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Community Life

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

Swedes in Canada have formed a variety of social, cultural, political, and welfare organizations, both religious and secular. Almost every Swedish church, whether in a city or a rural area, had a ladies’ aid society and a youth group. The secular clubs operated primarily in urban areas; many lasted only a short time, but others have continued to the present day.

Although some early organizations in Winnipeg had the word Skandinaviska (Scandinavian) in their names, most of these were dominated by Swedish members. One of the first was the Skandinaviska Föreningen (Scandinavian Association), established in 1884 for the purpose of bringing together Scandinavians of all nationalities, political views, and religious persuasions for leisure and mutual benefit. It was disbanded two years later after a dispute over whether or not members should be required to refrain from alcohol. Another group was the Skandinaviska Nationalföreningen (Scandinavian National Association), also founded in the 1880s, whose purpose was to further Swedish immigration to Canada. One of the longest lasting of the organizations, the Skandinaviska Sjuk- och Begravningskassan Norden (Scandinavian Sick and Death Benefit Fund), formed in 1900, met once a month and held various fund-raising events. In 1915 the Skandinaviska Centralkommittén (Scandinavian Central Committee) was established to help impoverished and ill Scandinavians both in and outside Winnipeg. During the 1920s the need for its services diminished, but they again became important with the onset of the Depression. One of the more recent Swedish groups in the city was the Svenska F örbundet i Canada (Swedish League in Canada), founded in 1926 to further the culture of the homeland. There were also several short-lived Swedish sports clubs. None of these organizations exists today.

The largest and still most active Swedish organization in Canada is a fraternal one, the Vasa Order of America, named after King Gustav Vasa, who founded the modern Swedish monarchy. It was originally established as District Lodge Connecticut No. 1 of the Vasa Order of America in 1896 by four Swedish societies in Connecticut. The following year the Grand Lodge of the Vasa Order was instituted. Its purpose was to enable Swedish organizations throughout North America to band together in order to help members who were sick and to assist with funeral expenses. It was also intended “to promote social and intellectual intercourse among its members.” Today the emphasis is on the preservation of Swedish culture and heritage. Lodges were established across New England, in Minnesota in 1908, and on the Pacific coast by 1916. The first lodge in Sweden was founded in 1924. The organization reached its peak in 1929, when there were seventeen district lodges with 72,000 members in North America and the homeland. At first, Swedish was used at meetings, and knowledge of the language was mandatory for membership, but after World War I English was permitted as well. The order still publishes a newsletter in Swedish, Vasastjärnan/ The Vasa Star (Jamestown, N.Y.; Minneapolis, Minn; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Lynn, Mass.; Chicago, 1908–). Today, lodge membership has been expanded from those of Swedish descent to individuals of Scandinavian background and their spouses.

The first lodge of the Vasa Order in Canada was established in Winnipeg in 1913 and named after the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. The following year it and three lodges in Ontario instituted the first Canadian District Lodge. Groups were soon formed in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and two in Ontario (Toronto and Hamilton). Approximately thirty lodges have existed in Canada at one time or another, the largest concentration being in Alberta. In recent years the number has declined fairly rapidly, with five being abandoned between 1994 and 1997, leaving eleven lodges currently active in the country. Seven of these are in Alberta (Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Meeting Creek, and Wetaskiwin/Falun), three in British Columbia (Vancouver, Abbotsford, and Quesnel), and one in Manitoba (Winnipeg).

The largest Vasa lodge by far is the one in Edmonton. Founded in 1929 with a membership of 84, at its height in the late 1980s it had more than 300 members and in the late 1990s numbered somewhat over 250. The reason for its popularity is undoubtedly the fact that it owns six hectares of land on Pigeon Lake, incorporated in 1947 as Vasa Park, with about seventy cottages and a clubhouse. To have a lot here one must be a member of a lodge in Alberta. Various events (such as dances, club meetings, and the celebration of various Swedish traditions) are held either at the clubhouse on the lake or at rented quarters in the city. The lodge is also involved in educational and cultural activities, including the donation of money to theatres and music centres and financial support of the Swedish-language program at the University of Alberta.

Two other lodges, Wetaskiwin/Falun and Calgary, have over 100 members. Wetaskiwin was founded in 1932. Meeting in a community hall, it celebrates various Swedish traditions and conducts curling, golf, and horseshoe tournaments. Calgary, established in 1922, has a youth group called the Young Vikings and also holds Swedish celebrations. The Lethbridge lodge (1932), with just under 100 members, owns a hall built in the early 1950s. Monthly meetings and some of the group’s mostly non-Swedish events are held here. Winnipeg, the oldest lodge in Canada, owns a twenty-two-hectare park called Vasalund, begun in 1940. A banquet hall was built at the park for the lodge’s meetings and for celebration by its approximately 70 members, some from the Meadows community, of several Swedish holidays each year. The Vancouver lodge, begun in 1922, had at its height in the 1970s over 150 members. The organization used to hold Swedish events and sponsor dinners and dances, but today its membership has dropped to fewer than 70 persons, almost all older than 60, who gather monthly for meetings and at other times mostly to socialize.

Both Meeting Creek and Quesnel, British Columbia, have memberships of more than 40. The former, founded in 1928, built a hall in the countryside in the late 1930s, where the group held its meetings. This building was sold in 1960, however, and the members now meet in individual homes. They continue to observe some Swedish traditions. Quesnel is a relatively recent lodge, founded in 1970. As well as holding some Swedish celebrations, the members have monthly potluck suppers, show films about Scandinavia, go on camping trips, and hold card parties. Two other recently formed lodges are those in Red Deer, Alberta (1986) and Abbotsford, British Columbia (1989), each with about 30 members. The former, in addition to observing some Swedish traditions, sets up a booth in a park on Canada Day where it sells Swedish pancakes. Its meetings are held in a old house formerly owned by a Swedish family who used to help immigrants passing through the community. Although it serves traditional food at some of its meetings, the Abbotsford lodge only recently started to put on Swedish events. Otherwise it celebrates Mother’s Day, holds dinners, and operates bake sales. From over 100 members in the 1980s, the lodge in Medicine Hat, Alberta, has shrunk to 10. In spite of a campaign to increase membership, its future is uncertain.

Many Canadian Swedes in the early days were also active in a temperance organization called the International Order of Good Templars (IOGT). This group had been introduced into Sweden in 1879, and when Swedes came to Canada, they formed their own chapters here. For example, in the Lakehead area they established a reading circle prior to World War I and even published a monthly newspaper in 1916–17 with a circulation of four to five hundred. Already in the early 1890s the Skandinaviska Nykterhetsföreningen (Scandinavian Temperance Association) had been formed in Winnipeg, but soon after a Scandinavian lodge of the IOGT was founded in 1894, it ceased to exist. In spite of professing to be broadly Nordic, the Winnipeg lodge was closely connected with the Swedish Lutheran Church in the city and thus dominated by Swedes. A Swedish IOGT lodge was organized in Vancouver in 1908, which three years later claimed a membership of 221. In addition to carrying on its temperance work, it had an important social function in the community, sponsoring literary activities and putting on plays, bazaars, and picnics. The lodge was disbanded in 1940.

A relatively recent organization active in Canada is the Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA). It was organized in Los Angeles in 1979 by Agnete Nilsson, who felt that Swedish women needed a network to carry on cultural activities. Eventually, chapters were formed all over the world, numbering around thirty with approximately 5,000 members. The Toronto chapter of SWEA, established in 1982, was the first one founded outside California, and its membership in the late 1990s was about 200. As well as being a social club that celebrates some Swedish traditions, it is active in furthering the culture of the homeland through such activities as conferences about Sweden and scholarships for students to study there. One of the group’s larger events is a Christmas fair at Harbourfront in Toronto where seasonal items and Swedish food are sold. Members must be able to speak fluent Swedish, and all meetings are held in that language, though because of Canadian laws, minutes must be kept in English. The quarterly SWEA Bladet (SWEA Paper; Toronto, 1982–) is also published in Swedish. The organization’s Vancouver chapter, established in the late 1980s, has only about thirty members. It observes Swedish traditions, but also non-Swedish activities, such as the organizing of a fashion show and the holding of an annual weekend at Whistler, feature prominently.

There have been at least two organizations in Canada formed by people from particular districts in Sweden. The most successful of these was Vancouver’s Härjedalsgillet (Society of People from Härjedalen), founded in 1958 and disbanded in 1977. It had about seventy members, all of whom must have had some connection with the province in the homeland. The organization donated money for monuments, held conventions, gave financial support to the Swedish-language program at the University of British Columbia, and sponsored charter flights to Sweden. Its meetings were held in English. On ceasing operations, the club planned to distribute its remaining finances to Swedish projects in the city. Västgöta Gille (Society of People from Västergötland) was founded in Winnipeg in 1907, officially to help needy people from the Swedish province, but probably with the holding of social events as its principal goal. Though membership was open to individuals not from Västergötland, many of its activities were directed at natives of that region. The club sponsored a Midsummer picnic and other Swedish celebrations. It too no longer exists.

Vancouver has other Swedish groups. The Swedish-Canadian Club, with 60 to 70 members, puts on dinners twice a year and concerns itself primarily with English-speaking people of Swedish descent. The Svenska Kulturföreningen (Swedish Cultural Society) has about 270 members and holds all its meetings in Swedish. Monthly events include programs with visiting Swedish authors and the celebration of various national holidays. A recent organization, founded in the early 1990s, is the Svenska Herrklubban 77:an (Swedish Men’s Club 77). Its mostly young, Swedish-speaking members meet once a month to eat traditional food. The Sweden House Society raises money for a community centre in Vancouver, and the Swedish Charitable Association assists Swedish organizations and the funding of a Swedish-language program at the University of British Columbia. A Swedish Hall, built in 1922, was used for various functions and rented out, but it was sold in the 1990s.

As early as 1917 the Svenska Förbundet (Swedish League) was founded in Montreal. Originally intended to be an all-Canada organization, it was dominated by Quebec businessmen and representatives of the Swedish foreign service. Its goal was to improve Swedish-Canadian relations, but it seems to have ceased to function after a year. Also in Montreal is the Svenska Klubben i Montreal (Swedish Club of Montreal), which originally developed out of a women’s club. It has a membership of approximately 150 families, and its meetings are held in Swedish. The club observes traditional holidays and puts on social events such as dances. It also issues a Swedish-language newsletter titled Gult och Blått (Yellow and Blue; Montreal, 1982–), after the Swedish national colours. In several urban centres, such as Ottawa, Regina, and Saskatoon, there are no specifically Swedish organizations, but Scandinavian societies or groups have been established. A number of cities, including Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver, have built Scandinavian centres where local organizations meet.

Like other Scandinavian groups, Swedes in Canada have also built homes for seniors. Two of these were established by private, secular groups, and a third was sponsored by the Lutheran Church. Of the secular institutions, the largest is the Swedish-Canadian Rest Home in Vancouver. The Swedish Rest Home Association was formed in 1945, and the following year it purchased land on Cutter Island. By 1949 a home had been built there, but after the Second Narrows cloverleaf was constructed, this development was thought to pose a danger to elderly people. The building was sold to the British Columbia government and a new home erected in Burnaby in 1957. The site, now called the Swedish-Canadian Village, has four buildings and has been turned into low-rental housing for seniors. It is one of the largest residences for the elderly of Swedish origin in North America, but this group accounts for only 20 percent of the residents. In Winnipeg the idea for a seniors’ home originated with the Svenska Förbundet i Canada, but plans had to be abandoned because of the Depression of the 1930s. Finally in 1965, largely through the efforts of local Vasa lodge members, a home was built in Vasalund, consisting of fifteen single- and ten double-occupancy apartments and several common rooms.

As early as 1916 the Canada Conference of the Augustana Lutheran Church had elected a committee to consider the establishment of a home for seniors, but it was not until the late 1920s that a real effort was made to raise funds for the project. Finally, in 1942 a lot with a house was purchased in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, chosen for its central location and because there was an Augustana Lutheran Church there; the next year the Wetaskiwin Lutheran Home for the Aged was opened. An army hut acquired in 1948 allowed the number of occupants to be increased from nine to twenty-seven, and during the following years further additions were made. Now known as the Good Shepherd Lutheran Home, the facility accommodates forty-three persons, but few of them have any Swedish background.

The Scandinavian Home Society was founded in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ontario in 1923, primarily to enable single Scandinavian men in the area to meet and socialize in a secular setting. The organization’s functions were held in rented quarters until 1926, when a lot was purchased and a building erected. A café on the main floor served Scandinavian and Canadian food, and upstairs there were rooms where members could play games, read newspapers and books, and hold meetings. The society suffered during the Depression and remained somewhat stagnant after World War II, but in 1988 it experienced a revival as a result of renewed interest in heritage and culture. Though the membership has included individuals with backgrounds in all the Scandinavian countries, Swedes have always formed the dominant group.