for freedom and independence. The divisions remained until the breakup of Czechoslovakia on 31 December 1992.
The creation of the Slovak Republic on 1 January 1993 took the political wind out of the sails of Slovak Canadian organizations. There was no longer the identity struggle that had existed during the interwar and postwar years, nor was there any need to fight for Slovakia’s freedom and independence. The political raison d’être that marked the Canadian Slovak League gave way to a greater emphasis on its socio-cultural mission. As a result, its publication, Kanadský Slovák/The Canadian Slovak, focused on the community in Canada, on events in Slovakia, and on historical questions. The Internet and social media also came to have a positive impact on these organizations, extending their reach and influence.
In Canadian politics, a number of Slovak Canadians have held elected office: William A. Kovach in the Alberta legislature (1948–66); George Ben, in Toronto municipal politics and later in the Ontario legislature (1965–71); Peter Kormos (1988–2011) and Tim Hudak in the Ontario legislature (1995–); and Anthony Roman (1984–88), Paul Szabo (1993–2011), and Michelle Rempel (2011–) in the House of Commons. Three Slovak Canadians achieved cabinet rank: Peter Kormos was Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations and Minister of Financial Institutions in the Bob Rae government in Ontario; Tim Hudak was Minister of Northern Development and Mines in the government of Ernie Eves, then Minister of Culture, Tourism and Recreation and Minister of Consumer and Business Services in the government of Mike Harris; and Michelle Rempel was Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification in the Stephen Harper government. Hudak was also leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition between 2009 and 2014.
The level of education of Slovak immigrants increased with each successive wave to Canada. It is only after the Second World War, however, that Slovak Canadians began to be involved in education, particularly in post-secondary education (see Education organization). Initially, the challenge for most immigrants was to acquire one or both of Canada’s official languages (see Languages in use). English generally prevailed. There were, over the years, also attempts to offer Slovak language courses primarily to the children of the immigrants, and these attempts met with varying degrees of success. In 1990, thanks to the efforts of Joseph M. Kirschbaum, the University of Ottawa inaugurated a Chair of Slovak History and Culture, which received financial support from Stephen B. Roman and the Slovak community in Canada.
Since the Second World War a number of Slovak Canadians made their mark as scholars and researchers at Canadian universities: Gustáv Bakoš in astronomy, after whom an observatory was named at the University of Waterloo; Miroslav Grandtner in forestry at Université Laval; Stanislav J. Kirschbaum in international studies at York University; Charles Murín in philosophy at the Université de Montréal; Janet Paterson (née Kirschbaum) in Québec literature at the University of Toronto; Igor Jurisica as chairholder of the Canada Research Chair in Integrative Cancer Informatics at the University of Toronto; Otakar and Anna Širek in medicine at the University of Toronto; Stanley C. Škorina in medicine at McGill University; John Smol in microbiology and biochemistry at Queen’s University; Mark Stolárik as chairholder of Slovak History and Culture at the University of Ottawa; and Ambrose Žitňák in plant biochemistry at the University of Guelph. Three were elected Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada: Stanislav J. Kirschbaum, Janet Paterson, and John Smol.
Social and Cultural Life
Social stratification among Slovak Canadians is determined by date of arrival in Canada, the status or position held in Slovakia, their education, the success achieved in Canada, and the willingness to participate actively in Slovak organizations. The early immigrants, mostly workers and farmhands, created benefit societies because of difficult economic conditions and lack of state-supported welfare measures. Today these societies perform primarily social and cultural functions, along with other institutions created before and since the Second World War. These functions have highlighted Slovak culture dance groups like Vychodna Slovak Dancers in Toronto and Rozmarin Dancers from Windsor.
The Canadian Slovak League remains the most important Slovak organization that runs social and cultural events. It has organized solo and mixed art exhibitions of such artists as Mikuláš Kravjanský, Marta Breštovanská, Tibor and Peter Koválik, and Ladislav Guderna. Other artists who have had exhibitions of their work are Andrew Lukachko and Frank Mikuška.
Many Slovaks have made a name in sports, music and film. Among the Slovak Canadians who have played in the National Hockey League, one must mention Stan Mikita, who arrived in Canada in 1948 and eventually played for the Chicago Blackhawks between 1958 and 1980, and the Šťastný brothers, who defected to Canada in the early 1980s. In football, Mike Volcan played for the Edmonton Eskimos from 1955 to 1964. In journalism, George Gross was sports editor for the Toronto Telegram and Toronto Sun, and was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. In music, Antonia Mazán, Charles Dobiáš, and Helen Hájnik have delighted Canadian audiences with their performances. In film, Ingrid Veninger is a successful producer, director, actor and writer.
Catholic and Protestant clergy continue to play an important role as spiritual and community leaders, who, along with their Slovak parishioners, have helped new immigrants overcome linguistic and cultural differences. Slovak churches were established wherever there were Slovak communities and parish life, especially for the first three waves, together with Slovak organizations, fostered Slovak language and culture and enhanced family cohesion. The importance of parish life was highlighted on 15 September 1984 by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Canada when he consecrated the Slovak Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Unionville, Ontario, built by Stephen B. Roman.
The political fate of the Slovaks in their homeland, about which they were informed only sporadically until recently, was one of the main factors in preserving the group's consciousness and cohesion in Canada. With the communications revolution and especially since Slovakia achieved independence in 1993, the focus has shifted to cultural and community events about which Slovak Canadians learn primarily through their organizations, newspapers, parish bulletins, the Internet, and occasionally through social media. The traditional annual “Slovak Day,” which takes place in the summer, has been maintained in most communities where there are Slovak organizations, and major religious holidays like Christmas and Easter continue to offer opportunities for community get-togethers, bake sales, and other cultural events. Visiting Slovak artists do likewise. Where the homeland is concerned, the Internet is now the primary vehicle for obtaining news.
The challenge for the Canadian Slovak League and its current president Mary Ann Doucette (née Hačková) and her successors, as well as that of other Slovak organizations, is to involve the younger generation in their activities and thereby keep the interest in Slovak culture, language, and traditions alive in Canada.
Konstantin Čulen, Slovaks in Slovakia and Canada (1955); John Gellner and Jan Smerek, The Czechs and Slovaks in Canada (1968); Elena Jakešová and M. Mark Stolárik, “Slovaks,” in Paul Robert Magocsi, ed., Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples (1999); Joseph M. Kirschbaum, Slovaks in Canada (1967); Ondrej Mihal, Slovaks in Canada Through Their Own Eyes (2003), Slovaks in Canada from Vojvodina (2005), Religious Life of Slovaks in Canada (2010) and Slovak Folklore in Canada (2012); M. Mark Stolárik, Where Is My Home? Slovak Immigration to North America (1870–2010) (2012); Miloslav Rechcígl, Czechs and Slovaks in America (2005).