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Fifty Years Later – From Revolution to BC Forestry


January 1, 2007
By Pulp & Paper Canada

No one could have foreseen the resounding effect that the 1956 Hungarian Revolution on the other side of the globe was to have on the quiet community of Powell River, BC. Although the countries and th…

No one could have foreseen the resounding effect that the 1956 Hungarian Revolution on the other side of the globe was to have on the quiet community of Powell River, BC. Although the countries and the languages were completely different in these two regions, what they had in common were people with a strong dedication to forestry and this was enough to bring them together in this time of crisis. Steve Tolnai and Antal Kozak (forestry students at that time) and their instructor, Laszlo Szanyi, were part of the Hungarian group who travelled far from their homeland in 1957 to this new country. January 2007 marks the 50th anniversary of their arrival in Powell River.

Forestry in Powell River

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Powell River has been called one of Canada’s earliest and best-preserved 20th century one-company towns. Development of the first newsprint mill in western Canada started in 1911 and the first roll of newsprint was produced in the town in 1912 by the Powell River Company. In those early days, the mill produced 109 tonnes of newsprint a day for sale to publishers in nearby Vancouver and Seattle. It remained the largest regional mill for the next few decades.

The town began its evolution as a progressive example of a planned, single-industry community, with each feature designed to reinforce the operating mill’s importance. The town’s historic associations are still visible due to the fact that 97% of all the remaining structures were built before 1940.

Although much has changed since the first paper rolled off the machine 95 years ago, the Powell River region continues its long-standing relationship with forestry and forestry products. Powell River Company was eventually amalgamated by MacMillan Bloedel in 1960 and, later, NorskeCanada. The name changed to Catalyst Paper in October 2005 and now over 700 workers are employed by the mill, producing 446,000 tonnes of mechanical paper annually – 181,00 tonnes of newsprint and 265,00 tonnes of specialty paper on three papermachines.

In 1998, the Powell River town site was designated as a national historic district by the Secretary of Parks, the Honourable Andy Mitchell. He stated that with Powell River “we remember the beginnings of those who worked in the early days of the forest industry in British Columbia.”

Forestry in Sopron

On the other side of the globe from Powell River lies the city of Sopron, Hungary. Located on the western border of the country, a mere 60 kilometres from Vienna and 220 kilometres from the national capital of Budapest, the city maintains a rich historic connection to education. Referred to by locals as one of the ‘oldest jewels’ of the country, Sopron has a 700-year-old history. It is home to the University of Forestry and Wood Sciences, an academic institution that was founded in the early 19th century to specialize in the instruction of forest engineering. The irony is that Hungary is a nation with minimal forest cover (approximately 17%), consisting mainly of spruce and oak. There are no virgin forests.

“At the University of Sopron, we were given a rounded education in forestry that taught us not only the history of the industry, but a true respect for the value of the tree,” said Tolnai. “It is an academic institution with strong traditions especially in forestry and that stays with you for a lifetime,” added Kozak.

But 1956 marked a dramatic period as the universities and world of studying came to an abrupt halt in Hungary.

Hungarian uprising

On October 23, 1956, the people of Hungary rose up against the Soviet domination of their homeland. It started as a placard-waving crowd of students and factory workers, demanding free elections, freedom of speech and an end to political repression. Within days, this spirit engulfed the entire nation but the freedom was short-lived as the Kremlin sent the Red Army with more than 2,000 tanks to crush the Hungarian uprising. Ordinary citizens had to decide whether to stay and face the Soviet onslaught or to flee. An estimated 200,000 refugees fled, which included over 450 students and professors from Sopron’s Forestry School. Once they had arrived in Austria, Kalman Roller, the Dean of the faculty of forestry, endeavoured to keep the students together as a group. His exhaustive efforts led to an unusual proposal by Canada. Under the direction of then Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, Immigration Minister Jack Pickersgill arranged for the Sopron School of Forestry to be transferred as a unit from a refugee camp in Austria to the pulp mill town of Powell River on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. Pickersgill was quoted as saying, “Most of the countries of refuge wanted to receive Hungarians who could start to work immediately, but we in Canada — alone — encouraged students to come here to complete their studies. We believed, in the long run, their additional qualifications would increase their contribution to their new homeland.”

Getting to British Columbia and seeing Canada for the first time was a memorable event for all of the members of the group. Having escaped their homelands and living in refugee camps for two months, the group of 214 (200 students & 14 lecturers) embarked on their trip to Canada on December 29, 1956. “It was a day that was difficult and exciting at the same time. We were leaving all that we knew behind us and embarking on an exciting, but at the same time frightening adventure,” recalled Szanyi. Travelling by bus, ship and train, they arrived in British Columbia on January 24, 1957. “I will never forget the train trip from Halifax to Vancouver and how I got my first glimpse of how huge Canada was. Coming from a small nation such as Hungary, this vastness was completely new to me,” recalled Kozak.

The faculty of forestry of the University of British Columbia adopted the students and faculty members, allowing them to continue their studies in a new setting. Incorporating the students into the faculty was not without problems, since the group had twice the number of students and three times the number of instructors than the UBC faculty had at the time. The move was also difficult for the Sopron students who had to learn the English language and immerse themselves in Canadian culture as quickly as possible. “Putting the difficulties aside, I recall a strong feeling of being welcomed, and the sense of opportunity that this land offered to us,” recalled Antal Kozak.

The next 50 years

Most of the students received their university diplomas in1959 and by May of 1961, the last class had graduated from the Sopron Division of UBC. The original group produced 141 graduates, and 44 continued on in academia to receive their Masters or PhDs.

Steve Tolnai recounted how he remembered receiving a Canadian five dollar bill when he arrived in Halifax. “It was symbolically important for me to pay it back by becoming successful in this new land,” he explained. Tolnai spent 45 years in the pulp and paper industry, starting humbly in 1957 as a member of a logging crew on Harbledown Island for the Powell River Company. His career flourished at Weyerhaeuser in Kamloops where, before retiring in 1999, he attained the position of chief forester. Among his associates, Tolnai had the reputation as the ecological conscience of the company. “This is a title that I really respect because I believe that you have to work together with nature, rather than working against it,” he said. “It is something that I learned back in Hungary.”

Laszlo Szanyi arrived in Canada as the youngest instructor at the University of Sopron. Now the president of the Vancouver Hungarian Cultural Society, he feels strongly about his roots. He worked in the research division of MacMillan Bloedel for over 30 years and believes that the Hungarians “had a collective an impact on the industry here on the West Coast.”

Antal Kozak, upon graduating from the original Sopron program, continued his studies at UBC. Graduating with a PhD, Kozak went on to teach at the forestry
faculty at UBC, devoting over 30 years to educating future generation in British Columbia. While in the department of Forest Resources Management at UBC, his unique perspective on Applied Statistics in Forestry was applauded by the faculty. Kozak had the opportunity to return to Hungary and teach forestry courses at the same university in Sopron from which he had fled in the dark days of 1956. “I have to admit that I never thought that teaching using the Hungarian language would be as challenging as it was,” he laughingly recalled.

Conclusion

Bridging the gap between two nations and between two types of forestry practices, the students had an important effect on the industry in Canada. The arrival of the Hungarian foresters in early 1957 provided the province of British Columbia with a new perspective on the management and replenishment of forests. In the field of pulp and paper, a strong ecological outlook on the manufacturing process was researched, documented and written about in books and technical papers by the Hungarians. What was initially a humanitarian gesture extended to a small group of refugees turned out to be a triumph for both Canadians and Hungarians.

Your comments and suggestions are welcomed at zsoltp@pulpandpapercanada.com


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