Richard Rolke reflects on his great-grandparents as Canada celebrates 150 years

They packed their bags, deciding what to take and what to abandon. They made the rounds visiting family and friends, convinced they would never meet again. They didn’t turn back as they said farewell to everything they had ever known.

I’ve often thought about how most of my great-grandparents left Europe for Canada at the turn of the last century. What was it that drove them? Was it the oppressive social structure, poverty or a simple urge for adventure?

Two of the families came from England while another called eastern Germany home.

Once on Canadian soil, they climbed aboard trains and made their way across the vast landscape. It’s hard to image what they felt as they tumbled over the Canadian Shield and acres of prairie stubble. Were they excited? Were they scared?

Ultimately, they wound up in places like Isley, Alta. and Big Beaver, Sask., with my Grandpa Ryder, his parents and siblings taking the train as far as Okanagan Landing and then down the big lake by boat to Kelowna in 1911.

Now of course there was a fourth family, with my Great-Grandpa McCaulder leaving Ontario for the U.S., where he married. But like the others, this branch of the family wasn’t satisfied and they crossed into Corrine, Sask.

And the move was likely the easy part. Far from the industrialized familiarity of England, great-grandparents homesteaded in Alberta, while former German coal miners tilled the soil of southern Saskatchewan. Their very survival depended on whether they could adapt to the environment.

And adapt they did as children were raised and crops harvested. But they didn’t take root for long.

After crossing into Saskatchewan from the U.S., the McCaulders, my Grandma Ryder’s parents, arrived in Enderby in 1909, where my great-great-grandparents, Civil War veteran Jabez Johnson and his wife, are buried in the Lansdowne Cemetery in Spallumcheen. From there, the McCaulders shifted to Coldstream, and finally Kelowna.

For the Prices, my Grandma Rolke’s parents, the pull of family in Canmore, Alta. led them out of Isley. But they didn’t remain in the Rockies and a final decision was made to purchase land in Osoyoos in 1928.

And at about the same time, the Rolkes were settling into their new home in Westbank.

Consider that they had already taken a huge leap by leaving Europe to become prairie farmers, but now they were reinventing themselves again. Neither the Prices or the Rolkes knew anything about growing tree fruits, but that didn’t stop them. They knew a better life was possible.

And then there are the Ryders, who embraced the small town lifestyle of Kelowna, with their children flourishing. Unfortunately, though, two didn’t get that chance as Sam and Bert made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War.

As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday Saturday, there will be a lot of focus on those individuals declared critical to the nation’s development – politicians, industrialists, artists and educators.

But for me, what’s significant about our country is that it provided everyday people like my great-grandparents with the opportunity to do tremendous things. They’d probably be humble about their achievements, but they were visionaries. They took risks and looked to the future. And for that, I am forever grateful.

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