What's Your Story

'It meant freedom': one family's escape from communism to Canada

'My parents escaped from [Czechoslovakia] 49 years ago by pretending to go on holiday to Austria. In actuality, however, they were going to Canada.'

'Where people were free... most of all, free to own something.'

Squires (second from the left) and her family arrived in Canada in 1968. 'This photo was taken in St. Thomas, Ont., the following year. My grandma came to visit us that summer and my dad was so proud to show her this Mercury Ford that my parents worked so hard to save up for and buy.' (Julie Squires)

Julie Squires's family escaped communist Czechoslovakia in the late '60s — their new life in Canada provided freedom in more ways than one. Throughout 2017, we're asking Canadians, "What's your story?" Squires, of Calgary, shares hers.

My family is from Czechoslovakia (now called the Czech Republic) and my parents escaped from there 49 years ago by pretending to go on holiday to Austria.

In actuality, however, they were going to Canada.

The right to free enterprise

In 1968, with a toddler and an infant (me and my sister) in tow, they set out on a frightening and surreptitious journey without knowing one word of the English language. Under the communist regime, Czechoslovak Republic citizens were not allowed to travel abroad to places like the United States or Canada — countries where people were free; free to express their opinions, practice their religions, come and go as they please and most of all, free to own something.

'In 1971, we moved from St. Thomas to London, Ontario. This picture was taken in front of the apartment building we lived in, in London. My mom sewed a lot of our clothes herself and dressed [my sister and me] the same. Passersby were surprised when she told them that there was a year and a half age difference between us.' (Julie Squires)

The right to free enterprise in the country of Canada was something immensely important to my parents. It meant all kinds of wonderful things to them: the possibility of being able to buy the kind of house and car you wanted for yourself and your family and the opportunity to go anywhere you desired for a holiday. It meant freedom.

In Czechoslovakia during that time, housing was almost impossible to find and food was in short supply. My grandmother and my mother would stand in the freezing cold along with so many other patrons lined up outside of the butcher shop. Many times, however, when they reached the window, the butcher announced he had run out of meat and that they must come back tomorrow and stand in line all over again.

She was over the moon when she realized that everything in that Loblaws was, indeed, real food.- Squires, on her grandma's first visit to Canada

There were many such hardships under the regime. But my parents got out and made it to Canada. And once they settled, both my parents worked long hours so they could not only pay back the [Canadian] government for so graciously lending them the money and arranging to bring them here, but also pay for my grandma, who missed us so much, to visit.

Squires's 6th birthday (left) and her sister Lenka's 4th (right), both in 1972, 'in the bedroom we shared in the apartment in London, Ont. We would later move to Calgary in 1974 where we lived in a little apartment suite for a while until my parents saved to buy a house.' (Julie Squires)

Under the communist regime, my grandmother was too old to be considered at risk of defecting so, unlike all of our other relatives, it was all right for her to visit us in Canada. And I will never forget my mother telling me, when I was old enough to understand, how absolutely dumbfounded and shocked my grandma was when they took her to a grocery store here. She could not believe the food was real! She argued with my mom that surely the meat, poultry and fruits were plastic replicas; fake and not real at all. The quality and abundance of it was unbelievable to her! She was over the moon when she realized that everything in that Loblaws was, indeed, real food.

'Even more freedom'

After living in Ontario for a few years, my parents made a visit to Calgary, Alberta, and immediately the city and province captured their hearts and souls, and it wasn't long before they decided to move to Calgary where my dad opened his own business —  a little shop where he sold and repaired typewriters and business machines like adding machines and calculators, etc.

On an Ontario day-trip when Squires was 8 with her grandma, sister and father. (Julie Squires)

Their favorite pastimes became camping, fishing and hiking surrounded by those jagged peaks and vast evergreen forests. There, they found even more freedom than they ever imagined and more love for this beautiful free country.

My sister and I are proud to be Canadians. And we will always be grateful to my parents for bringing us here. For making it possible for us to grow up just like our anthem declares "true north strong and free."  

What's your story? What defines Canada for you? Is there a time that you were proud to be Canadian, or perhaps a time you felt disappointed? Is there a place, person, or event in your life that sums up what being Canadian is to you? Tell us at cbc.ca/ whatsyourstory.


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