Although it’s changed ownership over the years, the Prince Albert Immigration Hall still has its original purpose: helping people looking for a home.
These days it’s an important part of the Prince Albert YWCA’s housing strategy, providing emergency shelter for homeless residents in the community. However before that it helped thousands of new immigrants find their homesteads on the Saskatchewan prairie.
On Wednesday, the Saskatchewan government officially designated the building as a provincial heritage property in recognition of that responsibility.
“This building reflects the important role that government played in helping newcomers get established in the province,” Parks, Culture and Sport Minister Gene Makowsky said in a media release. “By designating this property, the story of the province’s settlement and growth can be more fully told and illustrated for present and future generations.”
Originally opened in 1929, the Hall typically served as the first stop for immigrants arriving in Prince Albert by train. It replaced a similar building located across the street. Immigrants seeking to settle anywhere between Tisdale and Blaine Lake came through its doors.
“If anyone came to Prince Albert and they got off the train, their first stop would typically be Immigration Hall,” Prince Albert Historical Museum curator Michelle Taylor explained.
“You’d go there and get your homestead application, and from there you’d just disperse.”
However, the Prince Albert Immigration Hall never saw large waves of newcomers, as immigration numbers dropped drastically during the Great Depression. At its peak in 1926, more than 1,700 homestead claims were settled in Prince Albert per year. However between 1929 and 1930, the number of new immigrants arriving in the city dropped by 94 per cent.
Still, the Prince Albert Immigration Hall stayed in use, first as an office building for various federal government departments, and later as a shelter for the YWCA, who purchased the building in 2008. Out of the 34 such halls built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this one is the only one still standing.
“It’s still, in some ways, helping to settle people,” YWCA executive director Donna Brooks said. “If people find themselves without a home, they come stay with us for a while and it helps them get settled into a new place. There are some things that never change. People will always need some help and the building stands as a landmark to that.”
Now that the building has official provincial heritage property status it gets automatic protection under the Heritage Property Act. The designation also allows access to grant funding through the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation.
For local history lovers, it’s edifying to see that recognition.
“It’s always a big deal to get a heritage property,” Taylor said. “Municipal (recognition) at least means the city itself recognizes the importance of the buildings. When you get provincial or national status it just adds another feather in the cap for the city to say, we actually are taking care of our heritage (and) we care about the buildings and the history of the city.”