Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1982, pp. 94-105.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


To journey through parts of the western interior of Canada at the turn of the century was to experience the cultural landscapes of the peasant heartland of Europe. Nowhere was this more true than on the northerly fringes of the parkland belt and across the. southern reaches of the boreal forest pioneered by Ukrainian immigrants from the Austrian provinces of Galicia and Bukovyna.

Between 1892, when the fIrst small group of seven Ukrainian families settled in Alberta, and 1914, when the outbreak of war in Europe terminated immigration from Austria-Hungary, more than 120,000 Ukrainians settled in Canada.1 Almost all of these people were of peasant stock and most sought land on the agricultural frontiers of the West. Driven by a resolve to secure the wide resource base essential for subsistence agriculture, they avoided the open prairies and gravitated to the unsettled lands on the northern reaches of the parkland belt where wood, water, and meadowland were available in abundance. Their uniformity in appraising the resources of the land and their strong desire to settle close to compatriots, friends, and kinfolk led to the formation of a series of large ethnically homogenous block settlements that eventually spanned the West from southeastern Manitoba to central Alberta (Fig. 1).


Since the great majority of Ukrainian immigrants lacked the capital to purchase improved lands in settled areas, of necessity they sought out the "free" homestead lands on the edge of settlement. There they faced a wilderness of unbroken land and uncleared bush. To the European mind, accustomed to the manicured order and serenity of the long-established landscapes of the Old World, the Canadian frontier seemed wild and untrammeled. But it was a bounded and ordered wilderness; dominion surveyors had slashed section lines through it with geometric precision, dividing the land into townships of thirty-six square miles, each subdivided into mile-square sections, which in turn were quartered into the 160-acre units deemed to be the efficient size for agriculture in the new territory.

Few settlers of any nationality ventured beyond the limits of the survey. Squatting, the illegal occupation of land ahead of the survey and not yet opened to settlement, was not a common practice. The Canadian West knew no equivalent of the claim clubs of the American West. Although the survey had made accommodation for those established in the territory prior to its acquisition by Canada in 1870 (for example, the long lot surveys granted to the Metis), the government was determined to impose an efficient, regular, and uniform system of land subdivision across the western interior. For a settler to move ahead of the survey was risky. He stood to lose everything if his improvements were found to lie on a road allowance or on lands later selected by a railway company as part ofland grant.

The venturesome but not foolhardy peasant immigrants stayed within the bounds of the institutional framework marked by the lines of the survey. The basic infrastructure of settlement- the layout of roads, spacing of farm units, and spacing and placement of settlements- was preordained for them. The patterns enshrined in administrative ordinances, even if not yet manifested on the ground, reflected the interests of the corporate and governmental elite of English Canada. The immigrant was forced to accommodate to this institutional framework which bound his actions, determined the spatial layout of his landscape, and molded his society in the new land. The Dominion Lands Act required that any settler claiming homestead land had to reside upon his quarter section for at least six months per year for three years before a patent was obtained. The act thus precluded nucleated settlement in . newly settled areas and made einzelhof, or dispersed settlement, the norm throughout the western interior.