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Arne Knudsen: the Canadian dream.

When Arne Paul Knudsen stepped ashore in Halifax on March 7, 1929, his world could not have looked rosier. The 20-year-old Dane from Aarus had decided to become a citizen of this land of opportunity, and when you are twenty everything looks easy. Besides, he was soon to inherit a sizeable estate as the only offspring of his recently deceased parents. In the meantime he would cross Canada, see the sights and, of course, learn English.

Winnipeg was his first stop. Arne found a job on a farm near Beulah, Manitoba--to learn English and earn a few dollars. "Unfortunately," Arne says, "the horses spoke neither English nor Danish, and the farmer tried to bilk me out of my wages." After a Danish Mountie straightened out the farmer, Arne returned to Winnipeg. There he ran into a friend from his sea-voyage, an ex-sergeant in the Indian Army who convinced him to join the Fort Garry Horse. So Arne did his first ever military service, galloping about the prairie at Camp Hughes and loving every moment of it. When this two-week outing ended he headed north to Fort Churchill to work on the new harbour being built there. A dollar a day, room and board, and the opportunity to learn English from his fellow workers--perfect. However, the workers were Ukrainian, and the stock market crash soon ended harbour construction.

After an unhappy stint logging near Lake of the Woods, Arne returned to Winnipeg to find a small fortune. His inheritance had arrived and he shared his windfall with his friends. "We did whatever we wanted and traveled everywhere by taxi," recalls Arnie. "We had a grand old time. Then one day when I went to the bank to refill my wallet, I was told there was nothing left. I'd spent it all in a few weeks. What a damned fool!"

By this time the Great Depression was well under way, and Arne could find no work. Hunger pangs had already set in when he met Barbara, a lovely Ukrainian girl. Each night he accompanied her to a gathering, the meaning of which was obscure to the young Dane with a rudimentary grasp of English. Even today Arne is still not sure whether it was Barbara's beauty or the huge platters of sandwiches that kept him attending those get-togethers.

One day this humble new world came crashing down when he was arrested as a subversive for attending Communist Party meetings. Fortunately for Arne, Barbara had one more trick up her sleeve. She arranged for the mayor of Winnipeg to speak on his behalf to the court. So instead of being deported, Arne was awarded a "floater"--48 hours to get out of town.

He "rode the rods" to Vancouver, hoping to ship out as a sailor. Nothing was available, so he was forced to do odd jobs splitting wood or shovelling walks or the like. Although rooms cost only $1.05 per week, it took several jobs at "two bits" each to stay alive. In the spring of 1931 Arne rode the rods again. Across Canada to Halifax and back produced only a harvesting job near Unity, Sask., stocking and threshing wheat.

Back in Vancouver for the winter of 1931-32, Arne met a pair of Scandinavians who ran a gambling hall on Hastings Street. "Along with some other young Danes, I hung out there for the food. They soon had us working as 'stake-horses'. Five of us would start a game with fake betting until 'live' players replaced us one by one. Then they'd play until they lost everything to the house," recalls Arne. "A cop was in on it, so we were always tipped off when a raid was going to happen. Only us stake-horses would be playing when the cops arrived. We would be arrested and hauled off to the police station on Main Street. By the time we arrived one of the partners would be there to pay 'cover money' to the cop. We'd be released and the City of Vancouver never saw any of that money. 'Free enterprise' in action."

At last in the spring of 1932 he found a berth on the SS Aurora leaving Vancouver. As a boy Arne had twice run away from home to go to sea. Now that he finally was there Aurora proved a disappointment. So along with Chris, a young Norwegian, he jumped ship in Shanghai. "We soon hooked up with a pair of Chinese gals on the Yangtze Po Road outside the International Settlement." China had become the target of Japanese aggression, and Shanghai had already been bombarded and invaded in January of that year. Nevertheless, for the two young "Vikings" life was wonderful until the morning a rickshaw pulled up bearing a snooty gentleman from the British Consular Office who ordered the two to move into the International Settlement because "whites are not allowed to live with natives." Not liking the man's style, Chris threw him out of the house. "That was not a good move," opined Arne. It could have been worse, however, for another official, politer than the first, soon came to suggest they report to the Danish Consulate.

There the two were put in touch with a Danish company involved in the construction of the Manchurian railway. Arne and Chris left immediately for Manchuria. Supervising local workers constructing the telegraph line was a good gig. Unfortunately, international events took a hand, and within ten weeks the Japanese Army invaded. After a brief encounter with Manchuria's new bosses, Arne and Chris were shipped back to Shanghai. Unemployed in the midst of a potential war they didn't understand, the two shipped out for Vancouver, arriving early in 1934. Arne booked in at the Canadian Immigration Office then looked for a job.

Thus began a two-year odyssey riding boxcars back and forth across Canada in search of work. After enough adventures to fill a book--including "floaters" from various cities and several months in one of Prime Minister Bennett's remote "Relief Camps"--Arne shipped out once again for Shanghai. There he found a berth on an old packet running between Shanghai and Singapore. But Arne yearned for Canada, so when an opportunity to return came he jumped ship in Malaya. MS Annam was scheduled to drop anchor in Vancouver after a stop in Copenhagen, so Arne signed on. It seemed almost too good to be true.

It was. In Copenhagen, as the Annam prepared to leave for Vancouver, Arne was taken off the ship by the Danish police. He was paraded before a military board and informed that he owed Denmark a stint of military service. Without further ado he was drafted into the Danish Navy aboard the torpedo boat Storen Nils Juel.

Luck always clung to Arne Knudsen: often it was bad, but not always. It was good luck that transferred him to the Royal Yacht Dannebrog for the last six months of his service. Arne's travels and easy-going manner made him many friends there including Crown Prince Frederik. An enthusiastic sailor, Frederik loved to mix with the crew for a beer and a shot or two of Aquavit. One day while Frederik was ashore in Cannes and Arne was enjoying a swim beside the yacht, a letter arrived inviting Denmark to send athletes to the Olympic Games in Berlin that August. On returning to duty in the evening, Arne was informed that his name had been added to Denmark's Olympic team.

Arne had always been a strong and enthusiastic swimmer, but he was aghast. "There's no way I can compete. The Olympics are for professional athletes. I haven't been training and it's only weeks away. This is crazy!"

"Just do your best, Knudsen," he was advised by one of his officers. "You don't have to win, you just have to be there representing Denmark."

A few days later, Chief Steward Knudsen was on a bus to Berlin to represent his country in the 500 meter free-style swimming event. The big day arrived and Arne lined up with the world's best swimmers at the edge of the pool. The starting gun fired. "After that I had no idea what anyone else was doing. I just kept going. I used everything--the Australian Crawl, the Side Stroke, the Breast Stroke--and kept telling myself, 'Don't come last! Don't come last!'" At the finish Arne discovered he was not last. In fact, he had placed third. It was a proud moment for the 27-year-old Danish sailor when he stood on the podium to receive his Olympic bronze medal.

During the ceremonies Arne caught occasional glimpses of their host, Adolph Hitler. "Little did I know I would be fighting that bastard for the next nine years."

On his return to duty aboard the Dannebrog there were more honours. King Christian X awarded him a citation for his athletic prowess, and the Danish Navy presented him with an "Athletic Shield". Within weeks Arne's enlistment was over and he became just another Danish civilian. But there was a fly in his beer: the authorities refused to return his passport. Denmark feared war with Germany and would not allow its reservists to leave the country. But Arne wanted to become a Canadian. To do so he had to report to the Immigration Office annually.

Frustrated to the point of desperation, Arne heard of a way out. The Communist Party of Denmark was arranging for volunteers to be issued "passports" to serve in the International Brigades in Spain. A short visit to a Jewish shopkeeper at Number 17 Nyhavn and Arne held an authentic-looking passport. He had no plan and no political ideology, but he was sure that in due course he would return to Canada and become a Canadian citizen. It would prove a long and bloody journey.
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Title Annotation:the long road to immigrant status
Author:McWilliams, James
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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