Immigrant Fathers and Sons – A New Research Project at GCS

In her memoir A Very Ordinary Life (1974), German Canadian Phyllis Knight recalls the relationship between her son, Jon (born in 1936), and her husband, Ali (who had immigrated from Germany in 1927). From her perspective, it was a tragic story of regret: “Ali wanted so much to be a father to Jon, to have Jon confide in him and look up to him. Because he was always very proud of his son. But neither of them knew how to go about showing it. None of us were very demonstrative that way. But it really was somewhat sad, because what didn’t come out in affection came out in quarrels. […]” (p. 235).

Yet, Jon (a pseudonym the co-author, Rolf Knight, used in his mother’s memoirs) also remembered good times. In his own memoir, Voyage Through the Past Century, Rolf Knight recounted summer trips into the interior of British Columbia to visit his father, who worked in construction camps . The young teenager was impressed, with camp life and his father:

The first was a dike rebuilding project at Deroche in the Fraser Valley. I stayed in one of the crew tents and on afternoons when Ali could take some time off we drove around the surrounding region and visited the places where he had jungled up, or the crumbling remains of relief project camps. This was accompanied by reminiscences of who he had been with when riding the rods or how they had gotten together the ingredients for a mulligan stew in some little town we now passed through. Accounts of the Hungry Thirties, accounts of events which had happened in the distant past, a decade or more earlier.


Rolf admired his dad’s ability tell stories, recreate life during the “Dirty Thirties” before his eyes, and to relate to strangers: “He had a real knack for striking up conversations with people, a trait I always envied. We might nose around the old coaling berths at Union Bay or the ships’ bone yard at Fanny Bay. Interlaced in these outings were snippets of local history as Ali had heard it.” (p. 34)

Phyllis had not been part of these adventures. Instead she remembered the father-son relationship through her own increasingly troubled relationship with her husband. And yet, despite these contradictory perspectives—in fact, because of them—these German-Canadian memoirs give us a glimpse into a big but often-neglected part of history: the history of fathers and sons and their relationships. A Very Ordinary Life, Voyage Through the Past Century, dozens more such German-Canadian memoirs, and hundreds of oral histories are unique sources and insights that have launched us, here at German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg, onto a new research path, one where we explore the history of Canadian fatherhood and sonhood throughout the twentieth century and into the present time.

We use German immigrant fathers and their sons’ experiences as a case study to explore the broader history of Canadian father-son relations. Our goals are to write fathers and sons into Canadian history and to help Canadian society better understand the history and experience of being fathers and having sons, and of having fathers and being sons. Over the next few years, we want to find out how experiences like those of Ali and Rolf—of desperately trying to provide for a family during the Great Depression, of growing up in the rough surroundings of logging camps—have shaped boys’ and men’s lives over the past century. How did German-Canadian boys and men experience the world wars and postwar years as fathers and sons? How did they experience poverty and economic recessions, and what did such experiences do to their relationship? How did they view and negotiate, together or apart, dramatically changing cultural attitudes to masculinity and fatherhood, ever-changing expectations of fathers and sons, and social prejudice and state interventions into immigrant lives?

For Rolf and his parents, being working class during the Great Depression took its toll. Phyllis was physically and mentally exhausted from the constant worry and insecurity. Like his wife, Ali was an itinerant worker for most of his life, in Germany and in Canada. Like many other immigrants during the Great Depression, both worked a few months at a time in various jobs: mining, logging, construction, painting, baking, on ships. But Ali continued this lifestyle even after the economy recovered and against his wife’s wishes, who, according to Rolf, craved security: “I’ve had enough of roughing it,” she told Ali and Rolf as they left for another adventure in the mountains ( p.36).

Although Rolf and Ali did not get along when they were back home in Vancouver, Rolf was deeply shaped by Ali’s experiences. Later, Rolf too worked in remote construction camps, and even though he received a doctoral degree from Columbia University in New York and worked as a professor at Canadian universities, he—like his dad—traveled around the world. Eventually, Rolf Knight became a writer and historian (a storyteller, like his dad!) of the Canadian working class—a monument, in part, to his parents and especially his father.

-Alexander Freund and Sofia Bach, University of Winnipeg.