The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan


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Scandinavian Settlements

During the latter 19th century, large areas of Minnesota and the Dakotas became compact bloc settlements of Scandinavians, even more highly organized than their German counterparts for the preservation of ethnic identity; by 1890, close to 20,000 Norwegian immigrants had settled in South Dakota alone. Relatively few Scandinavians had immigrated as yet into Saskatchewan, but this situation changed markedly: despite little active encouragement of emigration in Scandinavia itself by the Canadian government, the number of people of Scandinavian origin resident in Saskatchewan increased from 1,452 in 1901 to 33,991 in 1911. During that decade large areas of the province were settled by people of Scandinavian origin, who thus added to the compact bloc settlements already established by Swedes in 1885 and 1889, by Icelanders in 1886–93, and by Finns in 1887.

By 1911, Scandinavian and Finnish immigrants and Scandinavian-Americans had founded a dozen primarily Norwegian Settlements, half a dozen smaller Swedish Settlements, three Icelandic, one Danish, and a couple of Finnish Settlements. The most recent census data (2001) revealed that 109,560 Saskatchewan residents claimed Scandinavian (including Finnish) ethnic origins, of whom 14% (15,310) claimed only a single Scandinavian ethnic origin while the vast majority, 86% (94,260) claimed more than a single ethnic origin: 55.2% (60,510) were of Norwegian origin, 27.3% (29,900) of Swedish origin, 8.6% (9,375) Danish, 5.6% (6,100) Icelandic, and 3.4% (3,675) Finnish.

While there is much evidence that the Scandinavian groups in Saskatchewan rapidly assimilated into general Canadian society, a tradition-oriented attitude often prevailed within Scandinavian and especially Finnish bloc settlements. In the earlier years of settlement, a high proportion of Scandinavians and Finns, like other ethnic groups, settled in fairly well-defined bloc settlements. Moreover, by 1926 a considerable proportion of them still had not adopted Canadian citizenship. While Scandinavian-Canadians were noted for their contribution during the World Wars, it must be remembered that they were neither from countries hostile to Britain and Canada (as was the case for immigrants from Germany or Austria-Hungary), nor were they pacifists (as were the Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors): their contributions to the Canadian cause and the Scandinavian one were therefore not incompatible. Nor did the British-Canadian population in Saskatchewan tend to view Scandinavian immigrants as “unassimilable”: in fact, even the Ku Klux Klan, which drew some support from Scandinavian settlers, suggested that “trained” Scandinavian immigrants should be allowed to settle on the land.

Yet decades of de-emphasizing Scandinavian identity, in the school system but also in the local prairie community (where people of Scandinavian origin seldom predominated) and through intermarriage, brought about significant differences between generations in attitudes towards ethnic identity. Scandinavian-Canadians have tended to feel that it is possible to maintain a general interest in the “Scandinavian connection” without maintaining an ability to speak a Scandinavian language. The proportion of Scandinavian-origin population in Saskatchewan claiming an ability to speak a Scandinavian language declined from 59% in 1941 to 40% in 1951, 28% in 1961, and 20% in 1971; by 1971, hardly 1% actually used such a language as the primary language spoken in the home. Many, if not most of the original Scandinavian settlers in this province had formerly lived in the United States (for periods of time ranging from a few years to a couple of generations), so a considerable proportion probably already considered English to be their primary language before immigrating to Canada. If the 1950s represented a decisive decade of linguistic change among Scandinavian-origin people in Saskatchewan, it could be noted that ethnic language loss during that decade was actually occurring more rapidly among the Scandinavian-origin rural farm population (from 43% in 1951 to 30% in 1961) than among the rural non-farm (36% to 32%) or urban (29% to 24%). Yet in 1971 a higher proportion of Scandinavian-origin rural population (23% for rural farm population and 25% for rural non-farm) than in urban areas (17%) could still speak a Scandinavian language. A far higher proportion of older people than younger retained this ability (67% of the 65+ group, compared to 38% of the 45-64 group, 16% of the 35–44 group, 6.5% of the 20–34 group, 3.9% of the 9–19 group, and 2.1% of the 1–9 group). Differences exist between the Scandinavian/Finnish groups in propensity to maintain fluency in the traditional ethnic language. There is little contrast between the four Scandinavian groups: out of 36,000 people of Norwegian descent living in Saskatchewan in 1971, 6,800 (18.9%) claimed that they spoke Norwegian as their mother tongue, compared to 3,400 out of 15,000 Swedes (23.5%) speaking Swedish, 1,300 out of about 5,000 Danes (24.6%) speaking Danish, and 840 out of some 3,000 Icelanders (27.1%) speaking Icelandic. A major contrast, however, can be drawn between these Scandinavian groups proper and the Finns: 745 (43.2%) of the 1,700 Finns could speak Finnish; this may be due to the fact that their language is totally unrelated to Scandinavian languages or to English.

While today many of the Lutheran parishes in rural Saskatchewan may be classified as ethnic parishes of a general denomination, for several decades they were all in ethnic sub-denominations patterned after national churches in Scandinavia and Germany. During this early period the ethnic nature of each sub-denomination was very evident: where Lutherans of various Scandinavian origins settled in one area, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes each organized their own congregations; and the Scandinavian Lutheran churches tended to support bloc settlement isolationism, ethnic traditionalism, and religious conservatism. These sub-denominations have been consolidated into more general Lutheran organizations since the 1940s; but at the individual congregation level, many Lutheran churches, especially those in rural areas, remain virtual ethnic parishes. Services in all parishes, however, are almost invariably conducted in the English language. An increasing proportion of people of Scandinavian origin are not Lutherans but converts to various evangelical sects. In fact, the proportion of Scandinavian/Finnish people in Saskatchewan who are Lutherans has steadily declined: from 67.1% in 1941 to 56.2% by 1951, 45.3% by 1961, and 40.4% by 1971.

Scandinavian-origin people in Saskatchewan tend to be familiar with a wide variety of Scandinavian folk traditions related to foods, performing arts, décor, and clothing. In the solidly Norwegian rural districts, many types of typically Norwegian baking are occasionally prepared, such as at Christmastime. Scandinavian folk dancing and music can be seen or heard at ethnic gatherings such as the annual Islendingadagurinn or Icelandic Day in Gimli, Manitoba, at a smaller version near Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, as well as in Saskatoon and Regina. Interior home décor cannot be underestimated. While some weaving may still be practiced, most of it is brought or imported directly from Scandinavia, as is traditional clothing or complete folk dress (such as the women’s bunad). In Scandinavia, full folk costume is worn only on special occasions such as national days, baptisms, weddings, confirmations, or family gatherings (usually by older women, hardly ever by men); in Canada such full dress is restricted to ethnic gatherings, folk performances, and festivals. Finally, it should be stressed that visits “home” to Scandinavia seem to still be quite common, particularly for the older generation; families may return every two or three years, sometimes even every year, or exchange visits with relatives in Scandinavia.

When the Martin government outlawed foreign-language teaching during school hours in 1919, there were few schools in Scandinavian settlements in Saskatchewan to which the legislation could apply. Three reasons may be singled out as accounting for the relative lack of interest in teaching Scandinavian languages: first, because of a high standard of education in Scandinavia, the immigrants were already literate in their traditional languages and well prepared to adjust to English; second, many of the people of Scandinavian origin who settled in Saskatchewan had already settled in the United States long enough to have become familiar with the English language; and third, like other minorities, the Scandinavians were under considerable pressure to conform to the British group. Scandinavian settlers in Saskatchewan thus never really made much of an attempt to control the schools or to use their languages in the schools.

Scandinavian voluntary associations in Saskatchewan underwent a rapid transformation from an orientation toward the ethnic group to one toward the general society. They still are, for the most part, centred on Lutheran congregations: for example, among Norwegian Lutherans the Kwende-Forening, a ladies club, quickly became the Ladies Aid; and the Ungdoms Forening, a young peoples’ association, became the Young People’s Luther League. Other youth groups were directly descended from similar ones in Scandinavia, such as the Little Children of the Reformation, the Lutheran Daughters of the Reformation, and the Dorcas Girls’ Society. The Norwegian Lutheran Outlook College of 1911 became the Saskatchewan Lutheran Bible Institute in 1938; the Saskatchewan Norwegian Lutheran Association on 1911 disappeared with church mergers; and the Norwegian Lutheran Church Seminary at Saskatoon of 1937 is now the Lutheran Theological Seminary of the University of Saskatchewan. Moreover, the closure during the past couple of decades of the rural school houses, which were also focal points for Scandinavian activities in bloc settlements, went far in lessening the significance of Scandinavian ethnic identification. When people of Scandinavian origin had immigrated into Saskatchewan from their bloc settlements in the American midwestern states, they had brought with them their associations; although most of these organizations are no longer found in Saskatchewan, a large Scandinavian Club developed in Saskatoon, as well as a Norwegian Cultural Society and Sons of Norway Chapter.

Aside from some periodicals imported from Scandinavia itself, such as Norske Ukeblad, magazines and newspapers in Scandinavian languages or pertaining to Scandinavian culture have found their way into Saskatchewan from Ontario, Manitoba, and particularly Minnesota. The Hyrden, the bi-monthly Norwegian-language paper of the former Norwegian Lutheran Church in Canada, became the Shepherd—the monthly English-language magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada—and is now the Lutheran. Also published in English was the Lur, the monthly magazine of the Alberta-based Scandinavian Historical Society, as well as the newsletter of the Saskatoon Scandinavian Club.

There can be little doubt that increasing intermarriage tends to affect profoundly the ability to maintain ethnic identity and ethno-cultural traditions. In 1961, 36.5% of married people claiming Scandinavian origin in Saskatchewan had married within their group; by 1971, 80.9% of the Canadian-born family heads claiming Scandinavian ethnicity were married to spouses of other ethnic origins. Opposition to marrying outside the Scandinavian Lutheran group declined sharply by the third generation. However, there has been relatively less intermarriage of Scandinavian-Canadians within the rural bloc settlement context in the prairies. Tens of thousands of descendants of the original Scandinavian and Finnish settlers in Saskatchewan remain concentrated in specific rural areas, where they have preserved some aspects of Scandinavian ethno-cultural identity. Yet while there are numerous rural pockets where people of Scandinavian origin predominate, they were seldom concentrated to the extent that they formed a majority of the population in a local town or village. Most Scandinavian immigrants in Saskatchewan (with the possible exception of Icelanders and Finns) did not actually settle within well-defined, compact, homogeneous ethnic settlements, but rather in dispersed patterns of rural settlement, or in cities or communities with mixed populations. This has doubtless facilitated their intermarriage and has served to lessen their emphasis on Scandinavian languages and traditions, and their link with Lutheranism.

Alan Anderson

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