Racism against immigrants is nothing new in Saskatchewan, it just looks a little different

Multiculturalism was never part of the original blueprint for Saskatchewan.

Immigrants from continental Europe were once the target of discrimination

The Tronczak family arrived in Saskatchewan from Poland as part of a massive influx of immigrants from continental Europe in the early 20th century. At the time, those immigrants faced discrimination. (Canadian Press/National Archives of Canada)

One news organization called it a prank. It was anything but.

Two men — both members of visible minorities — had coffee thrown in their faces in separate incidents this past August in Regina.

First, a young man threw coffee at a student of South Asian descent who was taking a break from his job. Another person filmed the disgusting episode so it could go on social media.

Later that same day there was another assault, again with coffee, against an older black man outside a local store.

Community leaders immediately condemned the acts as racist, insisting that Regina, in the words of the mayor, was "a very open and a friendly city."

But there is a belief, largely unspoken, that people of colour, especially new immigrants, have no place in Saskatchewan society. To put it less elegantly, it's a matter of "them" not belonging "here."

Coffee thrown at man on street

2 years ago
Regina police have charged a 14-year-old with two counts of assault with a weapon after he allegedly doused two strangers in coffee this summer. One of the incidents was posted to social media. 0:18

This attitude has echoes in the province's past. Indeed, the phrase, "Diversity is Canada's Strength," would never have been uttered a century ago in this province.

Multiculturalism was never part of the original blueprint for Saskatchewan.

If anything, multiculturalism was actively resisted in the late 19th century and the first third of the 20th. It was only embraced in the last few decades.

Saskatchewan has come a long way.

New land, new opportunities

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.

Canada advertised in continental Europe and so-called non-traditional sources of immigrants, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which included Ukraine at the time). 

This 1890 poster was one of many used to lure new immigrants to the Candian Prairies. (Library and Archives Canada)

The response was overwhelming. 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.

They wanted to avoid compulsory military service and seek out peace.

So many immigrants were pouring into Western Canada in the early twentieth century that the federal government stepped outside the normal census cycle and sponsored a special census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1906.

Settlement and assimilation

Even with all these new immigrants coming to Saskatchewan, the settlement of the province was not some deliberate attempt to create a multicultural province.

Saskatchewan did not want immigrants of colour and 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 to leave their cultural identity behind at the border, like unwanted baggage, and rapidly 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, but would they make good citizens with their unpronounceable last names, pauper-like appearance, strange customs and different religious beliefs? It didn't matter that the number of European settlers was dwarfed by those from Great Britain and the United States.

A Ukrainian Wedding from 1917 in Saskatchewan. (Library and Archives Canada)

Central Europeans at the time were popularly associated with poverty, crime, ignorance and immorality. One newspaper likened their immigration to a "grand 'round-up' of European freaks and hoboes."

Some suggested that the mere presence of these "foreigners" — as they were called at the best of times — threatened to weaken, perhaps even ruin, the Anglo-Canadian fabric of the province.

Others questioned whether the integration of continental European immigrants into the larger society was even possible, let alone desirable.

'Foreign element'

By the 1920s, public debate centred around the growing ethnic diversity of Saskatchewan society and the need to end the kind of immigration that made Saskatchewan the third most populous province in Canada.

Future Saskatchewan premier J.T.M. Anderson portrayed the "foreign element" as the greatest threat to the province's future well-being.

George Exton Lloyd, the Anglican bishop for Saskatchewan, maintained that the country was in danger of becoming a "mongrel nation."

"The real question at stake," Lloyd declared almost 100 years ago, "is not whether these people can grow potatoes, but whether you would like your daughter to marry them."

If we're going to build a better Saskatchewan and a better tomorrow, we need to do it together.- Bill Waiser

The issue was even debated by academics.

E.H. Oliver, the first historian appointed at the University of Saskatchewan, reviewed the contribution of continental Europeans to Saskatchewan society in a paper read before the Royal Society of Canada in May 1926.

"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 and other commentators did not appreciate was that there were poets, thinkers, and musicians among the people who decided to make the province their home, but they faced outright prejudice and limited opportunity.

Diversity was not seen as Saskatchewan's strength, but as a force that would cause Saskatchewan's downfall.

Three generations of Croatian settlers, Kenaston, Saskatchewan. c 1910. (Fred Taylor/Library and Archives Canada)

Acceptance fostered by shared hardship

So what changed?

The Great Depression of the 1930s was the great leveller.

Everyone suffered.

Then, after the Second World War, few of the new immigrants chose to make Saskatchewan their home. Most headed instead to the country's largest cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

This negligible immigration rate, 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 world, immigrant children and their children were widely accepted as part of Saskatchewan society.

Hounjet, Gesiorowski, and Pezer were just as much Saskatchewan names as Caswell or Sutherland. Whereas continental Europeans 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 September 1986, when Saskatchewan formally adopted the provincial motto: "Multis e gentibus vires" ("from many peoples, strength" or "out of many peoples, strength"). 

There's the irony.

In retrospect, "From Many Peoples, Strength" is not simply a provincial motto for Saskatchewan today. It also represents the distance the province has come in embracing non-British immigrants as part of its identity.

Saskatchewan was home to Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn and Sylvia Fedoruk, chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan and lieutenant governor. That these Canadians of Ukrainian descent would serve in these capacities would have been unthinkable at the start of the twentieth century.

A better tomorrow, together

There is still some distance to go.

What is said today about immigrants, especially refugees, has parallels with Saskatchewan's past.

They are criticized for dressing differently, for worshipping differently, for having strange cultural traditions, for having too many children, for owing their allegiances elsewhere, and on and on.

These are some of the same complaints that were once levelled against continental Europeans.

Today's 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.

I've learned this serving as the presiding official at Canadian citizenship ceremonies. It's such a momentous event.

Presiding Official Bill Waiser (Centre) administers the oath of citizenship at centre ice before the start of a Saskatoon Blades hockey game. He is flanked by retired RCMP officer Murray Milne (left) and Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark. (Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades)

The immigrants, accompanied by their extended family, friends and sponsors, often arrive in their best clothes for the ceremony. Some even take the oath of citizenship in their country of origin's traditional dress.

They smile happily, waving Canadian flags and displaying their citizenship certificates as they are photographed alongside the attending Mountie in his red serge dress uniform.

I come away from the ceremony proud to be a Canadian and proud that Canada has been so welcoming to these people.

I also know that the road to citizenship has not been easy.

Candidates have to pass a citizenship knowledge test, demonstrate proficiency in French or English and live in Canada for three of the past five years.

Then there's the adjustment to a new culture and, for many, the –30 C temperatures in the winter.

I wish those who speak out against allowing non-white and non-Christian peoples into the country could attend one of these ceremonies and learn why these new citizens have worked so hard to make Canada their new home.

I wish they could speak to sponsors who have helped immigrants make the transition to life in Canada.

If we're going to build a better Saskatchewan and a better tomorrow, we need to do it together.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Historian Bill Waiser is author of "In Search of Almighty Voice: Resistance and Reconciliation" (2020).