Ukrainian-speaking peasants from Eastern Europe were not anywhere near the preferred list of immigrants wanted by Canada in the early 1890s. English, French and American farmers were the top choice. But, the government had a huge problem. Not enough of these “acceptable” people were interested in breaking the land in the Canadian West, and the Americans were expressing a keen interest in annexing the vast open land.
The government decided it had no choice but to look to less attractive immigrants to solve the problem of populating the prairies.
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
One man, Clifford Sifton, Canada’s Minister of the Interior and charged with the responsibility of immigration (1896-1905), drove the campaign to open Canada’s doors to Central and Eastern Europe. The country needed to establish farming on the prairies, and they needed people who could survive on their own to do it.
Among the first to respond to Canada’s invitation for free land were peasants from Galicia and Bukovinia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were poor farmers who were being crowded off of their meager farms. As their families expanded, the land they had available to share with their children was being divided down to nothing. Facing a bleak future and deep poverty, the idea of being given 160 acres of land they would own, with bush that would provide wood for fuel and animals for food, became a powerful force in motivating them to strike out for the new opportunity.
In the summer of 1896, the first Ukrainian-speaking settlers arrived in Manitoba. They were a group of 27 families from Galicia, who had sailed on the SS Sicilia from Hamburg to Quebec City. From there they took the train to Winnipeg, before making their way to their allotted lands, 75 miles southeast of Winnipeg at Stuartburn. Among this group of immigrants were Petr Strumbicky and his wife Irena Goyman, and their five children from Zalischiky, Galicia. They sold everything they had, and brought only what they could carry. Their worldly goods, upon arrival at Winnipeg, amounted to little more than some seeds in a handkerchief and the equivalent of seven dollars.
The eldest child, Nikola, would marry Aksana Shmigelsky, a girl he knew from the old country who arrived with her family some years later. Aksana’s family was from the village of Blyschanka. Aksana and Nykola were exactly the kind of people Sifton spoke about. They would raise six children and live out their lives on their land at Vita.
The following story is an excerpt from my novel, Ravenscraig. This chapter tells the story of Nykola and Aksana, and is inspired by family stories and other accounts that I have read about the experiences of the these early pioneers. I am humbled by their resilience and their success.
I am posting this chapter in honour of the 80th birthday of my mother, Mary Krawchenko. Aksana and Nykola were her grandparents, and my mother’s childhood was spent on their farm at Vita.