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Six Amazing Things Unearthed in Research

Throughout my research on immigration to Western Canada between 1867 and 1914, I have uncovered some really interesting tidbits. Unfortunately, these cool facts are rarely what make it into official reports. So, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here are some of the lesser known, amazingly fun secrets of Prairie immigration research!

1. The Mysterious Jacob Hutter

The Hutterites were peasant immigrants from the Hapsburg provinces of Galicia and Bukovina, of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. They came to the United States around 1870, seeking economic opportunity and greater quality of life. By 1917, almost all Hutterites had migrated to settle in Western Canada, with 130 colonies in Alberta and 85 in Manitoba. Jacob Hutter, who lived in the Austrian province of Tyrol in the 1500s, was the radical left wing leader who rallied for the creation of the Hutterite community, and became the Hutterite movement’s figurehead.

Was he a man of high standing in the church? A noble and respected member of society with wealth to spare? Actually, no. He was a hat maker. And even more interestingly, no one knows his real last name. He was called Jacob Hutter because, in the German dialect spoken amongst his fellow Tyrolians, “hutter” means “hatter”! So whenever you hear of the Hutterites, just remember – their name is not a symbol of the Gods or a Latin term for success. They are literally, the hat people.

2. Winnipeg's Population Boom

Winnipeg, Manitoba became the gateway to Western Canada, as the hub of the Canadian railway system heading westward, and the largest urban centre in the Prairies. As a result, Winnipeg’s population exploded in the period of 1870 to 1914.

In 1871, there were 200 people in Winnipeg.
In 1886, there were 20,000 people in Winnipeg.
In 1911, there were 150,000 people in Winnipeg.

Now that’s impressive.

3. The Many Icelanders of Manitoba

Iceland was a big contributor to the immigration boom to the Canadian West around 1900. Between 1871 and 1915, about 16,800 Icelanders left Iceland for the Prairie Provinces, specifically Manitoba. The Republic of New Iceland, Manitoba, was established in 1875, and was the only self-governing settlement in the Prairies. New Iceland, which later became Gimli (meaning “paradise”), was exclusively Icelandic in population until 1897. The settlement created Icelandic language newspapers and resident Sigtryggur Jonasson, an Icelandic immigrant, became the first Icelandic-Canadian member of the provincial legislature in 1896. The Icelanders were very successful immigrants, and are credited with bringing dairy farming to the Prairies.

And finally…

Did you know: Manitoba is currently home to the largest Icelandic population outside of Iceland?!

4. The Canadian Pacific Railway's Change of Course

Brandon, Manitoba. Regina, Saskatchewan. Calgary, Alberta.

Thank your lucky stars for the railroad, or these fine cities would not exist today.

The interesting thing about the construction of Canadian railways is the impact they’ve had on settlement of the lands around them. To put it bluntly, between 1870 and 1914, railway access equalled success. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) drastically altered the make-up of the Prairies, and allowed development to flourish in areas previously isolated and inconvenient. In fact, the railways through the West created 75% of Alberta’s towns.

When the CPR had initially surveyed the Prairies, they intended to run the westward railroad through Prince Albert and Battleford, Saskatchewan, and Edmonton, Alberta. However, the route was changed to run more south, as it was cheaper and easier to construct, and also allowed the Canadian Pacific Railway to better compete with American railway companies south of the border. As a result, the tracks’ southern placement established the cities of Brandon, Regina and Calgary, all of which have become some of the most thriving centres in Western Canada.

5. Slim Pickings for Chinese Men

Chinese immigrants to Canada before 1900 are very well known for helping build the Canadian Pacific Railway. As labourers, the majority of these immigrants were single males who came over alone. Because of this, the ratio of male to female Chinese immigrants in the West was severely skewed.

In 1911, there were 1,787 Chinese in Alberta. Only 20 were women.

6. Leo Tolstoy Loves The Doukhobors

Would you believe me if I told you that Leo Tolstoy, world famous Russian writer of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, was involved in the history of immigration to Canada?

The Doukhobors were a sect of Russian peasants who disagreed with formal church organization and the Russification of diverse peoples under the Russian Empire at the turn of the century. They lived communally, kept oral histories and oral traditions, and did not accept luxuries or indulging in sensual pleasures. In 1895, the Doukhobors were banished to different areas of the Russian Empire for rising up in protest against the Russian government and their repressive policies. The persecution of these Doukhobors caught the attention and sympathy of Leo Tolstoy, who used his international connections to arrange for the permanent migration of these Doukhobors to Canada.

Because of Tolstoy, in 1899, 7,400 Doukhobors came to Canada in just six months, and four shiploads. At the end of the twentieth century, Western Canada’s Doukhobor population was two times the size of the Doukhobor population that remained in their Russian homeland.

To learn more about immigration to the Prairies from 1867 to 1914 click here >