1960 – Impressions of a New Immigrant
by Alfred Beck
Inspired by my childhood friend, Willie Walker, I decided to emigrate to Canada in 1960, only six weeks after marrying my wife, Inge, who arrived here one year later.
During my first year in Pembroke, I roomed and boarded with Willie and his wife, Gisela (although they never charged me a cent) and they also took me along to Germania Club dances, where they both volunteered.
One month after my arrival, I found work in my trade as a machinist. Wages were low — $1.50 an hour — but somehow I made do. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that after my wife’s arrival, our weekly grocery bill was $18, which included a carton of cigarettes.
Being raised in a city with a population of approximately 300,000, where some bars closed when the sun began rising over the rooftops, Pembroke presented many challenges to a 25-year-old man.
I was fortunate in having good English skills (I could read English newspapers), however, as an immigrant one is shy and prefers to communicate in one’s mother tongue, in my case, German.
What then appeared strange to me was, that numerous local people whose grandparents had come to Canada in the 1800s and who spoke flawless German, were reluctant to do so in public.
This was part of my culture shock. Yet there were many other strange impressions.
There was the jungle of hydro and telephone lines strung between poles with both hydro and telephone wires attached plus three transformers, and further down a “No Parking” sign and an advertisement poster. Sometimes there was even a mailbox attached to the same pole. Where I came from, all such wires were buried underground.
The distances between settlements and towns impressed me immensely. By comparison with distances in Germany, on a stretch from Pembroke to Mattawa there would likely be eight or ten small towns, instead of just three.
Most impressive were the Ontario liquor laws of the day. Until the early 1970s it was unthinkable to see wine and spirit bottles in an LCBO store, let alone even thinking of sitting in a street cafe nursing a glass of wine or beer in open public view.
To buy wine and spirits required the purchase of an annual liquor licence at $2. At the LCBO store, there were long stand-up desks with charts on which the brands of wine and spirits were listed with a number attached. On one of the numerous pre-printed writing pads, one recorded the number of one’s desired beverage plus the unit price, not forgetting one’s name, address, and phone number.
Now, armoured with that small order form torn off the pad, money in hand, one approached the cashier, who took one’s money and handed that order sheet to another clerk, who in turn disappeared into the stockroom from which he brought one’s order inside a tightly-wrapped brown paper bag. No one was allowed to see any wine or spirit bottle displayed beforehand, as if the viewing of a bottle, full or empty, was dangerous to one’s health.
Purchasing beer at the Beer Store, one followed the same procedures, except that one received the beer case with the brand name visible.
Stranger yet were gender segregations at hotels, bars, and taverns. These locales bore illuminated signs over their entrances: either “Men’s” or “Ladies and Escorts.” No male without a female companion was allowed to be seated in the “Ladies and Escorts” section.
At social functions, like the then bi-weekly Germania Club dances at the Legion Hall, the organizers had to secure a paid policeman in full regalia who positioned himself near the entrance all night as a chaperone.
Any advertising of alcoholic beverages was totally banned in Ontario. The only advertisements visible to Ontario residents were at Niagara Falls, where the neon signs of all major breweries illuminated the sky day and night from their rooftop mounts atop highrises in Buffalo across the river.
Following the regulations under The Lord’s Day Act, on Sundays no recreational activities were allowed, eg. soccer, baseball, hockey, or football etc. All cinemas and theatres remained closed; hotels, bars, and taverns had to keep their doors shut, and only “unlicensed” restaurants were allowed to open Sundays. This made for a lot of coffee drinking on Sundays for most singles.
For the city slicker that I was before coming to Pembroke, there were many challenges and adjustments. Yet nothing has since drawn me back to big city lifestyles. However, during occasional visits to my son in Toronto, the urge to go fine dining or venturing into a jazz club has not totally disappeared.
But, back in the Ottawa Valley, instead of the many big city attractions, I have embraced the beauty of Ontario’s great outdoors with which the Pembroke area is so blessed. My acquired passions include hunting and fishing, and I enjoy volunteering my time for the Germania Club Pembroke, the Pembroke Outdoor Sportsman’s Club, and the Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters.
I also find time for looking after my several tanks of tropical fish, my cactus collection, and my flower beds, as well as writing a bi-weekly column on outdoor issues for the Pembroke Observer. Obviously, I managed to make the transition from city slicker to small-town resident. I have been very content living in my small house just outside Pembroke, which I shared with my wife, Inge, who died much too soon a few years ago. Together we raised our wonderful son, Harald, who I am expecting to be celebrating with us tonight along with my good friends, the Walkers.