War bride history sheds light on unique wave of Toronto immigration

Sponsored feature: presented by UnionNOW Digital Residency

For nearly a century, Union Station has played a significant role as a gateway to Toronto and Canada. In the days before commercial air travel became popular and accessible to the masses, the Beaux-Arts architectural features in The Great Hall would form the first impression many newcomers would have of their new home. 

While Union’s role as a welcoming place for each new wave of Torontonians has remained steady since its opening in 1927, there was one particularly unique immigration event that helped bring a national focus towards this historic railway station.

During the Second World War, thousands of Canadian soldiers stationed abroad met and married women from countries like England, Scotland, Belgium, France and others. While these marriages were not officially encouraged by the military, the federal government committed to patriating the women and any children with the creation of the Canadian Wives’ Bureau in 1944.

To help facilitate the newcomers as they arrived in Toronto, the Canadian Red Cross set up a war bride reception centre inside Union Station. The media loved the story at the time, dubbing it “Operation Daddy.” Valentine’s Day 1946 became a cause célèbre as a series of Toronto-bound train cars brought in the final wave of what would amount to nationwide total of 48,000 war brides.

“It was the first good news that anybody had for a long time,” says Melynda Jarratt. She runs the website CanadianWarBrides.com and has written books on the subject. “The war had taken 50,000 lives and there were another 50,000 that were critically wounded and would never be the same. Then, all of a sudden you have all these women showing up with their babies, and all within a very narrow window.”

Adjusting to life in Canada was not easy for everyone who immigrated through this initiative, but the majority of women were from English-speaking countries and could find in mid-century Canada a number of similarities with Britain at the time. 

The operation was the result of an unprecedented push from government and humanitarian organizations to reunite these families. “Imagine the Canadian army created a social welfare and travel agency for war brides,” says Jarratt. “There were a lot of forms that had to be filled out.”

Well before arriving in Canada, representatives from the Canadian Wives’ Bureau and the Red Cross would assist in various countries of origin to perform medical screenings, arrange travel and prepare immigration documentation. Escort officers would then tend to the women throughout their cross-Atlantic voyage.

“They helped them on their journey from the embarkation point to literally saying goodbye at their final whistle stop at Union Station or wherever they were going,” says Jarratt.

Very few moments in Canadian history showcase the same kind of concerted efforts to embrace newcomers like this – although the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis has, in some instances, brought out the best of Toronto. 

One story that went viral in the summer of 2016 detailed how a Syrian family was lost in Union Station and quickly received help from dozens of locals, from getting helpful directions to paying for train tickets to a Metrolinx-organized escort to the family’s final destination in London, Ontario. 

“I’ve often been asked about the lessons of the war bride story for the immigrants of today,” says Jarratt. “There has to be a reception committee. There has to be an effort to organize local women’s groups or what have you. I think you saw that happen with the Syrian refugees. There was a real national effort.”

While Union Station continues to serve as one of the country’s busiest transportation hubs for daily commuters, its vital importance to larger nation-defining moments like these showcase the inherent value of iconic public spaces in our city. 

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