Ukrainian settlers in sheepskin coats overcome rancid prejudice

Ukrainian settlers near a town of Scottish settlers, Stuartburn, Manitoba, early 1900s. Collections Canada Online MIKAN 3367705.

They were called filthy, ignorant, lazy, immoral drunkards, a threat to the racial character and social stability of Canada. They were the peasants from Eastern Europe brought to Canada under Interior Minister Clifford Sifton’s aggressive quest for immigrants. To Sifton, they were “stalwart peasants in sheepskin coats,” precisely the type of good, hard-working farmers needed to settle the vast expanse of Canadian prairie. To critics, they were undesirables.

One professed critic, in a lengthy letter in the Toronto Globe, October 22, 1898, takes a second look at the peasant farmers in the Edmonton area and is astounded at their progress. They might, he confesses, even become “our fellow-Canadians and a source of strength to our common country.”

“I was very strongly prejudiced against them and was outspoken in condemnation,” of them, C. Dew MacDonald of Edmonton writes. But visiting some 20 farms of the Ruthenian1 immigrants—accompanied by Edmonton Bulletin publisher and future Interior Minister Frank Oliver—“taught me that it is very dangerous to rely upon first impressions.”

When the peasant settlers first arrived, he says, they were in utter poverty, had a strong aversion to soap and water, and lacked the “admirable” character, “manliness and strength” of the British and French. But “what else is to be expected of people who have always been treated like dogs?” And “a change of environment works wonderful improvement… in the character of a people.”

The farms had been settled for only a very few years when MacDonald visited them.  He expected “to find my prejudices strengthened, but found a degree of material progress simply astounding.” He found large haystacks, good horses, good buildings, good machinery and good crops—improvements as good “as any class of settlers.”

He also found the Ruthenians enjoying undreamt of comfort, the blessings of “free men in a free land;” less adverse to soap and water; more thrifty than the Scots; self-reliant (they made all their own clothes); and industrious “but not very intelligent” workers. With “all their faults and imperfections, they have strength, endurance, industry, and thrift.” Even greater than this, they were happy to hack their farms out of bush land distant from markets and railroads, in an area where none of “our people… would dream of burying himself.”

Unstated was another attribute of the sheepskin settlers: they had none of the condescending superiority of Anglo Saxon Canadians.

— Canada @ 150 —

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