I had a chance to sit down with a friendly neighbour a few weeks back to chat about his experience of emigrating from Portugal to Canada, his hardships, successes, and what life is like for him living in Toronto today.
Andrea da Costa: Where were you born?
Frank Rodrigues: I was born in Funchal on Madeira Island, to a family of 10 children.
AC: Why did you decide to move to Canada?
FR: We were facing conscription during the Portuguese Colonial War and wanted to escape. My older brother had emigrated in 1956, so I decided to do the same two years later, in 1958. Since I had already been learning English in school, and had gotten pretty good at it, I decided that Canada would be a good choice.
AC: Where did you go first?
FR: I came to Canada with a contract to work in the mines up north by Elliot Lake. It was really hard labour and I was not used to working in those harsh, freezing cold conditions. I used to own a bar and supermarket back home, so this type of labour was really hard for me. I wasn’t used to it, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I eventually got transferred to a factory to paint iron beams. I stayed there for three years.
AC: Why did you choose to settle in Toronto?
FR: I knew of some people from back home who were living on Augusta Ave. in Kensington Market, so I figured it would be a good place to start. I stayed in a boarding home with with them before buying my home a year later. I payed $14, 000 for it at the time, can you believe it?!
AC: Wow! That’s incredible. You definitely can’t find a deal like that today.
FR: I know, it was a very different time back then. Toronto was a different city — still a baby. I still live in that same house today.
AC: You mentioned that you emigrated alone. Did you still have family living back home in Portugal? Or did they end up leaving as well?
FR: Only one of my siblings still lives in Madeira. I have two sisters in Venezuela, a brother in the States, and the rest have passed away. I also left my fiancé behind when I moved here. We started dating when she was 12 and I was 14. I sent for her in 1957. She came, and we married the following year at Santa Maria church downtown at Bathurst St. and Portugal Sq. In 1963, our first and only child was born. We have a daughter. My wife passed away almost 10 years ago.
AC: Describe your first memories of living in Canada.
FR: When I arrived at Elliot Lake, I was shocked by the temperature. Never in my life had I felt cold like that. I remember putting on 3 pairs of gloves, and it still not making a difference. I also remember having to travel 17 km just to go to the bank. When I decided that I had had enough, I bought a car, and me and 6 other men drove down to Toronto. I also remember getting my first job in Toronto working for two Italian brothers, building and repairing car motors. I was so happy. I ended up staying there for almost 30 years.
AC: How has the city changed over the years?
FR: Oh my, it’s so different. I witnessed the CN Tower being built from the ground up. I remember there being a huge party once it was complete. It was the tallest structure in the world at the time! There are so many buildings going up so quickly now. But I love to explore. I love the energy of the city.
AC: Because there is such a large Portuguese community in Toronto, many immigrants have tended to stick together over the years. Did you do the same?
FR: Yes and no. At first, it was amazing because it gave me a base, it was familiar, it was easy to make friends. There were a lot of clubs and associations for Portuguese immigrants, places to feel at home away from home. But I didn’t work alongside Portuguese people like most other immigrants did, and because I already spoke English quite well, it was quite easy for me to branch out. Like I said, I love to explore!
AC: Describe a typical day in Toronto for you:
FR: I like to walk. I go on longs walks every day and try to discover new places in the city. I also go to the seniors centre near my house to socialize and dance. I love to dance! The supervisor there always tells me, “Frank, you seem like you’re 20 years old. You have so much energy!”. I also like to play dominos with my friends.
AC: Do you have any advice for the younger generation of Portuguese-Canadians?
FR: Study and travel. Those are two things that will shape you and stay with you forever. No one could ever take them away from you. Expand your mind, always. The world is so big, there is so much to learn, and so many experiences to be had! When you get old, you will regret not taking these opportunities. Also, relax. You don’t need to worry so much. Do your best and everything else will fall into place. Just relax.
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*We’re always looking for Portuguese immigrants, or 2nd generation Portuguese-Canadians to interview to add to the museum’s database. If you or someone you know would be interested in sitting down and talking with us, please contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at (647) 748-0960