Black and white photo of an elderly lady holding up a Canadian and Austrian passport

Immigrating to Canada: then and now

Elfriede Wagner (née Kahr) was one of the 154,200 people who immigrated to Canada in 1954.


This is her story, from growing up in the small town of Wolfsberg, Austria during the Second World War to immigrating to Toronto, Canada as a young adult. 

Early life

Wagner was born in Wolfsberg, Austria on June 12, 1933, six years before the WW II. She was the third born of five children to Viktor and Franziska Kahr.


“Growing up during the war was difficult,” Wagner said. “It wasn’t a happy situation.”

Wagner and her family had to go into an underground cellar virtually every day to avoid potential bombs that were set off around her house.

Wagner’s immigration process

In the early months of 1947, the liberal government under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King took steps in order to support European immigration by expanding immigration policies. In doing so, this allowed people living in Canada to sponsor a family member, whether it be a wife, husband, unmarried son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother.

She and her then-boyfriend, now late husband Anton Wagner began their immigration process in Linz, Austria where there was a Canadian immigration office.


They each filled out an application and had an examination. Mentioning that she had a brother already living in Canada, Wagner’s application was approved but her fiancé’s was denied.

“At that time there was a big unemployment dilemma in Canada. A lot of people didn’t have a job and obviously for women it was different because they could always be a domestic,” she said.


So while Wagner’s application was approved, that didn’t mean she would immediately move to Canada. She had to wait for the next available ship that would make the trip.

For a year she waited in her hometown of Wolfsberg working and practicing her cooking skills, then finally in early May of 1954, her brother bought her a $250 ticket to go from Austria to Canada. “I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t know a word of English, I just wanted to go and make some money,” Wagner said.


Wagner arrived in Canada on May 29, 1954 by boat, voyaging across the Atlantic Ocean for 12 days. Her ship, the Neptunia, carried 91 people to Pier 21 in Halifax ready to make Canada their permanent home.

SS Neptunia

The SS Neptunia ship carried hundreds of immigrants from Europe to Canada and the United States each month.



Vogel, arrived from Germany, 1953. Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 DI2013.855.12a.

But Halifax wasn’t Wagner’s final destination, she headed to Toronto by rail to meet her brother Alfred Kahr, who had come to Canada just two years before her to work at a gold mine in Winnipeg.


“I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t know a word of English, I just wanted to go and make some money.” 


Wagner was in Canada for a little less than a year before she was able to sponsor her fiancé.


The edelweiss is the national flower of Austria. The word ‘edel’ means noble and the word ‘weiss’ means white in German. The flower stands for love, nobility and adventure.

Immigrating to Canada in 2020

There are approximately 60 ways someone can apply for permanent resident status in Canada. Some of the more popular ways are the economic class, where people can get approved to come to Canada based on their past work experience in their home country and the way they can contribute to Canada’s economy.


A person can also come to Canada through family class immigration. This means a family member who’s already living in Canada can sponsor a relative to come- like in Wagner’s case.





The process has changed quite a lot in the over 60 years since Wagner immigrated to Canada. One main change is now siblings aren’t able to sponsor each other, said Kerry Molitor, an immigration consultant who works with people through Canada’s complicated immigration process.

Toronto, 1953

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Not only has the process changed, but it has also become a lot harder and unforgiving. “One simple mistake can put a refusal on the record, and after that, it’s very hard to overcome,” Molitor said. “It used to be you forgot to sign a form, they’d write to you ‘please sign this form’ now they just send the whole application back and you go to the end of the line again.”


“One simple mistake can put a refusal on the record, and after that, it’s very hard to overcome.”  


Molitor has helped over 1,500 families make Canada their permanent home in the 18 years she’s been working.


Another useful tool for Canadian newcomers is services like the ones offered at the YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka’s Immigration Services. They offer services in two different streams- settlement support and English language classes.


These types of programs are offered to new Canadians to help them settle comfortably into their community. Counsellors meet with newcomers to assist in finding a family doctor, finding housing and establish a social safety net, said Dave Hamilton, who is the executive team leader at the YMCA Simcoe/Muskoka Immigration Services.


But COVID-19 hasn’t slowed the YMCA Immigration Services.


“We are very fortunate that we had great support from the federal and provincial governments to continue our mandate,” Hamilton said. “On March 13 we just transitioned everything over to virtual and remote services so we can continue to provide settlement and support services through a lot of telephone calls or zoom meetings.”

According to the 2016 census, 21.9 per cent of Canada’s total population were foreign-born individuals (7,540,830).


There has been quite a lot of fluctuation over the years which can be because of factors such as immigration policy changes or world events that may affect the movement of migrants.


Prior to the 1960s, before there were large changes made to Canada’s immigration legislation, the majority of people immigrating to Canada were European.


After the legislation changes in the 1960s, there has been a growing population of Canadian immigrants from Asian countries such as China and Japan.


Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino revealed Canada’s plan for the next three years looking to welcome approximately 1.2 million immigrants by 2023 in order to rebuild Canada’s economy from COVID-19.

“Immigration is essential to getting us through the pandemic, but also to our short-term economic recovery and our long-term economic growth,” Mendicino said in a press conference.


The trillium has been Ontario’s official flower since 1937. This was chosen after the first world war to plant on fallen soldiers’ graves.