Labour Force

Workers at the GWG Factory Before World War II

by Catherine C. Cole

photo of women sewing By the early 1900s, Edmonton's population included First Nations, Métis, French-Canadians, Scots, British, Welsh, Scandinavians, Germans and Americans. The majority of immigrants during this period were English-speaking, but there were also many immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Poland and Italy who did not speak English. The establishment of the Great Western Garment Company coincided with the restriction of immigration by Frank Oliver, founder of The Edmonton Bulletin, and federal Minister of the Interior, in response to racial tensions that had arisen following the rapid influx of diverse peoples.

Immigration Patterns Between the Wars

advertisement There was little immigration to Canada during World War I. Following the war, the federal government further restricted immigration due to anti-foreigner sentiment. In 1919, Canada passed a new Immigration Act that formalized guidelines based on race and culture and allowed the government to exclude immigrants whose ideological beliefs were considered unacceptable.

Restrictions applying to immigrants from Germany, Austria and other World War I enemy countries were not lifted until 1923. At the same time, the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act effectively ended immigration from China. Italian immigration remained restricted from 1919 to 1939.

In 1925, the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways were given control over recruiting European agricultural workers to settle in western Canada. Between the wars, Alberta's Ukrainian population rose to 71,868; many settled in the block settlement north-east of Edmonton. When the Depression began in 1930, immigration was limited to people with enough money to establish and maintain themselves on farms; the following year, all immigration from continental Europe ended and only British and American immigrants were allowed into Canada.

In 1938, following the German annexation of Austria, political refugees flooded into Canada. Immigration was again restricted during World War II. Italy declared war on Canada on June 10, 1940, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) restricted the actions of Italians living in Canada.

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Anne Ozipko describes the homesteading experience of Ukrainian immigrants (1:04)

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New Immigrants in the GWG Workforce Before and During World War II

photo of women sewing Before World War II, most workers at GWG were English-speaking. Some were of Ukrainian or Scandinavian descent, but most spoke English even if that was not their parents' mother tongue. The workforce changed significantly during the war, doubling in size to 500 between 1939 and 1941; many of these new workers were recent immigrants. Canadian-born women who worked at the plant often started just out of high school, or took the job when they moved to the city from the surrounding area. Some took the job to support the war effort, or to support the war effort while their fiancés and husbands were overseas.

Memories of Working in the Plant

The daughter of English immigrants, Emily Waggott was born in Edmonton and worked at the factory from 1929 to 1931. She remembers working with Swedish, Ukrainian and Italian women. Nellie Engley worked at the plant from 1938 to 1946. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, she remembers the women at the plant being from "everywhere." Helen Allen, who worked at the plant from 1939 to 1942 before she married, remembers most of the women being Edmontonians, but that there were also some Italian immigrants. She remembers the immigrant women having a stronger work ethic, "they wouldn't even take time to go to the washroom. They were just givin' her, you know."

Norah Hook, who grew up in Paxson, east of Athabasca, and worked at the plant in 1940 when she was only seventeen, remembers that many of the women around her did not speak English. Beulah Williams was a presser, and later a cutter, between 1942 and 1947. She remembers that most of the women at the plant were English-speaking. Anne Ozipko emigrated with her family from Ukraine as a child in 1930 so that her older brother would not be conscripted into the Russian Army, and was raised in the Boyle area. She came to Edmonton in 1943 and was an operator at GWG for a few years until she started her family. She also remembers "Ukrainian women, Italian women. Very few of them spoke English. Everybody talked their own language."

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Assunta Dotto compares life in Italy to Canada (1:10)

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photo of women walking down the street Assunta Peron (now Dotto), an Italian immigrant who worked at the factory from 1943 to 1945, said that it was a "source of good employment for immigrants during the wartime and even after the war because ... we were not able to get employment any other way." She noticed that the women working at the plant who were born in Canada complained, but she "saw the GWG as a lifesaver because it got [her] a start." Her father had come to Alberta in 1906 at the age of 19, intending to bring his wife and family to Canada when he had saved enough money working in the coal mines. When he left Italy after a visit and returned to Canada in 1923, Ms. Peron was 8 months old. Due to immigration restrictions, she was 16 years old when she next saw him in Canada in 1939. During World War II, like other Italian immigrants in Alberta, she was fingerprinted, forced to register, carry an identification card, and report on a monthly basis. She remembers that, "after a few months, one of the RCMP officials said to me, 'why are you coming here?' I said, 'because I was told to come over here.' So he went back in the office and put a stamp on it and said, 'go and don't come back.'"

Read more about European Immigrants at GWG in the Post War Era