LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 29, No.2 - Summer 1983
Editor of this issue: Thomas Remeikis
Copyright © 1983 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
The Emigrant Experience:
CONTRACT HIRING OF DISPLACED
PERSONS IN CANADIAN DOMESTIC
Canada began accepting immigrants from the Displaced Persons camps in Europe in the summer of 1947.* There were two means of entry: one, in which Canadian relatives of the DP would sponsor him or her; a second, in which the would-be immigrant signed a contract to work for a private employer in Canada for one year. Male DPs could choose among forestry, mining, railroad and construction work; family groups could work on farms. Women had only two schemes: a restricted one for sweat-shops, and a very open one for domestic servants 'domestics' either for private homes or for medical institutions.
In January 1951, when the supply of DP women for domestic contracts had largely run out, the Deputy Minister of Labour, Arthur MacNamara, received a letter from one of his staff, congratulating him on the enormous success of the program:
Do not let the term 'MacNamara's D.P.s' upset you. Believe me it is a term of affection and appreciation which is in use all across the Dominion by thousands of girls who owe their present happy lives and improved conditions to you. Also the officers who work with D.P. domestics call them 'Mr. Mac's D.P.s' and know they have to do a good job for you. The project will be one of the brightest stars in your crown.1
But the Lithuanian DP women who came to Canada as domestics did not remember that year of service quite so glowingly:
It want Canada's fault that I was so unhappy. But I wasn't prepared for that kind of work, to have to live like that. (Ms. Anele Tamulevičiūte, family domestic)
They asked me to stay on after, because they knew I'd been a nurse in Germany. I didn't, just because I felt they'd taken advantage of me a lot. (Mrs. Vasiliauskas, hospital domestic)
There were people there who well, when I remember them now, I still feel very bitter. (Dr. Elena Zubrys, hospital domestic)2
What happened to the "thousands of girls" who made happy lives for themselves in Canadian homes and hospitals? The evidence suggests that they were as mythical as the happy black slaves of the American South. The Canadians who developed and handled the DP labour immigration schemes had many illusions about the people they were importing. At the same time, the DPs who signed those contracts had a good many illusions about themselves and the country they were entering. The contract year saw two powerful mythologies in head-on collision: neither can be said to have triumphed over the other. But the misunderstandings do help illuminate the way in which Lithuanians and other DPs formed a new element in Canadian society.
The Canadian labour immigration system was developed and handled not by the Immigration Branch, which controlled the entry of sponsored cases, but by the federal Department of Labour, headed by its Deputy Minister, Arthur MacNamara. In 1945 and 1946, like most Canadians, MacNamara had not welcomed the idea of increased immigration. With the war industries closed, it was widely believed that the Depression of the 1930's would return. MacNamara, a career civil servant of thirty years' experience, had spent the Depression in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in charge of relief programs for what was probably the hardest-hit of Canadian provinces. As Deputy Minister of Labour, he would have to deal with any problems of unemployment which new immigrants would cause.
But when it became evident, at the end of 1946, that Canada must accept some Displaced Persons or lose face in the international forum, MacNamara began to evolve his schemes of labour contracts to regulate the entry of at least some of the DPs into the job market. About 30,000 DPs were expected to be sponsored as Close Relatives: perhaps the economy could absorb 12,000 more 10,000 men for heavy labour, 2,000 women for domestic service.3
Twelve thousand was nothing, a drop in the bucket both for the million Displaced Persons seeking a new home and for the rapidly-expanding Canadian job market. By the spring of 1947, with the rush of applications by Canadian employers, MacNamara realized that the DPs represented a unique opportunity to expand his department's power. A memorandum of February 25,1947, speaks not of 2,000 but of 10,000-15,000 domestics.4
Of all the types of workers MacNamara's contract schemes dealt with, domestics were by far the most easily managed. Demand always far outstripped supply. Nor were there any unions or organizations of domestic workers to create trouble with demands for high wages or decent conditions of work. Domestic servants, then as now, were protected only by their relative scarcity and whatever feelings of humanity and justice their employers might have.5
Within the Department of Labour, Margaret Grier, who had tested out the market for domestics, did advise MacNamara that DP domestics, like native Canadian ones, would probably leave their jobs unless the work and pay were made more attractive.6
But this and other warnings were quickly forgotten: the Department seemed more concerned to protect Canadians from the new domestics than the other way around. The criteria established for the screening commission were rigorous: "a rigid physical examination", including tests for pregnancy and venereal diseases, as well as X-rays to detect lung weaknesses. Women of "good average intelligence and emotional stability" were to be chosen. Preference was to be given to applicants of Baltic origin. This was a program for single women between the ages of eighteen and forty.7
All the successful applicants would have to sign a contract. Presented in English, French and German, it ran as follows:
I do hereby undertake that on my arrival in Canada, I will accept employment as a domestic worker with such employer as may be approved by the Minister of Labour for Canada or his representative, at the wage rate and under the working and living conditions prevailing in the locality of employment for comparable classifications of employment, and will continue in such employment for a period of one year, and that I will conform to the rules and working regulations of the employer by whom I am employed.
In general, wages would be thirty-five dollars a month, with room and board provided by the employer.8
The most intriguing item in the preparatory memos is the marked preference shown for Baits both by prospective employers of DPs and by Labour officials themselves. Perhaps some vague association with Scandinavian groups (regarded favorably as immigrants) was at work. In addition, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians were expected to make good common labourers in mines, forests and domestic service: Canadians seem to have thought them barely literate. IRO reports which indicated a predominance of white-collar and professional workers among the DP Baits were ignored. Indeed, the preference seems to have been based on nothing more sensible than a nearly complete ignorance of the Baltic peoples, made easy in Canada because there were few Baits living there. Canadians knew something already of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews and were not enthusiastic about getting more. The Baits, on the other hand, as MacNamara's chief assistant, A. H. Brown, stated, "should be particularly suitable from the point of view of assimilation" that is, they would blend into the Anglo-Saxon culture that dominated Canada.9 Assimilation was one of the beneficial consequences expected from the contract system of immigration: instead of gathering in urban ghettos, the DPs would be scattered thinly across Canada and work from the first day among Canadians, learning the English language and the Canadian way of life simultaneously.
While the Canadian selection team was receiving its final instructions, the women who would become applicants for the program were learning how to manipulate the criteria for their own benefit. Mrs. Elena Gudinskas recalled how she and her friends prepared themselves for the Canadian commission:
We had already learned from the men [selected for forestry work]. They had made themselves into specialists who had worked for years and years in the woods and knew how to do this and how to do that. Well, we were just as smart as them. In our transport, Dr. Vasiliauskaite, a dentist, used to say, 'Girls, there's only one truth and that's what's written down.'
When you passed through those commissions and they kept asking you the same questions really, you couldn't remember what you'd said before. So we began taking notes: 'I was in this place, did this and that, have this much experience . . .' With the help of those 'Records of Truth' we got through all the commissions.
We had all finished high school or were continuing our studies. But we'd say that we had worked as domestics in between terms.
They checked our health. I was one of those who could lend my lungs. One of my colleagues told me he wanted his wife to go in the program. 'You're very much like her,' he said, 'dark hair, brown eyes.' So, armed with her 'Record of Truth', I went to get X-rayed.
I brought up my children not to lie. But when you think of how we got through that part of our lives, how many lies we told it makes your hair stand on end.10
Since the domestic program was only for single women, a number of DP women had to pretend they were divorced or at least separated.
Not all the women had to lie, however. Certain Canadian officials were more sympathetic than others. But Labour officials in Canada were quick to spot the renegades within their own ranks. The first transport which included domestics landed at Halifax on October 8, 1947.11 Already in November 1947, MacNamara was receiving complaints about these domestics.12
The selection teams were warned, but the groups that followed still included a disturbingly high number of overly-educated women. On February 21, 1948, a memo was circulated among Labour representatives in Germany:
Apparently many girls we are passing fail to disclose the fact that they have higher education. While it is agreed that we will pass up to ten per cent who disclose having superior education, whenever it is suspected that any girls possess such qualifications, but are concealing them, please reject.13
Ten per cent is a low figure, especially considering that those DP women who had not had time, money or opportunity to continue their studies beyond high school in their homelands were often encouraged to do so by IRO-sponsored programs during the DP period.
Besides, it took courage and initiative to decide to leave the security of the camps and the affection of friends and relatives for a foreign country. The women who took this risk and also had enough force of personality to stand out among the crowds of applicants were the very ones who should never have been taken.
After the selection, they came to crossing, usually by boat, to Halifax or Quebec City. What is significant about these week or ten-day voyages is that national identities, far from coalescing under the common experience of immigration, were asserted all the more vigorously. The DP immigrants produced shipboard newsletters, arranged concerts of singing and dancing, talked, flirted but within their national boundaries.14 At the moment of initiation into Canadian life, the DPs asserted their identity, their determination to remain what they were. Their Lithuanian world was still the real one, the one that would continue.
With this attitude, the sudden transition to being a domestic in a hospital or a private home came as a profound shock. The DPs had been prepared to peel potatoes and scrub floors: indeed, they were determined to work diligently so that they would create a good impression on Canadians, both for their own sakes and to open the way for others of their nationality to immigrate. Then there was always the hope of somehow helping their occupied homeland:
We had this idea that we had to be our country's ambassadors, to tell people what our country really was and how it was suffering. We felt a very strong responsibility to represent our people and to represent them really well. (Mrs. Irena Lukoševičius)15
What the Lithuanian DPs did not expect was to be treated as though cleaning rooms and washing dishes expressed the full sum of their talents and potential. For them, the year as domestics had represented an ordeal through which they had to pass to win their right to live in Canada. Instead, their diligence was rewarded by the alarming suggestion that, after the contract period ended, they could continue as domestics at a better salary. This was not the future they had promised themselves.
The shock was the worst for those who had already established their careers in Lithuania or Germany. Dr. Elena Zubrys, a dentist, , for example, had hoped that even in her contract year she could work in a hospital, perhaps as a dental technician. Instead, she was assigned to make beds and wash sheets in a Hamilton mental institution. The hospital staff made it clear that they did not respect her: her past ceased to count, and the Canadian Dental Association closed its doors against the newcomers, requiring them to re-do all but one year of their studies.16
In Winnipeg, at the St. Boniface TB sanatorium, the staff was kind but condescending. When they lavished praise on the Christmas decorations made by a young actress, Birute Pukelevičiūte, she felt insulted: "Those nuns thought we knew absolutely nothing. We were quite well-educated women."17
Most of the Lithuanian women who came to Canada as domestics tell stories like these, stories not so much of real mistreatment as of humiliation. Mrs. Vasiliauskas, for example, felt that the Toronto hospital where she and her two friends worked did not trust DPs. There was the question of eating meals at the hospital. The DPs wanted fresh fruit and a little more variety in their diet: they suggested they be given the money the hospital spent on their food and be allowed to feed themselves. The request was refused, not, as one might expect, because it would disrupt hospital routine, but on the grounds that "we'd take the money and cheat them by still eating there . . . And this was said to our faces."18
In such cases, the only real recourse was to ask for a transfer. So many domestics did this that the Labour Department found itself, as one official put it, playing a game of 'musical chairs'.19
As has been said, DP domestics worked within two broad categories: in hospitals and institutions, or in private homes. Hospital work had its particular ordeals: Birute Pukelevičiute could not bear to work with small children who were dying slowly and painfully; Dr. Elena Zubrys found the incessant cries of the insane outside the window of her room depressing; Mrs. Albina Pulianauskas asked for a transfer after a few weeks of cleaning operating rooms of their blood and "pieces of human flesh".20 Most of the DPs, however, worked as kitchen and cleaning staff.
Generally speaking, hospital domestics considered themselves better off than family ones. For one thing, they worked and lived in groups and were able to encourage each other. Then, too, hospital domestics benefited from the strict schedules of their institutions: once their shift was over, they were free to do what they pleased. In private homes, work had a way of extending itself to ten, twelve or even more hours a day.
For the most part, then, the movement of dissatisfied domestics was from private to institutional work.
The complaints made by Lithuanian women working for families centred on two issues: one, psychological; the other economic. Like hospital domestics, DPs working in private homes were shocked to discover that they were expected to be content as servants for the rest of their lives. Mrs. Irena Lukoševičius said of her employers:
They thought of domestics as people without ambitions, without interests of their own, who had to belong one hundred per cent to someone else. She wanted me to change my day off from Thursday to any other day in the week, because she had her Ladies' Morning Musical Concerts on Thursdays. On the other hand, it was the only day that all the domestics had off. If I didn't go out that day, I separated myself from my group, my friends. So I refused and explained why.21
At times it seemed as though the rituals of service were directed at the domestic herself, as though to impress her with a sense of her own inferiority. Mrs. Paulaitis' 'lady' helped her prepare supper on her first day at work and talked pleasantly enough:
She began to count up who would be there Monsieur So-and-So, Mademoiselle Such-and-Such ... I thought, 'My first day here and there's so many guests coming!' But it was the children. They called me by my first name. Well, really! That was the worst thing. I'd never heard anything like it I had to call some six-year-old 'Monsieur Louis'!22
But at least she was called by her own name. Mrs. Irena Varanka found herself re-christened 'Frieda' "because there'd been a German girl before me."23
Most of the DPs might have put up with psychological abuse alone: what aggravated their sense of outrage was that they very quickly understood that they were being taken advantage of financially. The only contract they ever saw was the one they had signed in Germany, promising to "conform to the rules and working regulations of the employer by whom I am employed." A woman might begin by cleaning and helping prepare meals and finally find herself with everything children, laundry, cooking, cleaning on her hands. And yet the pay remained $30 or $35 a month, a derisory amount even in the late 1940's in Canada.
Part of the blame for the frequent break-downs in master-servant relationships, then, should be laid at the Department of Labour's doorstep. Thirty-five dollars a month may well have been the going rate offered by Canadians for a live-in domestic in the spring of 1947. But hardly anyone in Canada wanted to work as a live-in domestic and, as this attitude persisted through the late forties and early fifties, would-be employers were forced to raise their wage offers considerably. Certainly Lithuanian DPs felt that thirty-five dollars (some received less) was abusive. Good employers raised this salary progressively or even immediately.24
Other employers maintained the contracted rate until trouble developed or the contract ended. Then their sudden readiness to pay more confirmed the DP's suspicion that she had been taken advantage of. Mrs. Irena Varanka was offered ten dollars a month more when she arranged a transfer in mid-contract. "Not even for twenty dollars!" she said, and left. When Mrs. Irena Lukoševičius arranged a transfer, her lady offered to reduce her workload and raise her salary: $75 just to take care of the children! Double the pay for less than half the work! "Of course I said Thank-you' and left."25
If the employers in these cases reflected on what had happened, it might have occurred to them that they had been caught in a trap. Thirty-five dollars and a contract for a year the offer had been too tempting for people who had made do up until then with a weekly cleaning woman. Those DP women assigned to wealthy families with a tradition of servants had far fewer complaints. But in the homes of those with moderate incomes, the DPs felt themselves to be playing a part in which all the sacrifices were on their part. Mr. and Mrs. Jonynas, for example, were hired as a domestic couple by a Montreal family: Mr. Jonynas had to wear a white jacket and white gloves when serving meals, while in the kitchen the lady of the house squeezed every penny until it squeaked:
She'd say, 'Don't drink milk water is very healthy.' If I peeled the potatoes, she'd come and put some of them in water, saying, 'That's too many.' Everything had to be counted.26
Mrs. Irena Varanka was shocked at the fuss her employers made over the food budget it was a catastrophe if she let the youngest child drink too much milk. Yet she was still summoned to the dining room by a genteel little bell.27 Ms. Anele Tamulevičiūte recalled that her employers measured out the food with precision: one pork chop each, for example. But when an unexpected guest appeared for lunch, it was her pork chop that had to be sacrificed.28
In group labour schemes, DPs could unite in rebellion and force a change in an unjust system: many such changes were sought and granted to DPs working in mines, lumber camps and railroad gangs. The rebellions of family domestics were individual and had no effect on the system as a whole. Arthur MacNamara set down as policy that any DP domestic who asked for a transfer be given one.29 There were always more employers only too happy to accept a domestic at a day's notice. In effect, no fundamental changes were ever made.
The Labour Department did institute a program of follow-up visits to domestics placed in private homes. Both Ruth Hamilton, the Labour administrator most concerned with women's employment, and the YWCA which, along with the Catholic Women's League, did most of the actual work, wanted the visitor to ask questions about working conditions: was pay being increased to match growing experience and competence? did the DP have a chance to learn English, both on and off the job? But male Labour officials insisted that visitors should concern themselves solely with the social adjustment of the DP domestic. Was she integrating herself into Canadian life? It was this view that won out.30
Not surprisingly, the Lithuanian DPs who recall being 'visited' remember it as a pointless exercise. Typically, the visit took place in the presence of the employer, while the questions asked were limited to 'Do you go to church? Do you like Canada?'31
Lithuanians could depend on Lithuanians that was the primary lesson the contract year brought for most domestics. It was among other domestics or among Lithuanian immigrants already established in Canada that DP women found the advice and practical help necessary for a flight from the security of service. The effort at integration failed; at the end of their year, domestic contract workers were more than ever determined to be something other than a live-in appendage to someone else's life.
The year in Canada had knocked some illusions out of them: already they could see that they were not going to be accepted on their own terms, that the achievements and ambitions that had still seemed real in the hiatus of DP camps meant nothing at all on the other side of the Atlantic and could be built up again only by an enormous effort of will and energy.
But the basis of that effort would have to be other Lithuanians. Domestic service had brought these women face to face with Canadian life and had taught them that they were separate, that they felt different in too many respects from Canadians. The master-servant relationship is not flattering for the master; weaknesses become only too apparent seen from below, from back-stage: it is the servant who keeps her reserve behind her uniform and her obedience. The year of work changed many of these Lithuanian women, but it made them more Lithuanian too, more determined to achieve some of their own privately-set goals and to establish families and a way of life that would enshrine their own. principles and values.
* The material for this article, and for the book on Lithuanian immigration to Canada after World War II that I am presently writing, is based on two major sources: 1) about 200 taped interviews with Lithuanians across Canada who immigrated from DP camps after World War II; 2) the files of the federal Department of Labour and the Immigration Branch covering the years 1946-55. These files are now in the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa.
The financial support of Multiculturalism, Secretary of State, Ottawa, and of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Toronto, in conducting this research, is gratefully acknowledged. This paper was presented at the Eighth Conference on Baltic Studies, University of Minnesota, June 17-19, 1982.
1 PAC (Public Archives of Canada). RG 27, v. 278, 1-26-3-1, pt. 4, Mrs. Gladys Winter to Arthur MacNamara, 24 Jan. 1951.
2 Interviews with Ms. Anele Tamulevičiūte, Ottawa, 15 Jan. 1980, interviewer J. V. Danys; Mrs. Vasiliauskas, Toronto, 26 Mar. 1980; Dr. Elena Zubrys, Toronto, interv. J. V. Danys. Unless otherwise noted, all the interviews were carried out by the author. All the interviews were conducted in Lithuanian and were translated by the author.
3 PAC. RG 27, v. 275,1-26-1, pt. 1, MacNamara's circular to the provincial branches of Labour, 11 Dec. 1946.
4 PAC. RG 27, v. 278,1-26-3-1, pt. 1, Margaret Grier to Eric Stangroom, 25 Feb. 1947.
5 When word leaked out that Canada was planning to import domestics from the DP camps, the YWCA protested. Its president, Agnes L. Rean, pointed out to MacNamara that since there was no protective legislation for domestics in Canada, the DPs would probably find themselves being exploited by their employers. Besides, why limit immigration to women of this level? Surely DP women with education and ambition could do other work as well. PAC. RG 27, v. 278, 1-26-3-1, pt. 1, 24 Apr. 1947; RG 76, v. 656, B46936, pt. 1, mfm. C-10, 592, 30 May 1947.
6 PAC. RG 27, v. 278, 1-26-3-1, pt. 1, 1 Mar. 1947.
7 Women up to 45 years of age could be taken if they had had previous experience as cooks, housekeepers or hospital workers. PAC. RG 76, v. 656, B46936, pt: 1, mfm. C-10, 592, Labour memo, 31 July 1947; RG 27, v. 278, 1-26-3-1, pt. 2, G. G. Congdon to James Colley, 9 Aug. 1947.
9 PAC. RG 27, v. 277, 1-26-2-1, pt. 1, Brown to G. H. Heythorne, 7 June 1947.
10 Interview with Mrs. Elena Gudinskas. Hamilton, 11 Feb. 1981.
11PAC. RG 27, v. 277,1-26-2-1. Pt. 1, W. W. Dawson to MacNamara, no date (about Oct. 1947).
12 PAC. RG 27, v. 278,1-26-3-1, pt. 3, G. W. Ritchie, Ont. Regional Advisory Board, to MacNamara, 20 Nov. 1947.
13 Ibid., V. C. Phelan to Ms. E. Amas and Ms. B. Sauriol, 21 Feb. 1948.
14 Interviews with Mrs. Elena Kudaba, Hamilton, 12 Dec. 1980; Mrs. Aldona Morkūnas, Montreal, 12 Aug. 1980, interv. ). V. Danys.
15 Interview with Mrs. Irena Lukoševičius, Montreal, 13 Feb. 1980.
16 Interview with Dr. Elena Zubrys.
17 Interview with Ms. Birute Pukelevičiute, Hamilton, 16 May 1980, interv. J. V. and M. J. Danys.
18 Interview with Mrs. Vasiliauskas, Toronto, 26 Mar. 1980.
19 PAC. RG 27, v. 279, 1-26-10-1, pt. 2, W. Davison to W. W. Dawson, 25 Jan. 1950.
20 Interviews with Ms. Birute Pukelevičiute; with Dr. Elena Zubrys; with Mrs. Albina Pulianauskas, Hamilton, 11 Feb. 1981.
21 Interview with Mrs. Irena Lukoševičius.
22 Interview with Mrs. Paulaitis, Sudbury, 19 Nov. 1980.
23 Interview with Mrs. Irena Varanka, Toronto, 26 Sept. 1980.
24 Mr. and Mrs. Kerbelis, who worked as a domestic couple, had their original $60 a month raised to $80 and then to $100 a month by their second employer (interview with Mr. and Mrs. Kerbelis, Montreal, 31 Jan. 1980). Mrs. Irena Prisčepionka began in September 1949 at the standard $35 but by Christmas was getting more, to finish at $75 a month (interview with Mrs. Irena Prisčepionka, Ottawa, 26 Jan. 1980; interv. J. V. Danys and M. J. Danys).
25 Interviews with Mrs. Irena Varanka and Mrs. Irena Lukoševičius.
26 Interview with Mrs. Monika Jonynas, Montreal, 22 Mar. 1980.
27 Interview with Mrs. Irena Varanka.
28 Interview with Ms. Anele Tamulevičiūte.
29 PAC. RG 27, v. 276,1-26-1-7, Ruth Hamilton, circular to regional offices, 17 Mar. 1948.
30 PAC. RG 27, 286, 1-26-30, pt. 2, Ruth Hamilton to MacNamara, 2 June 1948; E. Lorentsen to MacNamara, 25 June 1948; H. T. Pammett to MacNamara, 5 July 1948; Pammett to MacNamara, 20 Oct. 1948.
31 Interviews with Mrs. A. Danaitis, Ottawa, 18 Nov. 1979, interv. J. V. Danys and M. J. Danys; with Ms. Anele Tamulevičiūte.