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Manitoba History: Review: John C. Lehr, Community and Frontier: A Ukrainian Settlement in the Canadian Parkland

by Peter Melnycky
Alberta Heritage, Edmonton

Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013

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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The Stuartburn colony, southeast of Winnipeg along the United States border, was established in 1896 as one of several Ukrainian bloc settlements in Manitoba and is the focus of geographer John Lehr’s study, Community and Frontier. An initial group of twenty-eight families (ninety-four individuals) arrived under the guidance of Cyril Genik, as part of Dr. Josef Oleskow’s promotion of emigration of Ukrainians to the Canadian northwest. Over a period of eighteen years, the settlement expanded to include 1500 homesteads covering more than fifteen townships. The key factor for this rapid expansion was a chain migration of peasant farmers from southern Galicia and Bukovina within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These villagers were attracted by the offer of 160-acre homesteads and were inordinately influenced by a small number of primary decision makers. The interplay of family, village, district, and provincial influences combined with ethnic factors such as language, religion, dialect, material culture, and personal relationships to form a cohesive new community in an obscure corner of the British Empire.

Lehr stresses that the nature of this migration to Stuartburn would have serious long-term economic implications. The high value placed on family and social ties, the perceived need to secure timber supplies and a diverse natural resource base from nearby Mennonite settlers, an erroneous evaluation of soil quality, ignorance of alternative opportunities, and social considerations, led many of those arriving to accept inferior land if only for the opportunity to homestead in close proximity to their kinsmen. The short-term benefits of such a strategy resulted in long-term economic burdens. Concerns for agricultural viability being subsumed by social needs made for a difficult transition from subsistence farming to a market economy. From the outset, seasonal work as farm labourers was required for survival, and, as early as 1912, offspring were moving out of the district, either in search of jobs outside of agriculture or, through a secondary chain migration, to more promising farming opportunities in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Over the long term, the settlement was locked into a pioneer stage of development characterized by subsistence mixed farming, with cattle, grain, and dairy the main exports. Important supplementary income came through sawn lumber and the harvesting of cordwood, hay, Seneca root, wiregrass, and even frogs. It was a classic colonial economy, a “staples trap,” characterized by the export of a limited array of staples and raw goods. As Lehr states, the Stuartburn environment was “poor country for a rich settler but rich country for a poor settler.”

A variety of archival and documentary sources including oral histories were utilized to track the social and economic development of Stuartburn. Through the records of government administrators, school boards, missionary societies, Rural Municipalities and Counties, as well as homestead files, and the business papers of hydro electrical, telephone, and railroad companies, Lehr paints in rich detail the complexion of this unique settlement. Within fifteen years, a largely natural parkland landscape was transformed into a community with a distinctive cultural signature, yet which suffered from limited electrical, communication, transportation, and health care infrastructure. The picture which emerges is not always pretty or heroic, but rather at times one of suffering, struggle, abomination, and deprivation touching such topics as deviance and criminality, mass murder, internecine religious factionalism, bootlegging, cross border-smuggling, substance abuse, and alcoholism.

Also surveyed for relevant materials were a range of English- and Ukrainian-language newspapers, although a more comprehensive analysis of Ukrainian-language sources and periodicals would have been beneficial. While the importance of the US-based Svoboda Ukrainian-language newspaper as the first outlet for settlers to publish their impressions is noted, the source was not actually tapped to its full potential. Between 1898 and 1905 dozens of reports appeared therein about the community, only one of which is cited. Other valuable sources such as Ivan Panchuk’s Persha Ukrainska tserkva v Kanadi (The First Ukrainian Church in Canada) and Rev. Nestor Dmytriw’s Kanadiiska Rus (Canadian Ruthenia) are also absent. Also missing from the narrative are Dmytriw’s pioneering visitation of 1897-1898, his consecration of the cemetery at the site of the future St. Michael’s Orthodox church at Gardenton, and the establishment of the Holy Ghost Greek Catholic parish at Stuartburn (both of which lay claim along with several others as the “first” congregations in Canada).

While the discourses and colonial relationships which tied Stuartburn to the broader Imperial network are explored, there is an emphasis on economic and cultural aspects to the neglect of others. Two fundamental civic obligations, namely, participation in electoral democracy and service in the country’s military, are not dealt with at all. The discussion of Ukrainians participating in political processes is restricted to several anecdotal asides with no systematic examination of parties, elections, or electoral issues. Ukrainians settling in Manitoba entered into a political culture, which was at times hostile and manipulative. The 1899 provincial election saw a resurgent Conservative party narrowly defeat the reigning Liberals campaigning, in part, on warnings of the dangers of impending “Galician government.” In spite of (or perhaps because of) such hostility, during the 1920 election the Ukrainian community in Stuartburn was successful in lifting teacher Dmytro Yakimischak as a “farmer” or “people’s candidate” to victory over the incumbent Liberal and opposition Conservative in the riding of Emerson. The only legislator of Ukrainian ancestry to precede Yakimischak into the Legislative Assembly was Taras Ferley, an Independent Liberal elected from Gimli in 1915. For the majority of the next six decades Emerson would be represented by a member of the Ukrainian Canadian community.

Equally beneficial would have been an exposition of the settlement’s experiences during Canada’s two World Wars. While there is brief mention of social, economic and educational ramifications during these conflicts, there is no elaboration on the termination of the bilingual school system in 1916, or discussion of the national government’s restrictions against, and in some cases internment of, immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. More notably, there is no reference to the scores of Ukrainians from Stuartburn who served in Canada’s armed forces during both wars, or of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to their country. The Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, near the City of Caen in Normandy, holds the remains of two 26-year-old Stuartburn soldiers, Trooper William Feschuk and Rifleman Mike Wintoniw from Vita (Szewczenko) and Zhoda respectively, who were killed on the first day of the storied D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France on 6 June 1944.

In spite of any shortcomings, Community and Frontier is a stimulating template for future in-depth studies. It begs the question of how those who migrated out of Stuartburn fared in Alberta’s Peace River country, where they formed significant communities at Spirit River and Rycroft. Were they able to achieve the progress and development which were stymied in southeastern Manitoba? Professor Lehr has produced a unique contribution to the scholarship of the western Canadian landscape and an insightful examination of the rich history of Ukrainian settlement in Manitoba.

Page revised: 25 April 2021

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