ARCHIVED – Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977

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Chapter 2 (continued)
The Arrival of the Europeans

top of page  Immigrants in sheepskin coats: the Ukrainians

Clifford Sifton’s second new field of recruitment was eastern and central Europe. In his urgent search for suitable farmers and farm labourers, the new Minister was prepared to admit agriculturalists from places other than Great Britain, the United States, and northern Europe, long the preferred suppliers of immigrants for Canada. Describing what he looked for in the ideal settler, Sifton said:

When I speak of quality I have in mind something that is quite different from what is in the mind of the average writer or speaker upon the question of immigration. I think that a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half–dozen children, is good quality.


Clifford Sifton was quite correct when he noted that his view of the ideal settler to pioneer the West differed substantially from that held by most others who concerned themselves with the issue. The vast majority of English–speaking Canadians deplored the idea of Canada’s admitting “illiterate Slavs in overwhelming numbers.” Nevertheless, by dint of his forceful personality, status, and determination, Sifton managed to proceed with his controversial plan.

Unusual measures had to be put in place to attract “stalwart peasants” who would push back the western frontier and furnish seasonal or casual labour when required. One of these saw Sifton’s department enter into a secret arrangement with a clandestine organization of booking agents and steamship company officials based in Amsterdam. According to the terms of the arrangement, known as the North Atlantic Trading Company contract, the North Atlantic Trading Company agreed to direct, whenever possible, agriculturalists to Canada; for its part, the Immigration Branch would give the company a bonus for every genuine agricultural settler steered to this country. The syndicate’s operations and its members’ names were kept secret because most European countries had restrictive emigration laws; in some, agents involved in immigration propaganda were liable to prosecution.

The government did everything it could to establish bloc settlements of the different ethnic groups and in this way attract immigration of the right kind. Such settlements, it was believed, would exert a powerful magnetic effect, and often they did. The Ukrainians (the collective name applied to Slavs from regions of the Russian and Austro–Hungarian empires in eastern and southern Europe) were by far the largest group to immigrate to Canada from eastern and central Europe in these years. Between 1891, when the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants came to Canada, and the outbreak of the First World War, approximately 170,000 Ukrainians settled in this country, attracted by the offer of free land, a sense of space, and an opportunity to make a living in a free and open society.

For the most part, these Ukrainian newcomers were small farmers and labourers from Galicia and Bukovina (both provinces of the Austro–Hungarian Empire) who were fleeing oppressive social and economic conditions in their homeland. Commonly called Galicians, because Galicia had furnished the first Ukrainians to immigrate to Canada, they headed for those parts of the West that provided meadow, water, wood, and, if possible, contact with pioneers who spoke their language. As a result, large numbers of Ukrainians settled in the aspen parkland of the Prairie provinces, a wide band of country that runs in an arc from southeastern Manitoba through central Saskatchewan to the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Edmonton. Today the route that these newcomers took is known as the Yellowhead Highway or Highway 16, also referred to as the Ukrainian Settlement Road.

When they first settled on the Canadian prairie, the Ukrainians continued to practise their traditional mixed farming, and their early settlements were distinguished by whitewashed huts with thatched roofs similar to those they had left behind. As they became better educated and more prosperous, they adopted frame houses, modern machinery, and advanced agricultural techniques. While pioneering huge tracts of land, the Ukrainians struggled to maintain and develop their language and culture. To this end, they founded the Prosvita (Enlightenment) Society. The Manitoba government aided their cause by establishing a training school in 1905 for Ukrainian teachers in Winnipeg. Further progress would be made after the Second World War, when several Canadian universities, along with a number of other Canadian institutions of higher learning, established Ukrainian language and literature programs and the provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba introduced optional credit courses in Ukrainian at the high school level.

Photo of German immigrants, 1911

German immigrants arriving in Québec City, 1911.

National Archives of Canada (PA 10254)

The Ukrainian community, through its dedication to its traditions, has made many cultural contributions to Canadian life, some of them dating from the first decades of this century. These have included a Ukrainian travelling theatre, which appeared in the West as early as 1915, and a school of Ukrainian folk dancing, which was established in 1926.

top of page  German immigration

Among the thousands of immigrants who homesteaded on the Prairies in these years were settlers of German origin. Most came not from the German Empire, but from the Russian and the Austro–Hungarian empires and the Balkan countries, where German colonies had been established in the eighteenth century. By the closing decades of the nineteenth century, several factors affecting these settlements encouraged emigration. One was a shortage of land, the result of the colonies’ rapid growth and the large size of many German–speaking families. The growing class of landless workers and a dearth of factory jobs also spurred the exodus. A further factor was nationalist sentiment that in some areas led to the repeal of the Germans’ original rights and privileges.

From the 1890s until the outbreak of the First World War, approximately 35,000 Germans settled in Manitoba, representing 7.5 percent of that province’s total population. Alberta (where Germans concentrated in the Medicine Hat area and along the Calgary and Edmonton Railway) and Saskatchewan also witnessed a dramatic growth in German immigration, in Saskatchewan’s case from less than 5,000 in 1901 to over 100,000 in 1911. Most settlements in Saskatchewan broke down along denominational lines: Mennonites, the first to pioneer on the Prairies, settled in Swift Current and Rosthern; Lutherans, in central Saskatchewan; and Roman Catholics, after 1903, in St. Peter’s Colony, near Humboldt, and in St. Joseph’s Colony, near Trampling Lake.

top of page  Repatriation of French Canadians

The Canadian government welcomed French–speaking immigrants from France, but this country had a dismal record as a source of immigrants. France felt strongly that it needed its population, in particular a strong army to protect itself against German expansionism. As a result, the French government was generally opposed to emigration. When French citizens expressed an interest in leaving, they were encouraged to emigrate to French colonies. Accordingly, Ottawa concentrated on repatriating French Canadians who had been lured to New England by the prospect of good–paying factory jobs and the spell of American prosperity. To entice these Franco–Americans back to Quebec, the government employed French–Canadian priests and lay agents. Priests based in Quebec parishes received a small stipend to spend time in the United States promoting the idea of repatriation among Franco–Americans. To further the cause, the government also gave grants to colonization societies located in Montreal and Québec City.

The Canadian government welcomed French–speaking immigrants from France, but this country had a dismal record as a source of immigrants. France felt strongly that it needed its population, in particular a strong army to protect itself against German expansionism. As a result, the French government was generally opposed to emigration.

top of page  Italian immigration

Canada did not actively seek Italian immigrants in this period because Clifford Sifton considered Italians ill–fitted for pioneering, placing them in the same category as artisans, clerks, common labourers, and other city dwellers. Thousands of Italians nevertheless came to Canada from Italy and from the “Little Italys” of the American east coast in these years. Most were peasants or sharecroppers, small landowners, and rural day labourers from the impoverished southern regions of Italy, where they had wrested a living from a harsh environment and struggled against an exploitative socio–economic order. Confronting a bleak future in their homeland, these southern Italians emigrated overseas in search of work and entrepreneurial opportunity.

Photo of Ilde Tontini and Ettore Saudelli

Born in adjacent towns in Le Marche, a
region of central Italy, Ilde Tontini
and Ettore Saudelli immigrated to Canada
in 1923 and 1912 respectively. The couple
met in Montreal and married in 1928.

Leanna Verrucci Collection.

From among those who arrived in Canada, thousands went to work for this country’s railways. Others found employment in the mining and resource industries, where there was a demand for intensive labour. Some 3,000 Italians arrived in Montreal in 1904, and two years later, when construction of the trunk lines of the Grand Trunk Pacific, the Canadian Northern, and the National Transcontinental railways began in earnest, there was a further dramatic increase in the numbers of Italians coming to Canada.

Most of the Italians who came to this country between the turn of the century and the First World War, either from Italy or from the American east coast, were migrant workers, often bachelors. After working for the summer, many returned home to contribute their savings towards the upkeep of their southern Italian villages and the purchase of dowries for sisters and daughters. Those who did not make it back to Italy wintered in the railhead cities, notably Montreal.

When railway work was succeeded by labouring jobs for interurban and street railways, more Italians decided to stay in the cities. Instead of returning to Italy, young men chose to become immigrants and they sent for their wives or other relatives, thereby initiating a process of “chain–migration.” In major Canadian cities, Italian business districts grew up and the ambience of Little Italy emerged; the padrone who had recruited unskilled labour for the railway companies was now joined by middle–class shopkeepers, importers, caterers, priests, and undertakers. By the time the First World War broke out, half of the fruit merchants in Toronto were of Italian descent.

Giovanni Veltri’s Story

Giovanni Veltri’s story is typical of that of so many Italian men who left their southern Italian homeland at the turn of the century in search of work and entrepreneurial opportunity overseas.

Born into a peasant family in 1867, Veltri grew up in Grimaldi, a small town located high in the hills south of Cosenza in Italy’s depressed south. Because his town had little to offer him, Veltri, with two cousins and a friend, set off in the early 1880s for northern Africa in search of work. There, he found employment helping to build a railway line between Batna and Biskra in Algeria. The teenager spent 16 months in this part of the world before leaving in 1885 to join a brother in the American northwest.

After enduring a 31–day sea voyage, Veltri arrived in the United States, where the gates had been recently opened to immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. He managed to find his older brother in Helena, Montana. Vincenzo had worked his way up to the position of foreman for one of the subcontractors hired by the Montana Central Railroad. Like his brother had before him, Giovanni Veltri went to work as a navvy (an unskilled labourer).

The two brothers spent almost two decades toiling in railway construction in both the American and Canadian northwest before deciding to stay in Canada. By this time, 1898, Canada’s economic prospects were on the upswing and there was an air of buoyant optimism everywhere. The semi–arid prairie lands were being successfully farmed as a result of breakthroughs in agricultural technology, and immigrants had begun to pour into the West. All the conditions were ripe for an orgy of railway building.

The Veltri brothers were well poised to profit from the feverish railway building. Now seasoned railway workers, they exploited their expertise by successfully competing for subcontracts and by hiring gangs of labourers made up largely of Italians, often fellow Grimaldesi. To maximize their opportunities, the always pragmatic brothers anglicized their names. Veltri was replaced by Welch, Giovanni by John, and Vincenzo by James V.

By now Giovanni was a married man and a father. On one of his periodic visits to Grimaldi he had married Rosa Anselmo, who for many years stayed behind in Italy, there giving birth to Raffaele, “his first and dearest son.” The marriage would produce five children. In 1905, Giovanni brought young Raffaele to Winnipeg, where he and Vincenzo had earlier established the family railway contracting business.

When Vincenzo, a bachelor, died in 1913, Giovanni Veltri inherited the family firm, which he renamed the John Welch Company. This was the name the firm would be known by for almost 20 years as it competed for railway subcontracts and hired work gangs composed principally of Italian labourers.

Giovanni Veltri finally brought his family over to Canada in 1924, settling them first in Winnipeg and then in Port Arthur, Ontario (which amalgamated with the city of Fort William to form Thunder Bay in 1970). There, they made their home until late in 1931. In that memorable year, Giovanni, his wife, and unmarried daughters left Canada and returned to Grimaldi, where Giovanni cultivated his passion for agriculture and reverted to his Italian name, Giovanni Veltri.

Raffaele Veltri, upset by his parents’ decision to leave Canada, remained in Port Arthur to head up the family company, which changed its name to R.F. Welch Ltd. Under his able guidance, the firm survived the Great Depression and the Second World War by undertaking maintenance work for Canadian National Railways. R.F. Welch’s most lucrative contract was signed in the early 1950s when the company hired labourers destined for CNR work gangs and provided catering and commissary services for them.

Such was the achievement of the Veltri family that the Grimaldesi of Thunder Bay honoured Raffaele at a testimonial function in 1971. By that time there was a generous sprinkling of Italian names in the Thunder Bay city directory and Italy ranked second only to Great Britain as a source of immigrants for Canada.

top of page  Russian immigration

The first great wave of European immigration to Canada included the first Russians to settle in the country. They were Doukhobors, members of a peasant sect whose pacifism and communal lifestyle had invited czarist authorities to mount a campaign of brutal persecution and harassment against them. Fortunately for the Doukhobors, their plight aroused the sympathy of Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, who used his fame, literary skills, and international connections to help them to emigrate. A prominent Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, and James Mavor of the University of Toronto also aided their cause, the latter persuading the Canadian authorities to admit sect members to Canada. In late January 1899, the first of five parties of Doukhobors, numbering over 7,500 people, settled in the Prince Albert and Yorkton areas in what is now the province of Saskatchewan.

Photo of Galician immigrants, 1911

Galician immigrants, Québec
City, Quebec, 1911.

National Archives of Canada
(PA 010263)

Although the Doukhobors were permitted to establish community settlements, each settler was required to make his own entry for a homestead and to take an oath of allegiance within three years in order to obtain title to his property. The Doukhobors, however, refused to have any dealings with the state. They refused to take the oath, and they would not register births, marriages, and deaths; neither would they allow their children to be educated in the public system. As the three–year probationary period drew to a close, splits appeared in the community. These were widened by the actions of an extremist group, the Sons of Freedom, who liberated cattle, burnt property, and refused to till the land. At the other end of the scale were a number of Doukhobors who broke away from the community, took the oath of allegiance, and began to farm their land and to live and work like other settlers. In between were the rest of the Doukhobors, who attempted to maintain the traditional community pattern while being harassed by the Sons of Freedom.

Order was finally restored by the Doukhobors’ spiritual leader Peter Veregin. After arriving in the Northwest Territories in 1903, he quickly set about reorganizing the sect members into a prosperous farming community and keeping the Sons of Freedom under control. In 1908, Veregin purchased a large tract of land in British Columbia (the oath of allegiance was not a requirement in that province), organized the Doukhobors as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, and established community villages in the province. Here, too, independent–minded members broke away to take their place in the outside society.

Apart from the Doukhobors, very few Russians entered Canada before the First World War. Canada was not a popular destination for emigrating Russians; for them, western Europe, the United States, and South America were the favoured destinations. Nevertheless, small Russian communities developed in Sydney, Montreal, Toronto, Windsor, Timmins, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Victoria. Most of the Russians in these communities had been peasant farmers who had left their homeland because of their intense opposition to the czarist regime. After arriving in this country, many found jobs in Canada’s growing industrial sector.

Apart from the Doukhobors, very few Russians entered Canada before the First World War. Canada was not a popular destination for emigrating Russians; for them, western Europe, the United States, and South America were the favoured destinations.

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