Settlement and Economic Life

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

The first rural, primarily Swedish colony to be established in Canada was Scandinavia (originally called New Sweden), located on the eastern side of Otter Lake near the present-day town of Erickson, Manitoba. It was founded under the auspices of the Scandinavian Colonization Society of Manitoba in 1885 when three Scandinavians established homesteads in the area. An immigration house was erected near the lake to house the first settlers, but it burned down shortly thereafter.

The settlement did not develop as rapidly as planned, in large part because of its location in dense woodland with poor soil and without roads or a railway in the area. Nevertheless, by 1889 there were almost a hundred people in Scandinavia on fifty-three homesteads. A promoter of the colony, James Hemmingson, set up the first sawmill in the late 1880s, which provided employment for those newly arrived. Though there were people from other Scandinavian countries, the Swedes were in the majority. When the railway arrived in 1905, the town of Erickson was founded, and many people moved closer to the rail line. The town was named for Albert Erickson, one of the first settlers, who ran a post office in his home. He had wanted to call the place Avesta after his home region in Sweden, but the railway refused his request because there was already a town called Vista on the line, northwest of Erickson.

After 1900 another Swedish community was established just south of Minnedosa, Manitoba. A Swedish-American real estate agent from Minneapolis, Victor Wallin, bought up parcels of land here and persuaded other Swedes to do the same. The settlement was called Smoland after Småland in Sweden, the home province of most of the settlers. In the first decade of the twentieth century Swedes began moving into an area southwest of Norris Lake between the towns of Teulon and Inwood in Manitoba’s Interlake district. Most of them came directly from Sweden, in particular from the districts of Jämtland and Medelpad. They chose Norris Lake because at the time the railway ended at Teulon. In addition to farming, many were able to make use of their trade skills around the countryside and in Winnipeg to earn extra money.

A second Swedish settlement in Interlake district was Eriksdale, approximately 80 kilometres northwest of Inwood. The area was opened up to homesteading in 1905, and the first European settler was probably the Swede Jonas Erik Erikson, who applied for a homestead the following year. From that time until World War I a number of Swedes, many of them from Jämtland, moved into the area, though British settlers were more numerous. Much of the land around Eriksdale is poor and not really suitable for growing grain. As a result, animal husbandry and dairying became the principal types of farming. To supplement their income, men and boys engaged in ice fishing on Lake Winnipeg and in trapping and logging.

From 1903 until about 1912 Swedes also settled in Alpine, some 15 kilometres south of Benito, Manitoba, in the Swan River valley. They were encouraged to come to this area by the Swedish Canadian Colonization Company, whose president was Victor Wallin, the same individual who had been responsible for the establishment of the Smoland colony near Minnedosa. By 1913 there were some thirty-eight families in the area. The land in Alpine is hilly and covered with bush, and so, in addition to mixed farming, the settlers made their living cutting lumber. The district retained its Swedish character into the mid-1950s. Another Manitoba area settled by Swedes lay around Lac du Bonnet in the eastern part of the province. Together with Norwegians, they arrived after 1905, attracted by the timber industry. They were also frequently employed in the building and operation of the hydroelectric system in the area. The Swedes lived primarily in a couple of settlements east of the Winnipeg River.

One of the more interesting migrations of Swedes to Manitoba originated from Gammalsvenskby, a village on the Dnieper River in Ukraine, just north of the Black Sea. These people had originally lived on an island off the coast of Estonia, but they had been granted land in the southern region (Ukraine) of the Russian Empire acquired by Russian empress Catherine II. After a difficult journey during which half of them died, they reached their new home in 1782. In southern Ukraine, they were surrounded primarily by German settlers, but they managed to keep their Swedish customs and archaic Swedish dialect. The years after the Russian Revolution of 1917 when a new Communist regime was established were particularly arduous, and their desire to return to Sweden intensified. Finally, supporters of their cause in Sweden managed to get permission for them leave what was then the Soviet Union, and in 1929 some nine hundred persons made the long journey to the homeland.

A large number of Swedes from Ukraine settled on the Baltic island of Gotland, but adjusting to modern Swedish life proved difficult for many of them. Already at the turn of the century a few people from Gammalsvenskby had managed to immigrate to Canada, and by the 1930s they formed 20 percent of the Swedish population in Alberta. In the years 1930–32, ninety-seven people originally from Gammalsvenskby left Sweden for Canada. They were not able to live together in one village as they had desired, but in 1931 nine families collectively purchased a 1,500-hectare farm southwest of the Manitoba town of Meadows and 55 kilometres west of Winnipeg that had belonged to a British nobleman. Most built their houses together on a site called Camp One in the middle of the fields. Because they lived communally during the Depression, they were able to survive and pay off the mortgage on their land in 1953. Three lots in Camp One were still owned by Gammalsvenskby settlers or their descendants in the late 1990s.

At the beginning of the 1930s the province with the largest number of Swedes was Saskatchewan. According to the 1931 census there were 22,458 people of Swedish descent living in that province, or nearly 28 percent of the total in Canada. The oldest Swedish settlement is that of New Stockholm, now called simply Stockholm. It was a project of the newspaper editor and head of the Scandinavian National Union in Winnipeg, Emanuel Öhlén. In 1885 he and a colleague scouted out land north of the Qu’Appelle River. The area reminded them of Sweden since it was hilly and wooded, and they felt that it would be ideal for a Swedish colony. In June 1886 the first group of some thirty settlers, most directly from Sweden, took the train from Winnipeg to Whitewood, about 30 kilometres south of their destination, and walked the rest of the way. Until Stockholm was founded in 1905, Whitewood was the main market for the colony, which was rather isolated. No road was built nor was there a bridge across the Qu’Appelle before 1892, and the railway did not arrive until 1903. Nevertheless, the settlement grew, attracting a number of newcomers from the United States. Mixed farming was the main source of livelihood, but some lumbering and fishing in the Qu’Appelle River were also developed. By the turn of the century Stockholm had become one of the largest and most important Swedish settlements on the prairies. At that time a neighbouring settlement called Freedhome was established several kilometres southeast of Dubuc. While it included Norwegians, the Swedes predominated. As well, Swedish farmers lived around Percival, some 12 kilometres east of Whitewood, the majority of whom had come from the Stockholm area in the 1890s. Most of the storekeepers in Whitewood were also Swedish.

In the northern part of the fertile area of Saskatchewan there are several Swedish settlements. One of these is situated about 25 kilometres north of Maidstone near the Alberta border. In 1906 three Swedes who had been living in the midwestern United States homesteaded at Dry Gully. Within a short time other Swedes followed, most of them arriving from the United States as well, in particular from Minnesota, and by 1914 the major part of the good land had been taken. A large number of the settlers had been born in northern Sweden, and the rolling and wooded district in which they homesteaded reminded them of their homeland. The colony, which was known as “Little Sweden” to outsiders, was about 16 kilometres square and comprised the districts of Dry Gully, Milleton, and Marie Hill. At its height it consisted of sixty-four families and bachelor households. Farming was the principal livelihood. Other Swedes immigrated to the area in the 1920s, but most of these returned to Sweden with the onset of the Depression.

The first decade of the twentieth century witnessed the arrival of a considerable number of Swedish immigrants to Saskatchewan’s Canwood area, including Parkside, 50 to 60 kilometres west and northwest of Prince Albert in an area approximately 120 kilometres in circumference. Though there were also Norwegians and Danes, the majority of settlers were Swedish, who probably numbered between five and six hundred in the 1920s. One of the heaviest concentrations was in the district of Valbrand some 11 kilometres northeast of Canwood. Most came from the Swedish provinces of Härjedalen and Hälsingland. In addition to farming, many plied their skills as tradesmen.

In the angle formed by highways 3 and 6, west and north of Melfort, Saskatchewan, and extending to the Carrot River, a number of Norwegians and Swedes homesteaded. The first ones arrived from Minnesota between 1900 and 1905. They were enticed to the area by a Minnesotan Norwegian, Christian Boe, who had been made a sort of Canadian government agent. The numbers of Swedes and Norwegians in the district as a whole were more or less equal, but Swedes tended to be most numerous in the Haggstrom district a few kilometres east of Kinistino and in the Bagley district west and northwest of Fairy Glen. Many were originally from Jämtland, Härjedalen, and Västerbotten.

From Wadena in Minnesota, Swedish settlers moved into the area northeast of Little Quill Lake and southeast of Melfort during the latter part of the first decade of the twentieth century, and together with Norwegians, they established the town of Wadena, Saskatchewan. Originally from various parts of Sweden, most were tradesmen and had no farming experience. The heaviest concentrations of Swedes were in the towns of Wadena itself and Paswegin, 13 kilometres to the northwest, and between Wadena and Hendon. In the region as a whole, the numbers of Swedes and Norwegians were approximately equal. South of Wadena is the town of Kelliher, where Swedes began arriving at the outset of the twentieth century to homestead. Some took up land north of Leross and around Jasmin, but most were concentrated in and around Kelliher itself. The earliest settlers came directly from Sweden; later some arrived from the United States. Other groups were represented in the area, including Norwegians, but Swedes were in the majority. Though farming was the main livelihood, many earned a living as carpenters and loggers.

The land agent Victor Wallin was responsible for the beginnings of Swedish settlement in the Hyas-Norquay area of Saskatchewan, east of Wadena and not far from the Manitoba border, which was originally called Wallinberg in his honour. Scandinavians started arriving from the United States during the first decade of the twentieth century, and most became farmers. There were both Swedes and Norwegians in the region, and in the early years the Swedes lived on the south side of the railway tracks, while the Norwegians lived on the north. Hyas was essentially Swedish.

In southwestern Saskatchewan, near the towns of Shaunavon and Scotsguard, Swedes first settled in the latter part of the first decade. They had originated in various parts of Sweden, but most had spent some time in the United States before immigrating to Canada. The population of the area was a mixture of Swedes and Norwegians, the Swedes concentrated to the north and east of Shaunavon. By 1910 most of the good arable land had been taken. In addition to farming, many of the men went to British Columbia to work in the mines or the lumber industry during the winter.

Two other places where Swedes settled in Saskatchewan were Buchanan and Kipling. Many of those who came to Buchanan in the first decade of the twentieth century were from Skelefteå, though they had lived in the United States. They had farms around the town except to the south and usually lived in areas also settled by Norwegians. Before World War I about a dozen Swedish families, some directly from Sweden, took up homesteads about 21 kilometres north of Kipling. It remained a small community, making its livelihood essentially from farming.

The largest concentration of Swedes in Canada during the first two periods of immigration was in Alberta south of Edmonton, in an area with Wetaskiwin as its centre. Here there were a number of settlements, most of which were established before World War I. To the west are the towns of Calmar, Thorsby, and Warburg. The first of these was founded by Carl J. Blomquist, who came to the area from Foreman, North Dakota, in 1894 to look for land. He named the place after his home town, Kalmar, in Sweden. The following year between thirty and forty families, many of them neighbours of Blomquist in North Dakota, arrived in Alberta and took up homesteads. A school was built in 1898, and a post office with the name Calmar was established a year later.

Just to the west of Calmar, the town of Thorsby was supposedly given its name around the turn of the century by Gustav Sahlstrom, who came from a place of the same name in Sweden. Although a few Swedes did settle there, the main concentration was in the Buford and Glen Park districts east of the town. Many of the newcomers in the first period came from Kulm, North Dakota. There were a few Norwegians and Danes, but most of the settlers were Swedish. Though farming predominated, some individuals were tradesmen, such as blacksmiths. In 1905 Oscar and Albin Benson from Varberg, Sweden, having spent a couple of years in the United States, came to what is now the Warburg district and took up homesteads. Other individuals from various parts of Sweden arrived in the next few years, but so did settlers of other nationalities, and there never was a predominantly Swedish colony in Alberta. Since the land was wooded, most made their living working in sawmills, rather than from farming.

There are two towns in Alberta with Swedish names near Pigeon Lake: Westerose on the south shore and Falun just to the southeast. The areas south and west of Westerose and south of Falun were settled by Swedes in the late 1890s and early 1900s, but the names were conferred late in the settlement period. Axel Norstrom was from Västerås, and an Anglicized version of the name of his home town was given to the post office in 1907. The Falun post office, established three years earlier, was named after the home town of several families in the area. In addition to working their homesteads, most of the Swedes made their livelihood by fishing in Pigeon Lake and working in the sawmills in the winter. Other nationalities were represented in the area, including Norwegians, but the Swedes were in the majority.

To the south and east of Wetaskiwin, Alberta, are the two Swedish farming communities of New Sweden and Malmo. Swedes began arriving in New Sweden, 11 kilometres southeast of Wetaskiwin, in the 1890s, both from the United States and directly from Sweden. The first to come to Malmo, 16 kilometres south of New Sweden, arrived in 1898, also from both the homeland and the United States. Many of the settlers were from Småland, but the district is probably named after the city in Skåne. Around the turn of the century, Swedes from Gammalsvenskby in Ukraine also settled in the Malmo area, followed by a second group who arrived in 1930. These two Alberta communities intermingled, even though the Swedes from Ukraine were Lutheran while Malmo’s earlier Swedish settlers belonged to the Mission Covenant Church. There was also a good deal of cooperation with the New Sweden settlement.

In the early years of the twentieth century a number of people from Västerbotten in northern Sweden settled 10 kilometres east of Hay Lakes, Alberta, where the rolling land covered with bush reminded them of home. The colony became known as Wilhelmina after the church, which in turn got its name from Vilhelmina, a town in Västerbotten, though only a few of the settlers actually came from there. Ten kilometres south of Wilhelmina was Fridhem, Alberta. Most of the Swedes in this settlement arrived from the United States, primarily in family groups. A third Swedish community in the area was located north of Lake Miquelon. In the 1920s and 1930s there were about 200 people in Wilhelmina and about 150 in the two other settlements. Swedes predominated in each place. Though farming was the principal means of livelihood, many were engaged in carpentry as well.

Swedes also settled around the eastern Alberta towns of Amisk, Hughenden, and Czar in the first decade of the twentieth century. They came from various areas in Sweden, especially Småland, either directly from the home country or via the United States. The heaviest concentration was directly north of Czar, where Swedes formed the majority of the population. Others lived south of Amisk and around Hughenden, but in these areas there was a mixture of ethnic groups – in the latter, primarily other Scandinavians.

In southern Alberta about halfway between Brooks and Taber is Scandia. It was first settled in 1918 by Swedes, originally from various parts of the homeland. Several families arrived from the United States at that time, attracted by Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) propaganda and the irrigation projects that the railway was carrying out in the area. Around three hundred Swedes lived in the settlement until World War II, though in the 1920s some left because they had been misled by the CPR about local conditions, such as the weather. Originally, most settlers carried on mixed farming, but in the 1930s sheep ranching became important. In the late 1990s there were about five families of Swedish descent living in the district.

There are concentrations of Swedes in other areas of Alberta. About 80 kilometres northwest of Edmonton is Cherhill, where a number of Swedes and Norwegians settled in the first decade of the twentieth century. Since the farms there were not very productive, many supplemented their income with logging or other kinds of work. To the south and east of Cherhill, near Magnolia, was a small Swedish community. The town of Alsike, west of Warburg, was founded by Swedes in 1908 and named after alsike clover, which was common in the area. The community of Edberg, west of Malmo, was founded and named by a Swede, John A. Edstrom, in 1898. The land here attracted Swedes, in the beginning primarily from the United States, since its hills, lakes, and bush resembled the homeland. Other Swedes, some of whom had originally immigrated to the United States and then moved back to Sweden, came to Meeting Creek around 1907–08. Ferintosh, just to the west of Edberg, also had a concentration of Swedes. The town of Valleyview in the southeastern corner of Alberta’s Peace River district was founded by Swedes in the late 1920s, and others settled north near Grimshaw from about 1914 and through the 1920s.

Swedish rural settlement in British Columbia and western Ontario was largely transient, consisting of immigrants engaged in railway-building and logging in both provinces and mining in British Columbia. In Ontario, Swedes lived and worked for a while around Temiskaming and Sudbury and in the Rainy River district near Lake of the Woods. In British Columbia they were found in the Peace River area, around Kootenay and Arrow Lakes, along the Columbia River, and in the vicinities of Prince George, Smithers, and Prince Rupert. Revelstoke at one time had a fairly sizable Swedish population, and Swedes founded the town of Campbell River and the village of Lund north of Powell River. They settled more permanently in the Fraser River valley, which included the small colony of Hilltop, north of Mission.

It is not easy to give an account of Swedish settlement in Canadian urban centres since the immigrants tended not to live in ethnic enclaves or specific areas. Because they adapted quite easily to the Canadian way of life, they assimilated quickly with the local population. Many who came were bachelors, and if they married, they frequently did so outside their ethnic group. In the Maritimes there are relatively few people of Swedish background in the main urban centres. The only city in Quebec with significant numbers of Swedes is Montreal, which was one of the main ports of disembarkation for immigrants arriving from Europe. Most newcomers continued westward by train, but some, including Swedes, stayed in the city. Census figures for 1991 put the number of individuals of Swedish background in Montreal at 3,010. There were very few in the francophone areas of the province.

Toronto has had an active community, where since World War II a considerable number of first-generation Swedes have settled. They have been quite active, forming organizations and church congregations. In 1991, 11,285 people in the Toronto area reported having at least some Swedish ancestry. The other urban centre in Ontario with a large number of Swedes is Thunder Bay. Though some arrived there as early as the 1870s, it was not until shortly after the turn of the twentieth century that Swedes in any significant numbers began settling in the Lakehead district, where they established several organizations and churches. These included the Svenska sjuk- och begravningskassan (Swedish Sick Benefit and Funeral Aid Society), the Föreningen Skandinaviska Hemmet/Scandinavian Home Society, a chapter of the Vasa lodge, as well as Lutheran and Baptist congregations. The 1991 census counted over 4,000 people of Swedish descent living in Thunder Bay. Kenora also has a Swedish population, which dates from slightly earlier than the one in Thunder Bay.

From the latter part of the nineteenth century until World War II, Winnipeg had a vigorous Swedish community. Since almost everyone travelling to the Canadian prairies had to pass through the city, it was a centre of immigrant activity, and much of the population was transient. The Scandinavian area was centred on Logan Avenue and bounded by Alexander Avenue, Gunnel Street, Henry Avenue, and Princess Street, immediately west of Main Street and south of the CPR tracks. While Norwegians and Danes also lived in the area, the predominant Scandinavian group was the Swedes, with their Swedish churches, businesses, hotels, rooming houses, and cafés. Various clubs, aid societies, and newspapers catered to the community, plays and concerts were performed, and Swedish holidays such as Midsummer were celebrated. In 1911, over 1,400 people of Swedish birth were recorded as living in the city. After World War I, the number of Swedes in Winnipeg began to drop, however, and by the 1940s Logan Avenue had lost its Swedish character. Virtually nothing remains of this community in the 1990s. Many of the buildings on Logan Avenue have been torn down, and even the nearby CPR station is closed. There is a Vasa lodge in Winnipeg, however, and the 1991 census reported 10,900 people with some Swedish background living in the city.

Although not as large as that in Winnipeg, both Regina and Saskatoon also have Swedish communities. The 1991 census figures for the two cities were 4,590 and 5,300 respectively, and both have Scandinavian, though not specifically Swedish, clubs. Swedes are more numerous and more active in Edmonton and Calgary. Both cities have had Swedish churches and still retain chapters of the Vasa lodge. In 1991 Edmonton had 17,730 and Calgary 14,700 inhabitants of Swedish ancestry.

The same census reported 5,640 people of Swedish background in Victoria. It is the Vancouver area, however, that has the heaviest concentration in British Columbia – and indeed, in the whole of Canada – with 236,660 inhabitants of Swedish origin. The community dates from the 1880s and can boast clubs, societies, church congregations, and even a park. Although many early arrivals lived only temporarily in the city and made their living in the forestry and mining industries, others held jobs in town or set up businesses. There were, for example, several hotels owned by Swedes, including one in North Vancouver, and at various times several Swedish-language newspapers. Also, Swedish festivals such as Midsummer, Walpurgis, and St Lucia have been, and in some cases still are, observed.