What made colonization in the Prairies so unique? The arrival of immigrants from several ethnic backgrounds, which was not at all the case in Québec at the time, except in Montréal. The multicultural population of the Prairies was much larger. In 1901, only 2% of the Québec population was not of French or British origin, while in the Prairies this percentage was much higher: between 20% and 25%. British colonists were still the largest group, however; francophones were only a tiny minority.

These immigrants had left their countries for various reasons. Mennonites started settling in Manitoba in 1874 to protect their culture and religion, which was being threatened by the Russian government. In 1905, many of them went to live in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Doukhobors had also fled Russia where they were being mistreated due to their religious beliefs. In 1898, 7,400 Doukhobors immigrated to Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, Ukrainians had been drawn to the free land. In their country, life was hard due to overcrowding and poor harvests. Between 1891 and 1914, 170,000 Ukrainians, almost all of them farmers, came to settle in Canada.

Contrary to what was happening in the U.S., these different ethnic groups tended to not mix and instead formed small homogeneous communities. The Doukhobors lived in one area, the French in another, Ukrainians in yet another and so on. Yet, English was the official language of the governments of the Prairie Provinces. In some provinces, immigrant languages were allowed to be taught for a time (such as French, Ukrainian and German), but English was gradually imposed. In Manitoba for example, a law was passed in 1916 that made English the only official language of instruction. By imposing English in this way, it was hoped that these cultural communities would integrate more easily with English-Canadian society.

Joseph Leblanc, who had lived in Beaumont, Alberta, put it this way: “So, over by Beaumont, which had the area roughly of a township, there was almost an entirely French Catholic population, while the township to the south had English Protestants from Clearwater. The townships to the north and west near Clearwater had Germans, and to the east were Looma lands for the Russians and Poles.” (Source: Beaumont : histoire de Beaumont et district, 1885-1960)

Author: Service national du Récit de l’univers social

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