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  • Writer's pictureJane Wheeler

Tomslake - land of the Sudeten German Refugees

I drive by the sign several times a week, it is the sign for the Sudeten Campground right off the highway in Tomslake, B.C. and I unfortunately took 3 years to be enlightened that the word Sudeten was not a “native Indigenous” language word, but a word for a group of German peoples who were forced to flee from their land during the Nazi regime.

When I read the book by Andrew Amstatter on Tomslake, B.C., I was astounded at what I did not know about this part of the country, considering I was born and raised in B.C. I was also stunned that such things had happened in my country, you know the land of the free, that I was taught about in my school education. These stories and other horrific ones never came up.

Sudeten Memorial Marker, Tomslake, BC

When it all actually started I am not sure, but politically it was all before World War 1 and then after World War 1 the newly created country of Czechoslovakia, is where the Sudetens had settled. When Hitler and the Nazi’s started to flex their power, the Sudeten’s were forced to leave Czechoslovakia. Only some of the Sudeten people were rescued and many succumbed to Nazi camps and worse. They found it very difficult to find countries willing to accept refugees and often had to go to several countries before they found Canada willing to accept them for a price. Yes there was money involved, they had to pay to get entrance into the country, Czechoslovakia did pay for most of the refugees and there was promise of prepared housing and implements to work the land provided.

It turns out Canada had made a deal with the railway at the time to fully be in charge of the $1,500 per family and for this fee they would transport refugees around Canada to allotted places. The families themselves would not be able to receive the allotted money that was put aside for them. The railway paid approximate $1.65 per acre for the approximate 23,000 acres of bush and swampland that the refuges were about to land upon. The Sudeten refugees, who were mostly wealthy and educated people, as these were the people who had some money or connections that paid the way for them, these were the ones who were taken to a couple of settlements not really settlements, (more like pinpoints on a map that had a railway through it) and dropped off. Most of the refugees had no farm background, no physical labour background as in construction.

The government of Canadas website states this:

A land settlement division, called the Canadian National Land Settlement Association (CNLSA), was established within CN’s Colonization and Agriculture Department on March 9, 1925, as part of their program to promote immigration and land settlement in Canada, which had significant negative impacts on First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation. Over 27,000 immigrants were assisted by the CNLSA. Land was located and money released to immigrants to purchase land, equipment and livestock.  Link:

But sadly the above webpage is false, not much if any money made it into the hands of the refugees, the railway reports that a small monthly allotment of $5/adult and $2.50/child was to be paid to the refugees. There were no stores or towns nearby to buy anything, and the overseer had discretion of all funds.

The first transport ships sailed from England in 1939, and 17 ships came this way, they

made entrance to Canada on the east coast and were shipped via rail out west. Upon arrival in St. Walburg, Saskatchewan and Tomslake, BC the refugees very quickly realized that the information they had been given was vastly untrue. Not able to speak the language was a huge barrier for the people as they could not ask questions or get information correctly.

Between April and August 1939, families were dropped off to these “settlements”, when I read the account of how these folks were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, with bush, bugs and perhaps 1-2 falling down shacks to house them all, I shudder. There was no one to meet them, definitely not adequate housing, no implements to work with and it was cold in April and can be into May.

The land that was perhaps thought “workable” turned out to be clay, of which I have many acres adorning my property. Crops do not grow in clay very well.

The railway had thought out a co-operative plan, the refugees would help each other to clear a minimum of 25 acres of land so that each family could be provided with a quarter section 160 acres of land. Only when the land was “ready” cleared of the 25 acres could the family move onto the land. The families were promised a couple livestock, implements and an overseer to help with the work. In the account I read, the overseer rarely came, livestock did not come for a long time and implements meant a couple of saws, hammers and axes to be shared for the whole community.

The disillusionment was very real but the most real situation was that they had to make it work or die trying, there was no other alternative.

The Sudeten people were a hard-working people and the Tomslake area is a testament to that fact. We could tell more stories about the pioneers who came west and faced similar challenges but the reality is people are able to do the unthinkable when there is no other choice.

I was not aware of the little barb on the top of our little chickens beaks that breaks off soon after hatching. This little barb helps the chicken to peck its way out of the shell. Without the barb, it would not get life and die in the shell.

The barbs of life are not pleasant, they are irritating, and often hurt, but it is the barbs that often prod us on to do the impossible, to fight with all we have to survive.

The words “unfair”, “cruel” come to mind when we read these stories of peoples triumphs over tragedy, we think they should never have had to go through that and that is totally true. In a perfect world, it would be so, but that is not the world we are living in.

Life can bring things our way that we think we will never endure, our hearts and dreams can get shattered and crushed. The Sudeten survived because they banded together and helped each other. Community is important, now they had the same philosophy, but they were not necessarily relatives or friends.

You need community to survive in the harsh wilderness or the living of everyday life.

Find out who your community is, it may be family or it may not, but our wilderness can be the bleak day in, day out of at home with children and no adult input. Our wilderness could be the job we hate going to and feel unappreciated. Our wilderness could be sitting alone in a seniors complex with no one coming to visit. Wilderness is simply another name for the journey that we are on.

When you are desperate enough and the pain is enough you will make a change, why wait that long? Find your community now so that you can work together and cultivate your lives together, figure out how to make things grow in the soil you have been given and together you can make some amazing things happen.

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