Saturday, January 21, 2012

Prairie Nativists vs. "Galicians", 1899

Canadians often identify themselves in a negative sense as being not American.  One note often trumpeted to emphasize the difference is Canada's tolerant, multicultural society.  A close look at the reaction to immigrants in the late nineteenth century reveals, however, that "orientals", Doukhobors, and Ukrainians were the targets of vehement nativist racism. 

D.J. Hall's biography of Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, describes anglo-saxon protestant  resistance to increasing numbers of Ukrainian immigrants.  In 1899, Winnipegers were dismayed that while less than 6000 British and Americans passed through the city 6,914 Ukrainians (or "Galicians" as they were called) and 7,400 Doukhobors were counted.  Hall notes that Sifton's national dream involved peopling the west with hardy farmers, and that racism on the prairies, especially towards "Galicians", would prove to be an obstacle. (Hall, Clifford Sifton: The Young Napoleon, 1861-1900, 1981, p.262-4)

Hall notes a particularly "bitter hatred" towards the Galicians, who came with little more than the clothes on their backs.  The general sentiment was that they were "illiterate peasants, Catholics (it hardly mattered that few were Roman Catholics), drinkers, diseased, wife-beaters, criminally inclined, with no sense of democratic institutions." (Hall, 264)  One Brandon newspaper derided "Hon. Mr Sifton's grand 'round up' of European freaks and hoboes."  The press variably called the Ukrainians "a menagerie" and "ignorant and vicious foreign scum".  So much for the cultural mosaic!
Letters from Nebraska

Racist sentiment was not restricted to the prairie region.  In 1898 a group of Galicians was held in quarantine in Halifax in the wind and rain, forced to stand in mud from 4 to 18 inches deep.  As Hall wrote of the horrid conditions, "they were bathed and disinfected in batches of one hundred in water ditches along the railway track while their clothes were disinfected in steam chests." (Hall, 265) Such harsh treatment of central European immigrants should serve to qualify Canadian self-identification as anti-racist.

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