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Migration

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Swedes/Christopher S. Hale

A few Swedish settlers from the colony of New Sweden (1638–55) on the banks of the Delaware River may have at some point entered what is now Canada, but the earliest known Swedes to have come to this country were three men who were among the settlers sent to the Red River valley by Lord Selkirk in the 1810s. Michael Hedén, a blacksmith, arrived in 1812 with the second Selkirk expedition, and a Lieutenant Holte, formerly an officer in the Swedish navy, with the fourth party in 1815. The third settler was Jacob Fahlström. These men may have served in the British army during the Napoleonic Wars and become associated with Selkirk’s colonization enterprise in that way. Both Holte and Hedén fought at the Seven Oaks massacre in 1819. Holte was killed there, Fahlström left soon after, and Hedén departed either at that time or after the Red River flood of 1826. In the mid-nineteenth century a Swede by the name of C. Anderson is recorded as holding a position with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

As is the case with most Scandinavian groups, the history of Swedish immigration to Canada can be divided into three periods. The first spans the latter part of the nineteenth century up to the start of World War I. It was characterized by immigrants generally coming via the United States, although there were some who arrived directly from the home country. The second period extends from the end of World War I to the onset of the Great Depression at the beginning of the 1930s, when most Swedes entered Canada without first settling elsewhere. The third period, from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, also witnessed immigration directly from Sweden, but in considerably smaller numbers than in previous eras.

A number of problems arise in any attempt to survey the history of Swedes in Canada. To begin with, early records, especially from the first period of immigration, tend to lump them together with Norwegians and Danes and sometimes even with Icelanders and Finns. Though some Swedes settled in their own colonies or were concentrated in certain areas, they often lived in communities where there were large numbers of Norwegians as well. Thus, differentiating Swedes from other Scandinavians is often difficult. Secondly, many of the Swedes who immigrated to Canada came from the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland. They are generally included in statistics describing immigrants from Finland, although in Sweden’s surveys of language and culture they are grouped with the Swedes. In addition, there have been Swedish settlements in the Baltic countries and even one in Ukraine; many of these people moved to Sweden and later to Canada during this century. Like their cousins from the other Scandinavian countries, Swedes intermarried with other ethnic groups and readily assimilated with the general Canadian population, so that few beyond the second generation have maintained their language and ethnic traditions.

The reign of Carl XIV Johan (1818–44) marked the beginning of what the Swedish poet and bishop Esias Tegnér called a period of “peace, vaccine, and potatoes,” in reference to the main causes of an explosion in the population. Between 1814 and 1910 the number of people in Sweden increased from nearly two and a half million to approximately five and a half million. This rapid growth put a strain on the rural economy, and many people moved to the cities and the newly developing industries. If they were not able to survive in the urban centres, they frequently left Sweden altogether. Another cause of emigration, at least in the early period, was persecution of religious sects that did not belong to the state Lutheran Church. In addition, dissatisfaction with working conditions, culminating in the general strike of 1909, together with a desire to escape military conscription in the latter years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, have been suggested as reasons for Swedes to emigrate. Propaganda from North American steamship lines and later the railways also contributed to the outflow.

It was not until after 1850 that large numbers began leaving the homeland. Though their destinations included South America and other parts of the world, the vast majority went to the United States, where the peak year for the entry of Swedish immigrants was 1887. At this time, there were probably relatively few Swedes in Canada. While people from every area of Sweden emigrated, up to World War I the largest numbers came from the south-central part, including Värmlandslän, Älvsborgslän, Kalmarslän, Jönköpingslän, and Östergötlandslän. Significant for the pattern of Swedish immigration to Canada is the fact that between 1890 and 1910 relatively large numbers left from Stockholm and between 1901 and 1910 from northern Sweden. In addition to farming, many immigrants had technical training, and others, especially from the central Swedish district of Bergslagen, had mining experience. The farmers themselves, who often lived far from urban centres, had to make their own tools and clear their land of forest, and these skills would be especially useful in North America.

There was little promotion of immigration to Canada before the passage of the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, which opened up much of the west, especially on the prairies, for homesteading. The country first became involved in Swedish immigration the following year, when William McDougall, one of the fathers of Confederation, was appointed commissioner of immigration for the Canadian government in Europe. During the first months of his employment he was based in Copenhagen, but from the fall of 1873 to the spring of 1874 he lived in London. Soon after McDougall left Copenhagen, the Canadian government was able to procure the services of Hans Mattson, a Swedish-born American who had been a promoter of immigration to Minnesota. He operated first out of his home town of Kristianstad and later from Gothenburg.

McDougall wanted to emphasize that Canada, unlike the United States, officially supported efforts to promote Swedish immigration. He contacted K. Möllersvärd, an agent of the Canadian-owned Allan Line, and promised to pay him $2 for each emigrant whom Möllersvä rd was able to bring to Canada; Mattson continued this arrangement. In an attempt to undercut U.S. immigration promotion, an agreement was reached with the Allan Line and several other steamship companies to reduce the transatlantic fare and to offer free railway transportation to any Canadian destination east of Manitoba. Möllersvärd was the editor of an immigration newspaper in Sweden called Nya Verlden (The New World, Göteborg, 1873–74) and McDougall persuaded him to promote settlement in Canada in its pages. These early attempts to attract Swedish immigrants to Canada were largely unsuccessful, and only a handful of people chose to come to this country as a result. The United States was much better known in the homeland and also had its own established Swedish colonies. Thus it was far more likely to attract settlers than Canada.

It was not until after 1880 that significant numbers of Swedes immigrated to Canada. The government made a new attempt to secure settlers from Scandinavia in 1882, when its agent, John Dyke, went there to try to bolster Canada’s position in the immigration market. He offered American shipping lines a commission for each immigrant whom they arranged to send to Winnipeg, and he later distributed pamphlets about the country. Two Canadian Swedes were also involved in the promotion of immigration during the last two decades of the century. Emanuel Öhlén of Winnipeg was the principal founder of the Scandinavian National Union, whose goal was to assist Scandinavian settlements. C.O. Swanson of Waterville, Quebec, in 1891 was appointed immigration agent for New England and Sweden, and later he became a special Canadian agent for the entire United States with an office in St Paul, Minnesota.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, good homesteading land was becoming scarce in the United States, and those who wished either to start farming or to obtain better land began to look northward to Canada. The completion of the transcontinental railway in 1885 gave immigration an additional boost. Since the railways owned much of the land in the Canadian west, they wanted an influx of settlers to develop the prairies and create markets for the transportation of people and grain. They therefore began to encourage immigration as well. In addition, a rise in the price of wheat had an important impact. By 1890 there were sufficient numbers of Swedes in Canada to attract their compatriots in both the United States and Sweden, furnishing an appeal that the country had lacked earlier. Swedes now began to arrive in Canada in relatively large numbers.

Providing figures for the number of Swedes who immigrated to Canada before 1914 is nearly impossible, since most of those who arrived from the United States are listed as originating in that country. Also, those who came directly from Sweden frequently moved to the United States after only a short stay in Canada. It may be estimated, however, that approximately 40,000 people of Swedish origin entered the Canadian prairie provinces between 1893 and 1914.

In spite of its neutral position during World War I, Sweden experienced some economic difficulty in the immediate post-war period. As a result, emigration to North America resumed, but much of it was still directed to the United States. The Canadian railways, in particular the Canadian Pacific, successfully stepped up their campaigns to persuade people to settle on the prairies, and northern Europeans such as the Swedes were considered highly desirable because of their reputation for hard work and the belief that they would assimilate easily with the general population.

Over 11,000 individuals immigrated directly to Canada from Sweden between the years 1921 and 1930. According to the 1931 census, there were 34,415 people born in Sweden living in Canada and 81,306 who were of Swedish descent. During the 1930s the country all but closed its borders to further immigration, and a few Swedes returned home. After World War II the pace of Swedish immigration to Canada slowed down, in all likelihood because the social-welfare system in Sweden was highly developed. Also, the economic situation during the post-World War II years was relatively better than in the other Scandinavian countries, since Sweden had remained neutral during the war. Nevertheless, roughly 7,000 Swedes immigrated to Canada between 1944 and 1960.

The 1991 census reports 43,350 people who gave Swedish as their only ethnic background and 193,310 who described themselves as being of partially Swedish origin, for a total of 236,660. Of these, 7,800 are cited as having arrived directly from Sweden, and 12,840 declared Swedish as at least one of their mother tongues. Slightly over 2,000 claimed to use the language at home. British Columbia had the highest concentration of Swedes (both single and multiple responses) with 77,805, followed by Alberta with 60,335, and Ontario with 44,650. The smallest population was in the Northwest Territories with 80.