Saskatchewan’s German-Canadian history

People of German origin comprise a very large part of the Saskatchewan population. Whether a descendant of a German family which emigrated from various places in Europe, or whether born in Germany and now living in Saskatchewan, there is a long history of Germans in Saskatchewan, a great diversity of the origins of Germans, and demographic changes over time.

“It is well known that the majority of Germans who immigrated to Saskatchewan during the homestead era did not emigrate from Germany. Rather they came from eastern European countries…”, read Mervin Weiss’ German Immigration to Saskatchewan, a statistical perspective.

An interview with Dr. Alan B. Anderson

Historic Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Blumenfeld, SK
About 30% of Saskatchewan’s population is of German background, most are descendants of earlier immigrants. What drew the early immigrants to this area?

Indeed, most people of German origin (entirely or partially) in Saskatchewan are descended from early settlers; so it is problematic that over as many as five generations in Saskatchewan much of German culture and traditions, and especially German language, has been lost. Thankfully the SGC works effectively to maintain German language and culture. These early German settlers were drawn to Saskatchewan, as were other ethnic groups, by the once-ever opportunity to develop expansive farmland and new communities in their own settlements. Not only did settlers of a particular ethnic origin feel comfortable settling with their people in a new land (where their neighbours were likely of very different language and culture), but also the very foundation of these settlements was often due to ethno-religious settlement agencies which actually planned these settlements and recruited settlers. Yet the notion of the federal and provincial governments at the time was that these were empty lands free for the taking, while the existing Indigenous populations rapidly became contained and vastly outnumbered by all these new settlers.

According to your research, what are the major waves of immigration to Saskatchewan with regard to people of German backgrounds?

Clearly, the first German settlers arrived in Saskatchewan at an early date, by the 1880s and for the next several decades. “Russlander” Mennonites arrived during the mid-‘20s, Sudetenlander during the late ‘30s. Yet many German cultural organizations here have depended upon the active participation of later German immigrants (postwar to the present). Over several generations there has been substantial attrition in German language and culture in Saskatchewan, therefore the later postwar immigration provided a needed stimulus to both German language and culture here.

Historical German settlements can be found throughout Saskatchewan. Interestingly, immigrants didn’t settle in groups based on their geographical origin, but rather their religious affiliation. What were the reasons? Is this something that was typical for the time and happened in other parts of Canada or North and South America as well?

German settlements in Saskatchewan tended to be “ethno-religious” (e.g. German Catholic, German Lutheran, Mennonite, Hutterite). This certainly reflected their previous settlements in eastern Europe, so also their specific geographical origins. In fact, there was often duplication in Saskatchewan of earlier German religious settlements in eastern Europe. My recent research on this has been detailed in a study of “The Origins and Changing Identities of Ethnic Germans in Ukraine and Their Descendants in Canada”, published in 2016 by the Institute of Ukrainian-German Historical Research, Dnipropetrovsk National University in Ukraine. Most German settlements were established in a highly organized manner. This was also the case – at least for “Russian-Germans” and Hutterites – in neighbouring American states, as well as for Mennonites in Central and South America.

Where did the immigrants come from and what where their reasons for leaving Europe?

Early German settlers in Saskatchewan came almost entirely from German settlements in the Russian Empire (hence the term “Russian-Germans”, although most of these historic settlements were in what is now Ukraine) and other eastern European countries, rather than from Germany itself, so were more often Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) than Reichsdeutsche (immigrants from Germany). People of German origin in Saskatchewan represent remarkable diversity. Researching their exact origins in Europe can be fascinating. In my book much detail is provided on the exact origins of early German settlers.

Where in Saskatchewan did which groups settle?

To fully appreciate the complexity of German settlement in Saskatchewan, it is essential to understand the formation of diverse German ethno-religious settlements. Most settlements or colonies were established by specific religious groups; relatively few settlements were mixed. These settlements ranged from vast, highly planned bloc settlements including many rural municipalities, towns and villages, to far smaller concentrations around just a single community or in a rural district.

What do some of those settlements look like today?

Unfortunately, throughout Saskatchewan rural depopulation has had a profound effect on innumerable communities, many of which now have retained very few residents. This trend has affected not just German settlements and communities but the settlements of many other ethnic groups. In fact, the younger generations may not even be familiar with the names of so many rural districts within settlements (many of these place names were distinctly German), nor may they be aware that they live in a historic named German settlement. Yet some larger, more prosperous communities – such as Humboldt – have survived and accentuate their German heritage. My book represents an effort to contribute to our knowledge of, interest in, and appreciation of the fascinating legacy of German settlement in Saskatchewan. It is vital to preserve this legacy as a significant part of our province’s and country’s history.

Is religion still a decision-making factor today when it comes to where immigrants would like to live in Saskatchewan?

Well, on the one hand of course people may prefer to live where they have the opportunity to participate actively in the traditional church of their family. But on the other hand, traditional religion seems on the whole to be less important than it was several generations ago, when it was a central focus of daily life; to some extent it may be simply taken for granted rather than being an active choice. This said, however, for sure there are significant differences among people of German origin in Saskatchewan in their religious activity, depending upon whether they are Catholic, Protestant, or Mennonite (or even which type of Mennonite, from conservative to more liberal). Hutterites, of course, by definition all regard religion as central to their identity and daily living.

More recently, there has been an increase in immigration of Mennonites from Mexico. What brings them to Canada and are they connected to the already established Mennonite colonies in Saskatchewan?

There is an intriguing connection between Mennonites in Saskatchewan and Central and South America (Mexico, Belize, Paraguay, etc.). Back in the 1920s a considerable number of conservative Mennonites – disillusioned particularly with provincial school regulations requiring a secular education in the English language – left Saskatchewan to establish settlements in Mexico (and later Belize and Paraguay), where their Saskatchewan origins are revealed in the names of some of their settlements (e.g. Swift Current and Hague in Mexico, Swift Current and Canadiense in Bolivia) plus numerous community names. Yet in recent years a considerable number of Mennonites from Mexico (etc.) have been returning to their roots in the prairie provinces. Interestingly, when they arrive they have been assisted by Mennonite organizations as they have little familiarity with English (they are bilingual in German and Spanish).

In your book you designated a chapter to the Saskatchewan Valley Settlement and describe the efforts for reconciliation between the Young Chippewayan Band, the Mennonites and Lutherans in the area. Can you outline that process and comment if that is something that should be attempted in other areas of the provinces as well?

This is an intriguing and informative story. When German Lutherans and Mennonites settled near Laird, within what became called the Saskatchewan Valley settlement, they were not aware that the very land that the government had given them had been taken from the Young Chippewayan Band. When during the 1970s that band sought to reclaim their title, the German settlers – who had developed the land into prosperous farms over generations – eventually met with them to discuss how to resolve the situation – a specific case in reconciliation between Indigenous and settlers. Both sides became convinced that understanding and respect could resolve fairly what could be a very tense situation – indeed, a lesson to be learned in all settler-Indigenous relations.

German language is an important topic for the Saskatchewan German Council. What is your conclusion on language retention among immigrants? Is there a difference between immigrants that speak Low German and High German?

The SGC has always been an important advocate in promoting the German language through language schools – a language which has been largely lost by generations of German descendants in Saskatchewan. Even when German has been retained as a spoken language in Saskatchewan, it has assumed a variety of forms, including unique Swabian, Mennonite and Hutterite dialects – which, while adding to the challenge also make spoken German in Saskatchewan all the more interesting.

In your opinion, what are the major contributions of immigrants to Saskatchewan? Then and now.

Immigrants and refugees have always added – and continue to contribute – to the economic prosperity of Saskatchewan. As a major part of the province’s population, early settlers of German origin have established a widespread variety of diverse ethno-religious settlements throughout the province, while more recent German immigrants have proven a significant addition to the Saskatchewan population and economy. There has been a long history – over almost a century and a half – of German immigrants and refugees who have resettled here in
Saskatchewan to escape the cancellation of the privileges they long enjoyed in their former settlements within the Russian Empire, and wartime political turmoil and its aftermath, especially in eastern Europe – as in the interesting case of political refugees from Sudetenland in 1938-9, and later to find new lives within a multicultural Canada.

About the author

Alan B. Anderson is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, and was a longtime Chair of the International Studies Program. He has been a former President of the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association and Vice-President of the Central and East European Studies Association of Canada. The author of many publications on ethnic settlements and cultures in Saskatchewan, including Settling Saskatchewan (University of Regina Press, 2013), he has recently been a regular contributor to the Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues, published by the European Centre for Minority Issues, in Flensburg, Germany.

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