Many of us take living in Canada for granted, but Invermere’s Karolina Schager, who recently celebrated her 50th year as a Canadian citizen, knows how fortunate we are in this country.
Karolina (also known as Karla), 72, grew up in a town called Zrece, in what was formerly Yugoslavia and is now Slovenia. She was born in 1939 as one of five children of a working class family, and was familiar with hardship growing up.
“As a kid, we had to work, work, work,” she said in her distinct accent. “We didn’t celebrate birthdays and you were very lucky if you got one toy for Christmas.”
Most mornings at 3:30 a.m., Karolina was shaken awake and sent to work in the fields, where she toiled until 7 a.m. before rushing home, eating, washing, and going to school. When she returned from her studies, she was expected to help look after her siblings, feed the pigs, cook and scrub the floor.
Things grew more difficult with the arrival of the Second World War.
“It was hard,” Karolina said. “You couldn’t get things, like certain food items. You had to wait in line with coupons.”
After completing as much school as her family’s finances could afford, Karolina worked in an automotive factory distributing payroll and balancing accounts.
“At that time there were no cheques or plastic cards,” she said. “Everything was paid in cash and every worker would sign to get his pay.”
While she was working at the factory, Karolina began corresponding by letters to the brother of women she knew from a nearby town. She had never met him, but knew of his family. The man, Albin Schager, had moved to Invermere after the war to be with family. After only a few letters back and forth, Albin asked Karolina to move to Canada and be his wife. She agreed.
“I always wanted to go, and when you’re young you always want to try new things,” she said of her decision.
At the time, it was forbidden to get immigration papers from Yugoslavia to Canada, so Karolina first had to travel to Austria and spend six months there before traveling to Munich and flying to Amsterdam and then Montreal. She took a train from Montreal to Calgary, where Albin picked her up and drove her to her new home in the Columbia Valley.
“When he first saw me, he said I looked so tired he was going to send me back,” she remembered, laughing.
Karolina remembers being startled during her journey to the valley when she saw a First Nations chief on the prairies wearing a headdress; something she’d only seen on TV. When she first saw the Columbia Valley, she was bitterly disappointed by the landscape, which had been scorched brown and dry during a particularly hot July.
“Now I would never trade it for anything,” she said.
Albin and Karolina were required by law to be married within a month of her arrival, so using a dress borrowed from a neighbour, the couple were married in the former Catholic Church in Athalmer. They built a modest house in Athalmer, and Karolina set about trying to overcome the language barrier.
“It was really hard not speaking any English,” she said. “I would ask to buy something and no one would understand. I also got words like ‘chicken’ and ‘kitchen’ or ‘lighter’ and ‘ladder’ mixed up because they sounded the same.”
Albin worked as a mechanic for Simon Ronacher & Son, and later worked for Gypsum (Westrock) Mine, before buying a partnership in North Star Planing. Meanwhile, Karolina worked in the laundry for three years in the Invermere hospital before raising her two sons, Robert Noel and Albin Carl.
Of living in Athalmer, Karolina recalled the challenges of high water in the spring.
“I remember at the Coronation Hotel, sometimes in spring there was so much water people would walk in the water to the bar.”
Albin and Karolina eventually moved from Athalmer to Invermere into the house where Karolina now lives. Albin retired in 1994 and passed away six years ago. Karolina now keeps busy volunteering for the Health Care Auxiliary and tending to her impressive garden. She shares a companionship with her friend, Arthur Wittenborn.
Karolina is planning a small party to celebrate her 50 years as a Canadian citizen, and said she feels lucky to live in this country.
“It’s a great country. If you’re honest and working hard, you can accomplish a lot.”