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Ethnic Bloc Settlements

By: Alan Anderson

Since the opening of western Canada to homesteading in 1872, much of the prairie (grassland and parkland) area of Saskatchewan has been settled by ethno-religious groups who formed their own bloc settlements. A bloc settlement may result from the consolidation of a larger territory initially settled by a particular ethnic group which now finds itself in a minority position within the region: such was the case of the Métis, who resisted by armed conflict (the North-West Resistance of 1884–85). Again, a bloc settlement may result from importation of a similar form of social organization from Europe by immigrants who formerly occupied a minority position there as well: such was the case of the Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors, and many German Catholics. Or a bloc settlement may result from colonization schemes of the federal government and an ethnic or religious agency: such schemes introduced to Saskatchewan German Catholics from the American Midwest; French from France, Quebec, and New England; Ukrainians, Poles and other ethnic groups from Eastern Europe; and Scandinavians from Scandinavia and the American Midwest. We may speculate that their decision to settle here rather than to immigrate into, or stay in, the United States possibly revealed a dislike for a “melting-pot” attitude in that country and a preference for a Canadian “cultural mosaic,” a belief that Canada would be more tolerant of ethnic minorities holding unique beliefs (such as an emphasis of pacifism), or an appreciation of less expensive and more readily available farmland in Canada.

Regarding the reasons for migration, we may distinguish between the factors pushing the migrant from a place of origin and those pulling the migrant to a new destination. The principal “push” factors were overpopulation, impoverishment, political discontent, and persecution (perhaps leading to forced migration or mass expulsion) in the sending country. Among the most significant “pull” factors were the recruitment of immigrants by the government of the new country to offset low internal migration, recruitment by agencies seeking cheap labour, the influence of settlers writing home, and the Transportation of immigrants as a lucrative business. Admittedly, certain factors considered as “push” from one standpoint may be seen as “pull” from another: for example, Canada engaged in purposeful commercial colonization to exploit natural resources and to extend its political influence by importing continental European immigrants as pioneering grain farmers who would ensure stabilization of the restive Métis and First Nations in the west. Virtually all of the “push” and “pull” factors affected migration into the bloc settlements of the prairie provinces.

Immigration may be seen as primarily, though not entirely, an individual undertaking or collective drift rather than as an organized group movement. Yet whole villages have been known to migrate to another country; moreover, governments regulate, direct, and encourage or discourage the migration process. What exactly were the Canadian government’s policies on immigration during the decades when the vast majority of settlers arrived? Towards the end of the 19th century, in competition with the then fairly open American immigration policy, the Canadian campaign for immigrants intensified. In 1891, census results had indicated an unsatisfactory increase in population during the previous decade. When Clifford Sifton became Minister of the Interior in 1896, he immediately began to encourage immigration. Agents were appointed throughout Europe, even though most European countries had strict laws against emigration; the quest for migrants was publicized through circulars, exhibits, and advertisements; and transportation companies were federally subsidized. Moreover, the flow of Central and Eastern European migrants to the Canadian Prairies was, no doubt, soon enhanced by the imposition of American quota restrictions.

Every sort of device was employed to attract immigrants—including those who had first settled in the United States—to the Canadian prairies. Many of the 160,000 initial continental settlers in Saskatchewan were by 1911 secured through the efforts of the North Atlantic Trading Company, which had held an agreement with the Canadian government since 1899. The company was obligated to spend a minimum of $15,000 annually to secure immigrants from various parts of continental Europe: the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Belgium), the predominantly German countries (Germany, Luxembourg, and Switzerland), Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland), and Eastern Europe (Austria-Hungary and Russia). The company was to be paid £1 for every farmer who settled. The contract was renewed in 1904 for ten years, but cancelled only two years later due to the hostility of European governments towards clandestine immigration propaganda and manipulation of finances. With regard to the latter, apparently payments had been made for immigrants who had come into Canada under other auspices. But by 1906, the company had already received immense sums from the Laurier government.

Saskatchewan Royal Commision on Immigration and Settlement, 1930
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B3667

The Sifton policy of fairly open immigration from continental Europe was not without its critics. In the first place, the provincial government’s attitude toward immigration differed markedly from that of the federal government: provincial financial difficulties were only augmented by the immigrant influx resulting from the immigration polices of the federal government, as continued and accelerating immigration created demands for heavy expenditures in educational facilities, public works, and other provincial government services. Moreover, Sifton’s policy conflicted sharply with the desire of the province’s population of British origin to preserve Saskatchewan “for English-speaking peoples.” Resentment against uncontrolled immigration, especially from Eastern Europe, grew steadily after World War I. At the hearings conducted by the Saskatchewan Royal Commission on Immigration and Settlement in 1930, numerous briefs opposing open immigration were submitted. The Saskatchewan section of the United Farmers of Canada suggested that immigration of farmers was to be stopped until the native-born were better provided for; that there should be no solicited or assisted immigration; and that a quota system should be put in place, controlled to some extent by the provincial government. The Saskatchewan Command of the Canadian Legion believed that immigration from continental countries should not exceed immigration from “within the Empire.” The Saskatoon Labour Trades Council advocated selective immigration where assimilation was a certainty. The Regina Assembly of the Native Sons of Canada opposed assisted immigration, whether sponsored by Canada, the immigrant’s country of origin, or group interests; special homesteading concessions to immigrants; and granting Canadian citizenship before five years of residence in Canada had elapsed. The Ku Klux Klan in Saskatchewan desired that immigration from “non-preferred” countries in central, eastern, and southern Europe be stopped entirely for at least five years; after which a rigid quota of 2% of the 1901 census would be imposed, except for British, French and Scandinavian immigrants; that “trained” British and Scandinavian families be allowed to settle on the land; that all handling of immigration be removed from religious organizations; and that any ethnic group settlement be prevented. The Provincial Grand Lodge of the Orange Order in Saskatchewan advocated Anglo-Saxon predominance, speaking out against the “unwise” policy of bringing in more immigrants than could be easily assimilated “to those British ideals which are fundamental to our national existence.”

While the Saskatchewan Royal Commission on Immigration and Settlement did not appraise the situation in 1930 as negatively as did many of the organizations submitting briefs, it did recognize that the development of such isolated bloc settlements was not readily conducive to an integrated Canadian society:

Throughout the province will be found many group settlements, representative of diverse racial stocks. While group settlement has many good features, nevertheless there are grave objections to its further development… . Doubtless these groups do add diversity and elements of richness to the cultural life of the community; and also doubtless by this very diversity there is greater opportunity to adapt newcomers to the new environment. This, in turn, may result in their more rapid economic progress. The warm welcome that may be expected from a racial brother, the overcoming of the nostalgia resulting from separation from the homeland, as well as other aids, are factors that appear to support group settlement. On the other hand, it is the rooted conviction of many of our people that group settlement tends to create blocks, thus preventing those intimate contacts without which it is impossible to create a sound citizenship.

The Commission concluded that “homesteading should be discontinued and remaining Crown lands should be sold, preferably to residents of this province; as a second choice to other Canadians; thirdly to British settlers; and lastly to other immigrants.” Therefore the period of establishing bloc settlements in Saskatchewan extended primarily from the advent of Sifton’s policy in 1896 to the Commission’s report in 1930.

The process of settlement on the land and into bloc settlements was a rather complicated one. The homesteading system was first established in the Canadian prairies in 1872, in accordance with the Land Act, Section 33:

Every person who is the sole head of a family and every male who has attained the age of 18 years and is a British subject or declares his intention of becoming and British subject, is entitled to apply for entry to a homestead. A quarter-section may be obtained as a homestead on payment of an entry fee of $10 and fulfillment of certain conditions of residence and cultivation. To qualify for the issuing of the patent, the settler must have resided upon his homestead for at least six months of each of three years, must have erected a habitable house thereon, and must have at least 30 acres of his holding broken, of which 20 acres must be cropped. A reduction may be made in the area of breaking where the land is difficult to cultivate on account of scrub or stone.

The federal government’s settlement schemes were closely integrated with the railways’ schemes, and the latter in turn with those of ethnic and religious organizations. The federal government subsidized settlement through the Colonization Department of the CPR, which had offices in Britain and France. A similar CNR department was not organized until 1923, to settle immigrants on vacant lands adjacent to its lines. The Canada Colonization Association (CCA) was a CPR subsidiary; it chiefly placed continental immigrants with insufficient capital, and was backed by loan and banking companies as well as wealthy individuals and landowners, suggesting some sympathy for continental immigration. Besides the CCA, the railways operated through ethnic and religious subsidiary organizations interested in establishing bloc settlements; these organizations were financed by the railways to some extent ($5 per each adult in a family settled or $1 per single agricultural worker).

The development of ethnic enclaves is not unusual, according to sociological Literature on ethnic relations. Competition for space often results in the formation of segregated ethnic islands, each of which develops a distinctive culture. Members of each minority group tend to congregate in areas where they can speak their own language, practice their Religion, and follow their own customs. Immigrants were sometimes made to feel the hostility of the larger society and were segregated into well-defined areas. Many immigrants wanted to be among their co-ethnics, with whom they could identify and sympathize. Once such colonies come into existence, moreover, other people of a given ethnic group tend to gravitate toward them.

Four principal types of bloc settlements could be noted. First, planned bloc settlements were organized and settled by specific ethnic or ethno-religious groups through the work of group agents and associations. Second, the Canadian government as well as transportation and settlement companies were responsible for recruiting settlers of particular ethnic and religious groups. Third, bloc settlements came into existence gradually as the result of chain migration, a process whereby people from a certain place of origin settled in a new locality in Saskatchewan, then established linkages with their relatives, friends or other contacts back home, thereby inducing further emigration from the place of origin. Fourth, bloc settlements formed through a process of gravitation when migrants were drawn together by forces of mutual attraction such as common origin, language, religion and culture.

Andrzej Wojcik family, Kelvington, ca. 1931.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B9818

The original character of the settlement may change in time, and some settlements may be offshoots from earlier ones. The bloc settlements of Saskatchewan conformed to all of these types. The Jewish, Mennonite, Hutterite, and DOUKHOBOR SETTLEMENTS—as well as some German Catholic, German Protestant (mostly Lutheran), British, French, and Hungarian Settlements—may be described as primarily of the organized type, whereas the Scandinavian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Black settlements tended to be more representative of the chain or gravitation types. The establishment of ethno-religious bloc settlements in Saskatchewan was, in sum, due partly to organized colonization schemes and partly to rather coincidental gravitation of co-ethnics.

The effect of these settlement processes on the population of the prairies was profound. Since the opening of Canadian prairie land to homesteading in 1872, most of the prairie grassland and parkland areas of Saskatchewan had been settled within little more than half a century by diverse ethno-religious groups that had formed their own settlements. The population and extent of each bloc settlement could vary from the immediate land around a single small community to a vast area inclusive of many towns and villages; yet it must be emphasized that most rural communities in Saskatchewan are located within such settlements.

Despite an immigration policy favouring immigrants only from “desirable” countries, by the 1920s Saskatchewan had twice as many immigrants of non-British as of British origin. Vast areas of the prairie regions of this province had been incorporated into bloc settlements, some of which included over thirty towns and villages. Moreover, the Canadian prairies had received the diversion of unskilled Eastern European farm labour from the United States. Ethnic enclaves had become a prominent feature of the prairies, helping to turn Canadian society into a “cultural mosaic” largely lacking the strong national identity and melting-pot consciousness emerging in the US. These enclaves were characterized by isolation from other enclaves of different ethnic origins and religious affiliations, and from the larger society. Social organization was extremely localized, and most bloc settlements used the dialects, customs and traditions of particular areas in Europe.

Wedding at Cannington Manor, before 1897.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B10323

Adding to the existing early Francophone Métis settlements widely scattered throughout Saskatchewan, French-speaking immigrants direct from Europe (not only many regions in France, but also Belgium and Switzerland) were joined by migrants from Quebec (even including some who were ultimately of Acadian descent), as well as from Manitoba and the United States, to establish thirty-two distinct French Settlements and over 100 parishes. In a few cases these settlements were expansions of an original nucleus established by Métis; however, most were completely new settlements. The linguistic diversity was pronounced: one could hear Mitchif, country Québecois, many French dialects brought from France and Belgium, and even Breton (the Celtic language of Brittany). The French settlements ranged from larger settlements of over 3,000 people of French origin living in and around several towns and villages, to smaller settlements consisting of only 200 or 300 French around a single village or hamlet. The pattern of settlement which developed was unique: sixteen across southern Saskatchewan, and an equal number across the central region. The impact of French settlement on the Saskatchewan prairies has been an important part of the French diaspora across Canada.

Settlers of British origin collectively constituted the largest proportion of the Saskatchewan population, so one might assume that there were no distinctly British settlements as the British-origin population was simply equated with the “general population.” This would be an incorrect assumption, as distinct English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh settlements were founded. Several English colonies—Cannington Manor, the East London Artisans Colony, the York Farmers Colony, Churchbridge, the Barr Colony—were established as utopian ventures by immigrants from England, whereas the Temperance Colony at Saskatoon was originally settled by migrants from Ontario. The many Scottish Settlements included several established as colonies of Highland crofters, Orkney Islanders, Lowland Scots, and Scottish-Canadians from Ontario and Nova Scotia. There were concentrations of Irish, and at least one distinct “Irish Colony.” A Welsh colony was established by immigrants who came not directly from Wales, but from Argentina. Until the 1940s, settlers ultimately of British (including Irish) origin constituted a majority of the Saskatchewan population, and today their descendants remain omnipresent throughout the province.

Leopold and Anna Amon, Danube Swabian settlers, ca. 1902
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A23868

The origins of German-speaking settlers were remarkably diverse. They came mainly from ethnic German colonies in Eastern Europe, as well as from large German Settlements in the neighbouring American states. Their settlements in Saskatchewan tended to be founded by specific religious affiliations. Often the origins of German settlers were very specific: the settlements established by Danube Swabians from the border region of present-day Serbia, Romania and Hungary are a case in point. Two extensive Mennonite Settlements developed respectively to the north of Saskatoon and south and east of Swift Current. Hutterites did not begin to establish colonies in Saskatchewan until 1949; yet their colonies have proliferated since then, new ones having been founded almost every year. People of German ethnic origin have settled many areas of the prairie portion of the province; today their descendants, together with more recent German immigrants, outnumber any other ethnic group in the province. While people of Dutch origin have concentrated mainly in cities, they did establish two distinct rural settlements near Swift Current in 1910, and near North Battleford in 1914.

Immigrants of Scandinavian and Finnish origins also tended to concentrate in their own settlements. Norwegians, both as immigrants direct from Norway and as migrants from neighbouring American states, concentrated in certain rural areas scattered throughout the Saskatchewan prairies, starting in 1894. Swedes founded the New Stockholm colony as early as 1885, then concentrated in at least five other widely dispersed areas. Icelanders were also among the earliest settlers, developing three distinct colonies—Thingvalla-Logberg near Churchbridge, Valar-Holar near Tantallon, and the extensive Quill lakes settlement centred on Wynyard and Foam Lake during the 1880s and 1890s. The first Finnish colony was New Finland near Whitewood in 1887, followed by the Rock Point and Turtle Lake settlements in 1908–10. People of Danish origin tended to be urban; however, Dannevirke, a distinctly Danish parish, was established at Redvers by 1910. Today many rural Farming areas of Saskatchewan remain predominantly populated by people of Scandinavian (including Finnish) origins, continuing to form a significant part of the Saskatchewan mosaic.

Numerous settlements were developed by Eastern European ethnic groups. The largest UKRAINIAN SETTLEMENTS all had their beginnings within a short time period, from 1896 to 1906. The majority of these settlers were immigrants from neighbouring districts in Galicia and Bukovina. Today their descendants constitute the second largest non-British and non-Aboriginal ethnic group in Saskatchewan (after people of German origin), and very extensive rural areas are included within Ukrainian Settlements. Polish concentrations often developed within Ukrainian settlements, although several distinctly Polish Settlements did come into existence between 1896 and 1906. Russian Doukhobors first arrived in 1899 and were settled in four colonies: the North or Swan River Colony, the South or Veregin Colony, the Good Spirit Lake Annex, and the north and south sections of the Saskatchewan or Prince Albert Colony. Jews arrived from Eastern Europe to settle in eight farm colonies: New Jerusalem near Moosomin in 1882, the Oxbow area in 1894, north of Wapella in 1886, Hirsch west of Estevan in 1892, Sonnenfeld or Hoffer and Edenbridge in 1906, and Montefiore in the Alsask area and across the Alberta border by 1910. Hungarians developed their own settlements over two decades, between 1886 and 1908. Czechs and Slovaks concentrated at Kolin, Gerald, Glenside, and Valley Centre in 1884–1902, and the Lipton area after 1905. Croatians settled around kenaston in 1904, and Serbs founded the first Serbian Orthodox church in Canada in Regina in 1916, while Romanians founded the first Romanian Orthodox church in Canada in Regina in 1902 as well as five widely scattered rural settlements. People of non-European ethnic origins have settled mainly in the larger cities, especially in recent decades; yet Chinese have long been widely dispersed in rural communities as café owners, Syrians/Lebanese have long been found in southern Saskatchewan communities, and Blacks from Oklahoma settled in the Eldon district near Maidstone in 1909.

Pioneer celebrations at Hryhoriw, south of Preeceville, 1937.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B10101

Ethnic or ethno-religious bloc settlements are still today, or hitherto have been, significant forms of social organization within the Canadian context; yet this significance is changing, and thus should not be viewed as static. Bloc settlements may persist or they may be in a gradual process of dissolution; moreover, rural ethnic identities may be reinterpreted. While it is possible to discern factors contributing to persistence or dissolution, considerable variation may be noted in comparing the settlements of particular ethnic groups. In general, assimilation may be viewed as a re-orientation of ethnic group members from an orientation primarily toward the ethnic group to one primarily toward the general (Canadian) society. More specifically, assimilation refers to identity change. But what exactly is changing? Which factors comprise identity? How do demographic-ecological conditions such as vital statistics (age, generation, gender, occupation, and Education), community differences (in terms of size, homogeneity, and location), community decline and mobility (rural depopulation and physical mobility, social mobility, and “de-localization” or the eradication of rural focal points) relate to identity change? And to what extent has a re-orientation of group members been apparent in intermarriage across ethnic or religious lines?

This pattern of ethnic settlement has effectively reduced the opportunity for intermarriage between ethnic or religious groups, although attitudes toward such intermarriage have progressively become more open. Religious intermarriage has long tended to be more evident than ethnic or especially racial intermarriage: thus German Catholics, for example, have intermarried with Polish, Hungarian, French, and other Catholics. Yet people of relatively similar ethnic origins have also tended to mix: for example, Ukrainians with Poles or Russians. A steadily increasing proportion of Saskatchewan residents now claim more than a single ethnic origin. It is likely that as the population becomes more mixed, emphasis on ethnic identities may decrease. Locally, it is becoming increasingly common, especially in mixed communities, to find people of one particular ethnic origin with spouses of a different ethnic origin—hence people with surnames indicative of one ethnicity may speak the language of a different ethnicity.

This raises the question of language retention, a highly variable phenomenon. For example, the Fransaskois community has tended to emphasize strongly the ability to speak French—an attitude reinforced by French’s official language status in Canada, by schools and broadcasting in the French language, and by meetings of provincial organizations conducted in French. Yet less than half of the French-origin population still speaks French, and a decreasing number of formerly francophone parishes still offer services primarily, much less exclusively, in French. Eastern European ethnic groups have tended to retain their traditional languages from generation to generation more than people of German or Scandinavian origins, for various reasons including better defined bloc settlements, strong ethnic cultures, and degree of perceived social differentiation from other Saskatchewan people. People of Scandinavian origins have tended not to use Scandinavian languages very often nor to resist intermarriage with the larger population of British origin. The former importance of German culture in Saskatchewan was dealt a harsh blow during two world wars, triggering a sharp decrease in ability to speak German by the second or third generation. Yet to some extent, this trend has been reversed with the immigration of German speakers to the cities in postwar years, so that there has been a re-emphasis of German language and culture through the Saskatchewan German Council. In general, language retention rates tend to be highest among recent immigrants, who are almost exclusively urban residents. In the Rural Population, familiarity with traditional languages has inexorably declined; the only group not affected by this generalization has been the Hutterites.

Whatever may have been the ability to maintain ethnic traditions and promote knowledge of the history of ethnic settlements in Saskatchewan, the influence which these settlements have had on the cultural Geography of Saskatchewan could hardly go unnoticed. While it is unfortunate that many rural churches have been closed, abandoned or even removed over the years, together with country schoolhouses and community halls which were once the very focus of community life, Saskatchewan still retains numerous examples of ethnic architecture such as the many onion-domed Ukrainian churches which dot the countryside. Even patterns of settlement may occasionally have tended to be unique to specific ethnic groups, such as the Strassendorf line villages of Mennonites (and formerly of Doukhobors), the rang or riverlot pattern of settlement which characterized the Batoche and St-Laurent-Grandin Métis settlement, and the orderly arrangement of buildings in Hutterite Colonies.

Alan Anderson

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