Tragedy and triumph for homesteading immigrants



submitted photo

Martha Peech (Slobodzian) sitting on the step of their house, surrounded by her children in the 1940s.  The young one sitting on her lap is John Peech.

By Wayne Hildebrand 

The Neepawa Banner 


“Canada was built by immigrant homesteaders,” relayed 96-year-old John Peech. 

“They sacrificed a lot and experienced tremendous hardships so that future generations would have a better life and freedom.  There are many sad stories and tragedies associated with the pioneers that helped develop our country.  We need to remember what they did for us.”

John Peech was born in 1921 at the home farm in Seech, Manitoba (northeast of Oakburn, about two miles south of Riding Mountain National Park).  John’s father, Peter Peech and his mother, Martha Slobodzian, both immigrated to Canada from Ukraine.  Peter arrived in Halifax in 1902 and came by train to Strathclair, MB.  He was part of a wave of Ukrainians enticed by the Canadian government around 1896 to homestead in Manitoba.  Ukrainian settlement areas were designated, including the Mountain Road area northwest of Neepawa and the “South Riding Mountain Reserve” in the rolling bushland north of  Sandy Lake, Elphinstone, Oakburn, Rossburn and Angusville.  This was unsettled frontier that was passed over by earlier homesteaders from England and Scotland.  Many Ukrainian homesteaders were attracted to this land because of the trees. They knew they would have lumber to build a house and fuel for cooking and heating.

The Ukrainian immigrants were fleeing a life of Russian oppression in the Ukraine and peasant farming for aristocrats.  Canada was promising them a life of freedom and title to 160 acres of land for $10 dollars.

Money was scarce

The homesteaders who got off the train at Strathclair made their way into the wilderness south of Riding Mountain National Park.  In the first decade, many families lived in “buddas” while their homesteads were being identified.  Buddas were made of a small dugout area in the ground covered with tree trunks, branches, sod and native hay.  In 1899, a group of new homesteaders from the Ukraine made their first camp near Olha, MB.  Weakened from the trip and malnourished, 42 children and three adults succumbed to scarlet fever.  Today, a mass grave marks the settler’s tragic start to a new life in Canada.

In 1902, Peter Peech found a quarter section (160 acres) to homestead north of Oakburn near Seech.  He walked through Riding Mountain National Park to Dauphin to register his claim.  At age 24, Peter married Martha Slobodzian (age 16) in 1905.  Their first home was a one-room log shack with a roof of thatched straw bundles.  It had no windows because they had no money to buy glass.  Peter and Martha worked side by side cutting trees, pulling roots, and picking stones so they could farm the virgin soil.  Peter got employment building railroad tracks in the Strathclair area to earn income.  He returned home on weekends to farm.  His young bride and their newborn were left alone to forage for food and deal with wild animals, travelling gypsies and groups of Indigenous people who travelled between Elphinstone (Keeseekoowenin FN) and Rossburn (Waywayseecappo FN).  This was all new for a 17 year old left alone in the bush.  Not surprising, she was scared!

Peter and Martha had 11 children.  The seventh child, John Peech, reflected on his early childhood.  “There were Ukrainian families on every quarter section.  If you did not have 10 to 12 children, then there was something wrong!  We all lived off our farms and the wilderness.  Money was scarce.”

John recalled one local family with 18 children who lived on a small acreage with no farmland.  The father shot elk illegally in the National Park (as many did) to feed his family, but the Ranger caught him and he was put in jail.  The community saw that the children were starving, so they went to the police.  With some persuasion, they released the father.  With tears coming to his eyes,  John recalled, “He was just trying to feed his family. They had no money.  People cannot relate to this today because they have money and grocery stores.  Most have never experienced real hunger. It was a full time job for the father to feed his family.  One rabbit, duck or jackfish was not enough food to feed 18 mouths.  They had no refrigerators or freezers to store meat or keep food fresh.”

With the onset of WWII, some of the boys in that family went overseas to fight for the freedoms that Canadians enjoy today.

‘I spoke no English, only Ukrainian’

Peter Peech believed education was very important.  When his son John was six years old, Peter bought him a new scribbler and a pencil and sent him to the Seech County School.  “I walked in the door to find the one-room schoolhouse was packed with 60 children,” said John.  “I was very scared.  I spoke no English, only Ukrainian.  There were no empty desks so I just stood at the back of the room.  After some time, the teacher (there was only one) found me an apple box for a desk and a pail for a seat.  He gave me a ball of plasticine, which I played with for my entire grade one year.  No one taught me my numbers or letters.  The following year, my dad sent me back to school with my same blank scribbler and pencil.  Over time, I learned how to read, do arithmetic, and speak English by listening and observing other students.  Essentially, I was self-taught!  I made it to grade seven before leaving to work on the family farm.  Half of my classmates left school around grade four or five to help with farm work.’’

“I will tell you a story about the reality of immigrant families in the frontier bushland around Seech,” said John.  “I was a fireman at Seech Country School.  My job was to come to school early to light the heater in the winter so the school was warm when the children arrived.  For this, I was paid $1 dollar per month.  Clothes and shoes were a luxury that many families could not afford.  Children only had one set of clothes that they wore at school, home, work and church. It was not unusual for children to sleep on the floor on straw, as they had no beds.  It was dreadfully cold in the winter, so the children kept their clothes on at night for warmth.  It wasn’t unusual for young children to arrive at school having urinated in their pants overnight. I could see them walking stiff legged through the school window on minus 30 below days.  Their pants would be frozen like stovepipes. On really cold days, I would stoke up the school heater so it almost peeled the paint off the roof.  The first thing the children would do was stand around the heater or sit on it to dry their clothes.  There were days that my eyes would burn from the strong smell of urine.  Today, I am embarrassed and ashamed to tell this story [tears again coming to John’s eyes], but this was one of the realities of immigrant life in the frontier bushland.  We accepted it and carried on with our school day.’’

Peter built a general store on the home farm site near Seech, selling hardware, groceries and clothing.  Peter was a good businessman and the family was prospering.  Unfortunately, Peter died in 1933 at age 53.  It was the beginning of the depression and dirty 1930s.  There was no money and people were not paying their bills, so the store closed in 1934.  Then it got worse!  The topsoil blew away, the crops died and the farm equipment fell into disrepair. Like many families, the Peech family lost what they had.  Once again, they had no money.  “I can’t believe we survived the ‘30s,” said John.

The importance of music

“My family was very musical,” John said.  “My brothers and sisters all played an instrument.  We were all self-taught.  In the 1930s, when money was short, two of my brothers and I started a Peech Orchestra.  We played at weddings (three day events), barn dances and Sunday platform dances.  We were each paid $1 dollar to play for a day or evening.  This was good pay at the time.  Music has been a very important part of my life.”

John met his wife Alice Hrytsak when she came to teach at Seech as a permit teacher. Alice was from Oakburn (from a family of 13).  It was suggested that she check into boarding at the Peech residence.  If she could not find a place to board, the school would have no teacher.  Arrangements were made, and she met John, who was farming the land.  They dated for two years and were married in 1948 in the Oakburn Hall (the church was just being built).  They had four children, Olia (1950), Glennis (1952), David (1957) and Darlene (1959).  John sold the home farm to his brother Peter and bought a farm near Oakburn in 1953.  He and Alice operated a mixed farm until 1988, when they retired and moved to Neepawa.

John and Alice will be celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary next year.  They are proud of their family, culture and heritage.  They encourage their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to follow old Ukrainian traditions, like the 12 dishes on Christmas Eve.

As we concluded our conversation,  John reflected on the sacrifices that his immigrant parents made so their offspring would enjoy freedom and a better life.  “Canada has given us that,” said John.  “Canada was the gift they gave to us.”