Museum Musings: Newcomers

Photo courtesy of the Bill Smiley Archives. The Immigration Building in Prince Albert, which opened in the late 1920s.

This past week, the Prince Albert Multicultural Council presented a screening of the documentary “The Newcomers”.  The film would highlight, we were advised, “the stories of Newcomers/ Immigrants in rural Saskatchewan, topics that most newcomers can easily relate to, such as identity, belonging, acceptance, homesickness, challenges and much more” and it would encourage discussion and reflection regarding our history.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but the advertising for the event led me to reflect on the history of immigration into Prince Albert and area.  Some of my reflections follow.

The earliest “newcomers” to this area were, of course, the fur-traders.  Arguably, their relationship with the First Nations was symbiotic in nature.  There were, obviously, some negative outcomes resulting from the arrival of these newcomers, but both parties benefitted from the relationship.  Even though it might be considered that the advantage lay with the fur-traders, had the exchange of goods been seen as not being beneficial to both parties, such trade would have been discontinued.  There are also numerous examples, from oral history and the diaries and written reports of the fur-traders, which indicate that both parties shared services with each other.  Notable amongst these services were occasions when the sharing of food precluded one party or the other starving due to a shortage of food, especially during the winter months.

The next wave of newcomers might be considered those individuals, like James Isbister, who were “mixed blood”.  These individuals, most often children of First Nation women and fur-traders of European origin, decided that they wanted to settle on the land which they had come to appreciate and enjoy.  In 1860, James Isbister, along with his brother Adam, his sister and her husband (Olaf Olsen), built houses in which to raise their families, barns in which to shelter their livestock, and planted gardens.  They even grew wheat, which Isbister had to haul to the Red River settlement (now Winnipeg) in order to have it ground into flour.

Shortly after the arrival of people like Isbister, there were newcomers like James Nisbet, reaching out to the First Nation people, wanting to “improve” their lives.  Not all these individuals had the same approach as Nisbet, who was assisted in his approach by Metis persons such as George Flett.  Nisbet’s party concentrated on education rather than proselytising.  The chiefs and elders with whom they dealt were also wise men, and they knew the value of providing educational training to their youngsters.  Although there were vast differences in language, religion, and culture between these newcomers and the First Nation people, they tended to live quite separately from each other, avoiding the difficulties which tend to preclude the problem of belonging and acceptance.

Between Nisbet’s arrival in 1866, in what was to become known as Prince Albert, and 1890, the vast majority of the newcomers to the area were either Metis or British immigrants.  Many of the Metis arrived from the Red River settlement, particularly after 1870 when the province of Manitoba was established.  The British settlers tended to come directly from Great Britain, or from the central Canadian province of Ontario; few were non-English or non-French speaking immigrants.  Their assimilation into the settlement communities was relatively easy, as their language, religion, and customs were very similar to those already existent in these communities.

During these years, both in the Northwest Territories and more especially in Prince Albert, individuals, mostly Protestants from Britain and Ontario, almost exclusively controlled the political, legal, cultural, and educational institutions, setting the parameters and conducting the debate over immigration – believing British principles of government were the apex of both biological evolution and human achievement.

Between 1890 and 1913, an immigration boom occurred on the Canadian prairies.  English speaking immigrants felt almost immediately at home; others, notably from central and Eastern Europe and Asia, found acceptance an uphill struggle – ethnic conflict was intense and stereotypes abounded as people from diverse backgrounds attempted to make sense of one another.

Although In 1892 the Calgary Herald suggested only one question need be asked of immigrants: “are they healthy, industrious and moral living?” newspaper editorials soon argued newcomers should be “stalwart, enterprising” North Europeans closely related to Anglo-Saxons who could attain the accepted level of civilisation.  It was feared that newcomers from other countries would lower moral and intellectual standards and dilute the British racial stock, thereby threatening the character of the new territories.

Most Canadians felt that allowing other than British and North Europeans would result in desirable immigrants refusing to come to Canada and that the non-desirable ones could be easily bribed by irresponsible politicians, that they would want to perpetuate their language and customs, and be out of touch with established institutions and ideals. Few Canadians agreed with J.S. Woodsworth who called Ukrainians “patient and industrious” and said that “the girls make good domestics”.

During this period, the vast majority of newcomers continued to be British.  The Toronto Globe wrote in 1909 “The West is today definitely Anglo-Saxon…The legislators, lawyers, ministers and newspapermen are almost invariably from the (Anglo-Saxon) East and, at this formative period, the West is to them as clay in the hands of a potter.”

However, this immigration boom did not significantly impact Prince Albert and area.  The federal immigration policy established under the John A. MacDonald government continued under Laurier’s Liberals.  Not surprisingly, it encouraged immigration into the western prairies to establish a market for eastern manufactured goods, to provide freight and traffic for the railways, and to secure the West for Canada.

In order to meet this policy, it was important for newcomers to settle near railways, and Prince Albert did not have a railway line until 1891.  Even then, unlike the rail lines across the southern prairies, the railroad companies did not have land bonuses for the land next to, or near, the rail line leading to Prince Albert.  As a result, the railways’ land agents did not encourage immigrants to settle in this area.  Rather, they encouraged newcomers to settle on their properties on, or near, the land they had been given in the south.

Prince Albert did not benefit from the immigration of Asians as did those communities along the southern rail lines.   However, there were a few Asian settlers who did settle locally.  The Broadway Hotel was long managed by a Chinese man named Seto, and the Central Hotel also had an Asian manager.  Often Asians were the owners and operators of laundries and restaurants.  A notable Prince Albert man of Chinese origin was Hoo Sam.  He ran a laundry prior to his partnership on the Saskatchewan Restaurant.  Other settlers often expressed concern about the habit of the Chinese to gamble, and that habit led to Hoo Sam’s eventual downfall.  He was convicted of the murder of one of his partners, whom he believed to be taking money from the business to pay his gambling debts.  Hoo Sam was hanged as a result of the conviction.

Other concerns expressed throughout the Prairie provinces about Asian immigrants were their use of opium, the belief that they were racially and culturally remote, and the fact that they seldom brought their spouses with them.  Apparently, this resulted in concerns that they might wish to consort with the women from other racial backgrounds.  After 1904 when the Laurier government imposed a head tax of $500 on Chinese immigrants, even fewer females came with their spouses. 

The largest non-British group of settlers who came to the Prairies, and made up a significant newcomer group in the Prince Albert area were the Ukrainians.  They tended to maintain their language, their exotic dress, and their traditions.  This made them conspicuous and clearly set them apart from the other settlers in the area.  As a result, they turned inward, avoiding government officials where possible, tried to establish their own schools, patronised their own merchants (or Jewish merchants) whose practices were known to them.  Given the large number of Ukrainian settlers in the Prince Albert area, it was not surprising, therefore, to see so many Jewish merchants established along Prince Albert’s River Street and along the north end of Central Avenue.  Names such as Wasserman, Davidner, Katz, Tadman, and Shnay all did business with the early Ukrainian settlers.  However, as the first generation of these newcomers died off, and the second generation became more comfortable with other business people, the Jewish businessmen found doing business here less attractive and eventually either moved onward or also died off.

American immigrants brought farm skills, capital, and machinery; most came from the mid-western states between 1898 and 1914.  Many of these were originally German immigrants, although others were from Scandinavian countries.  Some of these newcomers settled in areas such as Cudworth and Vonda, Birch Hills and Hagen.  Often Interaction with other cultural groups and intermarriage were rare.  The immigrants tended to live in a world apart, hoping to be left alone, rather than acceptance in the established communities.

Some American settlers were not seen to be acceptable.  During Black History month, I am often asked to supply stories about Black settlers.  These stories are few and far between.  At the time of our early settlement, Blacks were considered inferior, and believed to pose economic, sexual, and cultural threats.  In 1910/11, one thousand Blacks from Oklahoma were fleeing discrimination.  This resulted initially in  informal exclusionary policies on the part of the Federal government.  Then, an Order-in-Council was passed in the spring of 1911 barring Blacks from the country.  This was quickly repealed due to concerns how it would reflect on Canada.  It was replaced by government agents going to Oklahoma advising Black individuals that they would starve or freeze if they came north, that the soil was poor, and they would have trouble crossing the border.

All these barriers posed issues for non-British or northern European immigrants who might wish to relocate to the Canadian prairies, and particularly to Prince Albert and area, in the early years.  Much has changed for the better, but there are still challenges which we should all work towards resolving.