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Manitoba History: Review: Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature: About Free Lands

by Oleh Gerus
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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One of the more interesting exhibits to be seen in Winnipeg was held recently at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. Entitled "About Free Lands" it was an admirable effort to reflect the East European ethno-cultural milieu of Western Canada. Both the name and the theme were quite likely borrowed from a very influencial 19th century pamphlet written by Dr. Joseph Oleskow whose positive assessment of Canada's potential for colonization generated emigration fever among the Ukrainians and Polish peasants of Austrian Galicia.

It was, of course, the lure of free ($10/homestead) land and the prospect of social and political freedom that aroused the interest in Canada among the East European poor and underprivileged. This interest coincided with the Canadian government decision and subsequent aggressive campaign to recruit new settlers for the prairies and resulted in the present day situation in which approximately one-third of the population of Western Canada traces its ancestry to Eastern Europe. In the context of the exhibit, Eastern Europe is defined as that geographic area east of Germany which today constitutes the Soviet Union and its satellite system. Although predominantly Slavic, it is, in fact, a complex demographic mix.

The exhibit quite effectively combined the use of large graphics, photographs, maps, pictures, material artifacts and archival materials. The story line took the viewer through its key phases; specific sources of emigration, arrival and settlement in the West, adjustments of pioneer life, and the gradual integration into the mainstream of Canadian society while, in part at least, still clinging to the Old Country heritage.

The story begins in the 1890s when Canada, in an effort to supplement the traditional British and North European immigration, turned to the teeming and impoverished masses of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of land-hungry peasants speaking a multitude of languages and professing different cultural and religious values was destined to make a permanent imprint on Western Canada. The initial numbers were later supplemented by the largely urban and political refugees fleeing from the social and political turmoil that Eastern Europe experienced in the aftermath of both world wars.

The inescapable message underlining the exhibit is that of a "rags to riches" success story. One sees this not in the portrayal of the gradual but steady growth of material prosperity of the succeeding generations of former East Europeans, but even more dramatically in the faces of selected photographs. The transformation from the bewildered and baffled expressions of the Galician immigrants being dumped at the CPR station in Winnipeg to the assured and smug gazes of their better-known descendants such as Mayor Juba and Governor General Schreyer, is very symbolic.

Unfortunately such emphasis on the positive aspects of immigration tends to minimize and obscure the real plight of the immigrant and does not capture the totality of East European experience in Canada. The natural pioneer hardships combined with the discriminative and racist obstacles on the part of the suspicious Anglophile host society made the painful and slow climb to economic security, educational achievement and social acceptance very difficult indeed. Why were the "natives," themselves recent immigrants from Ontario, so hostile? There are many answers, but perhaps fundamentally many Canadians believed that "one immigrant is very interesting, five are a bore, and ten are a menace."

The shortage of capital and the demands of the substandard tracts of land forced many potential farmers into the industrial sector. Lacking English, adequate education and industrial skills and feared by the organized labor as a threat, they were consigned to the position of beasts of burden, performing the most menial tasks no one wanted.

The exhibit leaves the viewer with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is informative and even entertaining to a point. On the other hand, it is terribly selective and uneven in its treatment of the respective national groups. It is true that not every national group has made an equal impact on Canada since the numbers, the social composition, and the time of arrival differ appreciably among them. Still, a more equitable portrayal was in order. As it was, only the Ukrainians and the Mennonites received a fairly consistent presentation of their experiences, touching on such topics as cultural continuity. religious life, community and organizational activities. Perhaps the imbalance lies in the very nature of such an ambitious undertaking into which so much humanity was lumped. In short. too much was attempted and not enough done.

Still in the area of critical observation, it should be noted that the category of Northern Slays, so prominently displayed, does not exist in scholarship; there are only Southern, Western, and Eastern Slays. One also wonders why the important Ukrainian settlement at Stuartburn, Manitoba was missing from the 1929 map of prairie ethnic settlements. Finally, the atmosphere of the exhibit, partially caused by inadequate lighting, was rather sombre. Perhaps background music and a slide show would have enlivened the display.

Despite its flaws, the exhibit deserves recognition as a testimony not only to the heritage of Eastern Europe but to a living cultural pluralism of modern Canada.

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