When I was a little girl, I would spend hours with my grandfather in his home workshop. He would make all kinds of things and I used to love watching him at work. I still have some of the tools he made, as well as a cribbage board and a turntable that swings the Scrabble board around to face each opponent. He crafted a complete house of Barbie furniture for my dolls and, to my delight, he asked me my opinion about every single piece. I felt both the weight of responsibility for deciding what each bed and chair would look like, and pride in participating in this project with him.
My grandfather, George Deakin (1901 -1983,) born in Sheffield, England, learned these skills when he was a young man. His father was a miner and George also worked for the coal mining companies of Sheffield, which were significant employers in the early 1900s. Gramps was a fitter which means that he made parts either for piping or for equipment and machinery.1, 2
I used to ask my grandfather why he came to Canada and the answer was always the same and always emphatic. “I did not want to work in the mine.” Sometimes he would go on to explain that, when he left, he still worked above ground for the mining company. However, he was a very short man and he knew that it was a matter of time before he would be required to work underground. Small men were valuable in the low tunnels of the coal mines, but the work was dangerous and unhealthy. Gramps had no intention of ever working underground.
So in 1923, he came to Canada as part of the Harvester Scheme. That year, Canada had a bumper wheat crop and North America could not provide the labour needed to harvest the crop. Under the Harvester Scheme, the two major Canadian railway companies entered into an agreement with the British government to transport 12,000 workers out west where they would earn $4.00 per day plus board. 3
He ended up in Manitoba and the Canadian west must have suited him because he used to enjoy talking about his time on the farm. The days were long and the men worked hard but Gramps found it satisfying to work so hard. And how the workers enjoyed the hearty meals that the women of the farm prepared for them!
He only stayed one harvesting season in Manitoba because, once that bumper crop had been harvested, there was no more work. He took the train to Montreal and easily found work as a draftsman at the Northern Electric plant. He had learned to read and draft drawings in Sheffield and his skills were in high demand. He worked at the Northern Electric plant in Lachine all his life, even during the Great Depression.
When Gramps first arrived in Canada, he was not sure he would stay.4 But after he met and married my grandmother in 1925, they settled in the Montreal suburb of Verdun and raised two children.
Here, he was able to work all his life in a job that he loved. He especially enjoyed the attention to detail that went into designing. And when he wasn’t designing at work, he was making tools, games, and Barbie furniture for the family.
1 Canada. “Immigration Records (1865 – 1935)” Database. Library and Archives Canada. BAC-LAC, http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/immigration-records/passenger-lists/Pages/introduction.aspx#d: 2017.
3 Foster, John Elgin, The Developing West: Essays on Canadian History in Honor of Lewis H. Thomas, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1983
4 Canada. “Immigration Records (1865 – 1935)” Database. Library and Archives Canada. BAC-LAC, http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/immigration-records/passenger-lists/Pages/introduction.aspx#d: 2017.