The Oliveira Family
From Guisande, Minho, Portugal.
Settled in Norfolk County, Ontario
I started being around tobacco when I was five years old. My grandfather would come get me to help him put irrigation pipes on the field… And to drive the tractor at that age, with him and my uncles… I loved it – Victor Oliveira.
Many Portuguese immigrants who arrived in the 1950s-60s worked in tobacco farms in Norfolk County in Southwestern Ontario. Most of them did it for a short period of time during the harvest season, but many settled in the region, especially in Simcoe and Delhi. A few became tobacco farmers themselves, like the Oliveiras, who arrived in Canada from Guisande, Minho, in 1967. This large family formed its own Portuguese-speaking community near Tillsonburg, where the tobacco farming tradition is now on its third generation.
The Oliveira family settled in Norfolk County in Southwestern Ontario and became one of the first Portuguese tobacco farmers in the area. Joaquim Rodrigues was the first to come, from the rural town of Guisande in the northern mainland region of Minho. With his wife, Maria de Jesus, they had eight children and owned a small plot of land where they did subsistence farming. Maria took care of the land and did piecework at home for a local textile factory, and Joaquim worked as a carpenter in his local community. In February 1961, shortly before the start of the Colonial Wars and the mass population exodus known as the “Salto,” Joaquim migrated to France. For the next five years, he spent long seasons away from his family, travelling back and forth between the two countries. This made it very difficult for Maria to raise their children on her own, in a house without electricity, which forced her to send some of their offspring to live with other family members. After having tried to bring his family to France and Australia, the Oliveiras migrated to Norfolk County in 1967, where Maria’s brother had settled three years prior and started farming tobacco, and was able to sponsor them. Their decision was in large part motivated by their desire to keep the family together under the same roof.
After working for his brother-in-law and as a construction worker for a year, Joaquim, who did not speak English, rented a small farm. Three years later, in 1972, the Oliveiras bought their first farm in Straffordville, where they planted primarily tobacco. All eight children worked on the farm, as did their subsequent spouses who came from Portugal and the many grandchildren that followed. Having very little knowledge of English and being somewhat isolated, the large Oliveira family became their own community and workforce, who spoke Portuguese almost exclusively. Their many grandchildren worked and played together on the family farm, where they created fond family memories while meeting the many seasonal demands of tobacco farming. Eventually, the children started leaving the home, many settling nearby. Some went to work in construction while others became tobacco farmers. Despite going their separate ways, they helped out in each other’s farms as a shared workforce.
One of the Oliveira children, João, wad raised largely by his grandmother in Portugal before he moved to Canada with his parents at age 11. In 1976 João met his wife, Maria, in Portugal, where he hoped to return to one day. The two married and Maria joined him in Canada. João worked in construction for three years until he rented a farm in 1980 and began planting tobacco on his own. The couple had three daughters; one of them Carla Oliveira (listen to audio clips from our oral history interview with Carla on this page).
After many years of hard work, saving money, and relying on his family’s labour, João bought a 200 acres farm in Courtland, near Tillsonburg. Although there was a significant Portuguese community in some parts of Norfolk County, like Simcoe, Delhi, and Woodstock – drawn by the readily available farmhand jobs in tobacco and other crops – there were few in that town. Still, João, Maria, and their daughters, like the rest of the Oliveira family, continued to speak Portuguese daily and stay connected to their cultural heritage, including by making trips to Toronto to buy homeland foods and other products to consume at home. Although appreciative of their Portuguese language and culture, this caused difficulties for their daughters, who initially had a hard time integrating into the Anglophone community, especially during elementary school.
Of the 22 grandchildren of Joaquim and Maria de Jesus, two of them decided to continue the family’s tobacco farming tradition. One of them is Victor Oliveira, who was born in Tillsonburg in 1975. He started working at his grandparents’ farm when he was five years old, driving the tractors and helping lay down irrigation pipes in the fields. In 1998, he started planting tobacco himself, but stopped three years later as the industry declined. His love for farming tobacco prompted him to return to it in 2012, when he started working the land of his uncle João, who had since retired from farming. Victor’s wife, Salamaya Pergauskas, immigrated with her parents from Lithuania in 1987 when she was 12 years old and worked at her grandparents’ tobacco farm nearby. The couple has three children, whom the parents are raising to appreciate both their farming and ethnic heritages.
When Joaquim and Maria de Jesus were in their 60s, they returned to live in Portugal, where they became dairy cow farmers. They have since passed away.
Hora dos Portugueses
Origin: Courtland, Norfolk County, Ontario
Description: Mason jar filled with soil from the Oliveira family’s tobacco farm in Courtland, Norfolk County, Ontario
Hydroponic seed trays
See 3D version here.
Origin: Acheson, Alberta, Canada
Creator: Beaver Plastics, Ltd.
Description: Two Hortiblock 288 / 20 ml white styrofoam seed trays used in hydroponic growing of tobacco plants before they are planted in the fields. The trays keep the young plant in neat uniform rows as it floats on nutrient-rich water.
Creator: W.B. Owen & Co.
Origin: Brookneal, Virginia, United States.
Dimensions: H 78 cm x 20 cm circumference x 11 cm circumference.
Materials: Copper (?).
Description: Owen’s Automatic Transplanter, consisting of two cone-shaped copper buckets welded together, a handle, a trigger mechanism, and a mouth-like trap door at the bottom where the cones meet.
See 3D version here.
Tiara and Sash
See 3D version here.
Origin: Norfolk County, Ontario
Description: Tiara and Sash awarded to the 2001-2002 Ontario Tobacco Queen, Carla Oliveira, by the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board. The sash has various pins, including one with the Canadian and Portuguese flags crossing.