brilliant sunshine, Canada, Eaton's, emigrating, England, humour, Landed Immigrant, London, Manitoba, photography, reflections, The Hudson's Bay Company, travel, Winnipeg, Winnipeg 1967, Winnipeg Free Press
The train doors closed, the whistle sounded and we left Montreal on the final leg of our journey to Winnipeg. We had our British Passports newly stamped ‘Landed Immigrant, July 27, 1967, Quebec’.
We had booked a compartment – basically a small private room that makes up into beds for the night. It was a two-day train journey, taking us through Northern Ontario, across the Precambrian shield country. Endless lakes and evergreen forests. Being out in the shield country is wonderful, but travelling by train seemed like the circular scenery from old movies – the same scene endlessly being wound round behind the windows. The great distance we were travelling, after the four days across the Atlantic made us feel a long, long way from home. But there was excitement mounting as we neared our destination.
Finally, on Sunday July 30, the train took us into the outskirts of our new city. Trains never bring you into cities the most picturesque routes. We came through industrial wastelands and some rather sad neighbourhoods. Arriving anywhere new by train is not the most uplifting experience.
It so happened that July 30th. was Sunday of the August long weekend. It was incredibly hot and anyone who could had left the city for lake country. I believe the temperature was in the high 80s low 90’s (F) Canada hadn’t yet made the change to metric. The sky was the brightest blue I had ever seen. The sun was very hot indeed.
We collected our bags – I was clinging onto my portfolio for dear life as we made the short trek from the station to the Royal Alexander Hotel (the CP rail hotel) next door. Thomas Cook, the travel agents, has booked us into the hotel for one night. We would need to find somewhere affordable for the next night.
We decided to go and take a first look at our new home. Unfortunately, the grand old CP hotel was located in a very ugly and decaying part of the down-town area. It was not a pretty sight in those days. As we wandered along Main Street, heading south, we saw closed up businesses, grungy looking ‘hotels’, cheap pubs with tiny, grubby rooms for rent. There were drunks hanging about in the doorways and staggering around the street.
I am sure there were places like this in London and any large city, but I had never experienced ‘skid row’ before. It was an awful place. I can’t tell you how depressing it was to experience this after all the waiting, excitement and the long, long journey. What had we done?
We went back to the hotel room. We wept.
We talked about what to do. Should we take the train back to Toronto – I had a distant relative who lived there. Or should we continue on to Vancouver – my Dad had an old school friend who was an architect there.
Having no one else to turn to we went to speak to a kind man behind the reception desk. When we told him what we were thinking he laughed. He told us this was not a nice part of town, and to take a bus out to another area he named. He said that once we had seen the residential areas we would feel a lot better.
We had met another couple on the train and they too had been booked into the Royal Alex. We met up with them and agreed to go hunting for temporary accommodations. They were also a young couple but a lot more worldly-wise. We found a newspaper and read the ‘for rent’ section. The trouble was we had no idea which areas we should be considering. We also didn’t know what was reasonable for rent.
We found the top floor of a rooming house that was large enough for the four of us. We rented it for a month, sharing the cost. It turns out this was not the greatest area of the city either, but the price was right, it was close to downtown, and we all felt better being together.
We had been told that someone from immigration would be available to meet us when we arrived and help us to get oriented and to look for employment. However, government offices are not open on long-weekends and the immigration office wouldn’t be open till Tuesday morning.
We started to feel a bit better about things. The weather was really hot and sunny and the sky continued to paint a huge blue dome over us. We visited the elegant Provincial Legislative Building. Little did I know this building would later become a major part of my professional life. We enjoyed the fountains and a trip on the bus out to Assiniboine Park with the cricket pitches, pavilion, conservatory and, at that time, free zoo.
Tuesday Morning we arrived early at the immigration offices. I had assumed the officer would have had our files and have done some preliminary investigation of employment opportunities. Instead, he got out the Winnipeg Free Press (It cost 25 cents I think) and turned to the help wanted advertisements. I’m not sure if there was anything there, but after a while he picked up the phone and spoke to the HR managers of the two largest department stores, The Hudson’s Bay Company and Eaton’s. He secured an interview for me with each company in their store design departments. The interviews went well. I showed them my portfolio and talked about the work I had been doing in London. The manager who interviewed me at The Bay (Short form of Hudson’s Bay), complimented me on my portfolio. In an aside to his assistant he said something about Canadian applicants never seem to think it helpful to bring a portfolio of their work, they just rely on their credentials and resumé. He thought it was refreshing that I had brought samples with me. Thank you kind Quebec police constable!
I called each firm back as directed and was offered employment with each. Eaton’s offered more money, but I liked the atmosphere at the Bay better. I accepted the Bay’s conditional offer, to be confirmed by HR. I spoke to the HR man from a pay-phone and had an interesting conversation.
HR “I am pretty sure we have a position for you to start on Monday, I just have a couple of things to finalize”
Me “That’s wonderful, I am really looking forward to working for the Hudson’s Bay Company”.
HR “As I recall from our meeting you have a beard, is that right?”
Me “That’s right, I do have a beard”.
HR “Hmmm. You know, I don’t think there is anyone else working for the Bay, anywhere in Canada, who has a beard”.
Me “Really?” thinking, I’m not sure but that lady in reception seemed a little hairy to me.
HR “Well, anyway, I’ll check on the couple of items and can you call me first thing tomorrow?”
Me “Yes, sir”.
I went out and found a barber and asked him to trim my hair and shave my beard. He looked very surprised, and asked if I really wanted him to do that. I told him I did. There were few winks shared between Bob the barber and a number of regulars waiting their turn.
Bob shaved off exactly half my beard. The left hand side of my face was clean-shaven and the right still decorated with the hairy accessory. Now a strange thing about Canadian barbers, they sit you in a chair with a large mirror in front – but while they are cutting your hair they turn you to face away from the mirror – facing the other customers. Back to Bob the barber, there were a number of chuckles; Bob swung my chair around, showed me the two sides of my face and asked “You sure you want to do this?” Hahahahahahahahahahaha all around (They didn’t have LOL then). These Canadian barbers were a different breed than their English counterparts. Bob didn’t even ask if I needed something for the weekend (this may only mean something to men who have been to barbers in England). Bob finished the job and the skin of my chin and cheeks were introduced to the elements for the first time in three years. Good job it was summer!
Next morning I went to the pay phone and contacted HR.
HR “How are you today?”
Me “Well, thank you”.
HR “By the way, how is that beard of yours?”
Me “What beard would that be, sir, I don’t have a beard.”
HR “good news, you start Monday, report to Mr Ball’s office on Main Street”
Me “Thank you”. Yippee – less than a week in Winnipeg and I had a job paying three times what I had been making in London!
Shortly afterwards my wife was engaged by a bank, about one block from where we were currently staying. Things were certainly looking up; so far the Immigration man in London had been right. One of the windows in our apartment was missing the glass and mosquito screen – there definitely are mosquitoes in Winnipeg in summer, he was right again.