Every refugee has a story, and B.C. author Michael Andruff aims to tell that story in his new book.
The Russian Refugees: A Family’s First Century in Canada follows the life of Nikifor Andriev, who was driven from his homeland of Russia in 1924 to settle in Canada as part of a group of 116 privately sponsored Russian refugees. The Andriev family was of traditional Russian Orthodox faith, and staying in Russia as religious people after the Russian Revolution (1917–1923) meant certain persecution.
Their new home—the aptly named Homeglen, Alberta—was a symbol of promise and prosperity. With a newly Anglicized name, Nikifor—now Michael—embarked on the Canadian dream, raising a family and eventually leaving Homeglen for a better-paying industrial job in Port Alberni, B.C.
Nearly a century after Nikifor’s arrival in Homeglen, his son and namesake Michael Andruff uses The Russian Refugees to reflect upon his family’s history, the legacy of the refugee experience, and the parallels between his father’s generation of refugees and people currently fleeing conflicts in places like Ukraine today.
Andruff also chronicles his childhood growing up in Port Alberni in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a logging town, and MacMillan Bloedel had established “dominance” with its paper mill.
“Everything revolved around the company,” Andruff recalled in an interview with the Alberni Valley News. “It was very much a company town.”
Andruff’s father, who had been partially paralyzed on his right side after an accident, worked at Alberni Engineering and later at Argyle Machine Works across the street. His father faced discrimination, Andruff said, both for his disability and for his immigrant status.
But there were many other immigrants living in Port Alberni at the time, Andruff said. The old St. Andrew’s United Church—now a fish and chips restaurant called Bare Bones—used to offer English lessons to many of the new immigrants who were going to work at the mill.
“Port Alberni brought people from around the world,” Andruff said.
Andruff was a Boy Scout and attended Alberni Elementary School. He has fond memories of his childhood, especially of ice hockey. Each year, he recalls, the old drill hall—located on the Fall Fair grounds—would be filled up with ice and turned into a curling rink for a few months. At the end of the curling season, children would be allowed to don their skates and turn the ice into a skating rink.
Eventually the drill hall burned down, which led to the community building a new curling rink and ice arena in a different location. The curling rink still stands today, while the arena is now the Industrial Heritage Centre, chronicling the industrial history of the old logging town.
Canada was also evolving during his childhood, Andruff says. Throughout his years in Port Alberni, the prosperous forest industry underwent a number of “wobbles” that left jobs wanting, which eventually led the Andruff family to move again to the mainland. Andruff also acknowledges that the 1960s in Port Alberni were not prosperous for everyone—he draws similarities between the communist regime that forced his father off his land and the capitalist system that took Indigenous people off their land in Canada and forced young Indigenous children into the residential school system.
Now retired after a long career in business and living in Vancouver, Andruff says he first started writing his book as a project during the COVID-19 pandemic. He realized that 2024 marks 100 years since his family first arrived in Canada.
“I wanted to trace the history of it,” he said. “If I was going to write something, I wanted to write the truth. So I started doing research. It morphed from being somebody writing a story about their family to somebody writing a story about history.”
Andruff shares his family’s story as a call to action. He is working with MOSAIC (an organization that offers settlement and employment services for immigrants and refugees) to form the Homeglen Legacy Fund, with the goal of raising $30,000 to privately sponsor a refugee family of four prior to June 2024 (which is the 100-year anniversary of the original group’s arrival in Canada).
In 1924, the immigration department of the Government of Canada required all immigrants and refugees to have their own landing money. When the Andruffs arrived, they did not possess the agreed upon amount of landing money. But a private sponsor in America assisted to make up the significant shortfall.
“I wouldn’t be here today if the Canadian government had denied my family entry,” explained Andruff. “I thought surely I can aid other refugees to come to Canada.”
All royalties from The Russian Refugees will be going towards this fund. The $30,000 will help cover the needs of a refugee family for their first year in Canada, including shelter, clothing and food.
For more information, or to donate to the Homeglen Legacy Fund, visit www.therussianrefugees.ca. The Russian Refugees can be purchased through Heritage House publishing at www.heritagehouse.ca or can be ordered through Port Alberni book store Mobius Books.