Why Local Stories Matter Transcript

I’m a Saskatchewan historian.

And I’ve been travelling throughout rural Saskatchewan for more than three decades, speaking to all kinds of groups in all kinds of venues in all kinds of weather. And I want to reflect upon my experiences on the road, and more importantly, give you an example of the kind of talk I deliver.

Some people immediately assume that being a Saskatchewan historian is probably a ho-hum profession. In fact, some of you might even feel sorry for me.

And that’s because the popular image of Saskatchewan is that it’s a boring place, like a pair of old comfortable slippers. A land of wheat farms, elevators, and grid roads, where nothing important ever happens and anybody with talent or ambition leaves to make their mark elsewhere.

We’re frozen in time–how else do you explain that we’re the only province that never changes its clocks?

We’re also the only province with completely artificial boundaries–an upright rectangle. In fact, it’s often said, that our unofficial motto should be: Saskatchewan, easy to draw, hard to spell.

And we’re the only province whose capital, Regina, is not on a major body of water. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the popular misconception that Saskatchewan is flat, completely bereft of any defining feature.

So, it would appear then, at least to the uninformed, that there is little here of any value or significance.

But here’s my Saskatchewan.

I suggest to you, then, that like the popular mental images of this place, that we really don’t know Saskatchewan history and what it has to offer. Saskatchewan has a rich and vibrant history.

Saskatchewan history also provides us with the means and tools to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow by giving us some much-needed perspective on the past and why things happened a particular way. History has great explanatory powers.

Finally, Saskatchewan history is a story with broad implications, not only for the province, but for the country as a whole, perhaps even the world.

So, my message to my audience is that history is not something that happens some place else, and that Saskatchewan history is actually quite old.

This is the Roy Rivers medicine wheel in southwestern Saskatchewan near the Red Deer River.

Many of the communities where I speak were settled by immigrants over 125 to 100 years ago.

Indeed, a century ago, Saskatchewan had the highest number of foreign-born inhabitants in Canada and I often draw on this community history and its ethnic beginnings to provide some perspective on today’s immigration experience. To get people thinking about their family past and what can be learned from it.

Indeed, the current debate over refugees and immigration is not really new. Today, Canada has the highest foreign-born population since 1921 and as I said, this is nothing new for Saskatchewan. The province grappled with this very question in the early 20th century.

So, let’s start with this guy. “Diversity is Canada’s strength.” Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has said those words on many occasions.

They are often considered one of the defining characteristics of Canada. In the particular case of Saskatchewan, diversity has made the province and its history distinct from the rest of Canada.

But the fact that the Canadian prime minister would even make such a declaration–given our history--is nothing short of remarkable. The phrase, “Diversity is Canada’s Strength,” would never have been uttered a century ago, never have been associated with Saskatchewan. And that’s because multiculturalism was never part of the original blueprint for Saskatchewan.

If anything, multiculturalism was actively resisted in the first half of the twentieth century and only embraced in the last few decades. Quite simply, we’ve come a long way. But we still have a long way to go.

So, what happened? In the late 19th century, Canada advertised itself as the home of the “last best west.” Hundreds of thousands of immigrants were actively encouraged to come to western Canada and turn pioneer homesteads into commercial farms.

The response was overwhelming, especially since Canada advertised in Great Britain, the United States and in continental Europe and so-called non-traditional sources of immigrants, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which included Ukraine at the time.

People came for the promise of better lives and greater opportunity. They came to escape persecution and oppression. They sought to leave behind discrimination and racism. And they wanted to avoid military service and seek out peace.

So many immigrants were pouring into western Canada in the early twentieth century that Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier ordered a special census of the three prairie provinces in 1906. The statistics told a remarkable tale of growth.

Saskatchewan was the fastest growing province in Canada. Saskatoon, my home community, went from a sleepy hamlet of 113 in 1901 to 12,000 in 1911.

Even then, the business leaders of the community disputed those figures and conducted their own census to come up 16,000 people. They counted people passing through on trains, people staying at hotels, and of course pregnant women as two.

Saskatchewan boomed by leaps and bounds. And these new immigrants effectively swamped the First Nations population. First Nations became a minority. They were not regarded as part of Saskatchewan’s future and were expected to disappear and quietly fade away.

That’s certainly what Canadian officials had in mind for the Métis population. Starting with the 1906 special western census, the government discontinued the category. It was as if Métis people had no place in Canada of the early twentieth century and were not even worth counting.

Both First Nations and Metis peoples had been important players in Saskatchewan’s past and yet the builders of the province  wanted nothing to do with this past. It became “a world we have lost.”

As an aside here, sometimes when I go into these rural communities, they like to think that history started with the homesteaders and I try to disabuse them of that idea by giving a talk on Saskatchewan's Indigenous history and how we are all Treaty people.

Even with all these new immigrants coming to Saskatchewan, it's a mistake to assume that the settlement of Saskatchewan during these years was a deliberate attempt to create a multicultural province.

Saskatchewan did not want immigrants of colour, we've already heard that with the Shiloh community project today. It did whatever it could to limit their presence in the province and limit their interaction with the dominant Anglo-Canadian society.

The Saskatchewan government also expected immigrants from continental Europe to accept and embrace the ways and traditions of their new country. They were expected to leave their cultural identity behind at the border, like unwanted baggage, and readily integrate into the dominant Anglo-Canadian way of life. Settlement and assimilation went hand in hand.

Even then, non-Anglo-Canadians immigrants were never really welcome. They may have made good farmers--been able to turn the prairie wilderness into productive farms--but would they make good citizens with their unpronounceable last names, their pauper-like appearance, their strange customs, their different religious outlooks, and, worst of all, cooking with garlic!

One newspaper likened their immigration, I quote, and I'm talking about my own ancestors here, to a “grand ‘round-up’ of European freaks and hoboes.” Nor did it matter that the number of European settlers was dwarfed by those from Great Britain and the United States.

The mere presence of these “foreigners”–and that's what they were called at the best of times--threatened to weaken, perhaps even ruin, the Anglo-Canadian fabric of Saskatchewan.

The growing ethnic diversity of prairie society was totally at odds with the Anglo-Canadian ideal for the prairie west. Some even went so far as to suggest that Saskatchewan’s spectacular settlement story  jeopardized its Britishness.

Saskatchewan premier J.T.M. Anderson portrayed the "foreign element" as "the greatest threat to Canada’s future well being." That's a Saskatchewan premier.

What about an Anglican bishop? He maintained that the country was in danger of becoming a “mongrel nation.” “The real question at stake is not whether these people can grow potatoes, but whether you would like your daughter or granddaughter to marry them?”

The issue was even debated at the University of Saskatchewan.

This is pre-Trump border wall by-the-way.

E.H. Oliver, the first professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, said of continental Europeans and their place in Saskatchewan society. And I quote, “We need the artist, the poet, the thinker, the musician, and composer quite as much as the sewer-digger and the track-layer.” He concluded, “It is high time we encouraged these people to bring their best to us. Some of them possess rare genius.”

What Oliver did not appreciate was that there were poets, thinkers, and musicians amongst these peoples who decided to make the province their new home, but they faced outright prejudice and discrimination.

This concern about the cultural makeup of the province dominated Saskatchewan political life during the first third of the twentieth century. By the 1920s, many residents of British origin had come to regard the persistence of ethnic identities as a blight on the province’s future and actively pushed for cultural uniformity.

Some had even come to question whether the integration of continental European immigrants into the larger society was desirable, let alone possible, and called for an end to the kind of immigration that had made the province the third most populous province in Canada in the 1920s with the most ethnically diverse population.

In fact, there was an angry atmosphere in Saskachewan at the time. People were upset that their province was being hijacked. Diversity, to go back to my opening remarks then, was not seen as Saskatchewan’s strength. Rather, diversity would cause Saskatchewan’s downfall.

This is where I take a break here. Yes, ladies and gentleman, that is a pipe-smoking dog. I don't know whether that's wine or a pint of beer.

So, what changed? What happened? The Great Depression of the 1930s was the great leveler. Everyone suffered.

And then after the Second World War, unlike half a century earlier when settlers headed to the prairies, few of the new immigrants chose to make Saskatchewan their home, heading instead to the country’s larger cities, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

This negligible immigration rate, when combined with out-migration from the province beginning in the mid-1930s, changed the demographic character of Saskatchewan. The percentage of the population born within the province’s boundaries steadily increased, giving Saskatchewan a strong local identity and a distinctly regional outlook.

In the post-war period, immigrant children and their children were now widely accepted as part of the provincial society.

In other words, whereas continental European immigrants were once seen as a blight on Saskatchewan, they were an essential part of the province’s future by the middle of the twentieth century.

This acceptance of multiculturalism was confirmed in 1986, when Saskatchewan formally adopted the provincial motto: “From many peoples, strength."

And there’s the irony. Multiculturalism--and with it, the acceptance and accommodation of diversity–was never championed in Saskatchewan in the first part of the twentieth century even though it is widely regarded today as part of the region’s historical identity.

In retrospect, then, “From Many Peoples, Strength” is not simply a provincial motto for Saskatchewan today. It seems a particularly fitting description of the province. It also represents the distance that the province has come in embracing non-British immigrants as part of its identity, as part of its distinctiveness.

After all, Saskatchewan was home to Ray Hnatyshyn, a Ukrainian kid from Saskatoon, who was the first non-francophone/non-anglophone governor general.

And Sylvia Fedoruk, the first female lieutenant governor. The first female chancellor at the University of Saskatchewan.

This would have been unthinkable.

And I want to repeat that. This would have been unthinkable in the early 20th century.

The curious thing about this experience, I tell my Saskatchewan community audiences, is that it has been largely ignored in the rest of the country.

Other parts of the country today are coming toterms with large, ethnically diverse immigrant populations. But no one, or very few, bring up the Saskatchewan experience as an example, if only to provide some perspective on the question.

There is still some distance to go though.

What about the role and place of the growing Indigenous population? As of 2001, Indigenous people–First Nations and Métis–made up almost one in eight of Saskatchewan residents. By the middle of this century, they are projected to account for one in three people in Saskatchewan.

So, unlike the original blueprint for Saskatchewan in 1905, First Nations and Metis people simply did not disappear. It could even be argued that they are an integral part of Saskatchewan’s future and its communities’ well-being; they are our future.

But there is cause for concern. For example, their low graduation rate from high school to their overrepresentation in the corrections system to their underemployment in the provincial economy.

Then, there are the tensions and mistrust–often unspoken--between the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous population.

Recent newcomers, meanwhile, struggle to find a meaningful place in provincial society. In a recent national survey, between 35 and 40% of Canadians think there are too many immigrants coming to the country.

Indeed, what's said today about refugees, especially Muslims, has parallels with Saskatchewan’s past. "They worship differently." Didn't I say that about the early 20th century? "They have different cultural traditions." "They have too many children." "They can’t be trusted." "Their allegiance lies elsewhere."

I could go on, but the point is that the same criticisms that once were leveled against continental Europeans a century ago are now being leveled against new immigrants today.

And these new immigrants are not any different from immigrants a century ago. They have come to Saskatchewan for a better life, if not for themselves, then for their children and their children’s children.

So look at them. Tell me what's the difference.

We need to draw on Saskatchewan history, we need to learn from the past, and not repeat the nastiness of the early 20th century.

And if you don't like that team, what about that one?

The road to the future for Saskatchewan is going to be bumpy. Solutions will be found–it is just that there are no easy answers.

What we need to do in Saskatchewan though, and other parts of the country, is take inspiration from something that was said on September 22, 1992, when 700 invited guests and dignitaries gathered at the new Wanuskewin Heritage Park just north of Saskatoon to witness the signing of the Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) agreement that day.

In his remarks, Premier Roy Romanow, look, another Ukrainian, premier.

In his remarks that day, Premier Roy Romanow used the occasion to remind the audience that Saskatchewan had to embrace its Indigenous people and different immigrant groups or the province’s future would be compromised, if not lost.

This is what Romanow said in 1992, “We have great reason to be proud–great reason to celebrate. We’re acknowledging our shared destiny.”

In the search for solutions, I tell my community audiences, we need to constantly remind ourselves--embrace--what former Premier Romanow called our “shared destiny.”

Our “shared destiny.” Those words cannot be uttered enough these days.