European Migrant Landscapes and Intercultural Relations in Western Canada

European Migrant Landscapes and Intercultural Relations in Western Canada

Dr. Jeff Oliver, Dr. Ágústa Edwald



Mass migration is now one of the defining issues of intercultural relations in the twenty-first century. While the relationship between migration and cultural change is more clearly understood in the contemporary world, our knowledge of the early history of mass migration and its consequences is far less developed. One of the early crucibles for ‘modern’ cultural diversity was the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century landscape of western Canada, where European migration precipitated the establishment of a new ethnic patchwork.  What was the character of intercultural relations between these enclaves of settlement, and how did living in a new multicultural environment encourage the creation of new social and cultural realities? Previous researchers have attempted to answer these questions with top-down narratives of assimilation and growing Canadian nationalism or bottom-up arguments about the survival of migrant community identities. Neither is satisfactory in the light of more recent research, which emphasises the importance of context and the possibilities of entirely novel social categories. Moving beyond these older assumptions, this interdisciplinary project explores social and cultural variation through a comparative analysis of the material culture of historic farmsteads across a range of migrant landscapes. It will produce a fine-grained analysis of the variety of factors that served to recreate community social and cultural norms in different contexts, helping us to understand why migrant experiences were so different.


Spurred by the promise of land, social enfranchisement, and economic opportunity, a tide of European chain migrants colonized the Prairies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Largely sweeping aside an older indigenous landscape, the incomers established a new cultural order. To facilitate a sense of common purpose and interdependence, the Canadian Department of the Interior favoured rapid assimilation into the dominant Anglo-Canadian culture. Conformity was encouraged in a number of ways, from promoting Anglophone and Protestant values in the government-controlled school system to discouraging the development of large homogenous ethnic communities. Moreover, conformity was also sought in the landscape itself, through the implementation of the ‘Township and Range System’, which ensured a relatively consistent pattern of settlement on 160 acre ‘sections’. By the mid twentieth century an uninterrupted checkerboard of Canadian farmsteads spread from southern Manitoba to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Despite the pressures to conform, many parts of the prairies saw the formation of ethnic ‘block settlements’, particularly among non-English speaking migrants, including Ukrainians, Poles, Mennonnites and many others, who left persistent cultural imprints upon the prairie landscape. In seeking to deconstruct blander nationalist discourses of Canadian nation-building, questions pertaining to the identities of the emigrants and the communities into which the migrants settled have become an important part of the history of colonization, and have focused in particular on   how objects and built environments expressed cultural values thought to be significant to the coherency of certain ethnic groups. In certain contexts, researchers have suggested that certain cultural patterns could be remarkably resistant to assimilation, as demonstrated in vernacular architecture or in the organization of domestic space. Whether an immigrant group achieved long-term stability or suffered social disintegration, it has been suggested, seems to depend on the strength of its religious and cultural institutions.

Project Aims and Questions

Discussions of assimilation versus cultural resistance have been with us for some time. However, given the incredible complexity of the settlement landscape, which included significant variability in the success of assimilationist measures, the opportunities of migrant communities, and processes of social and cultural interactions between newcomers, we should not assume straightforward outcomes. Moving beyond the more traditional approaches described above, the programme of research focuses on migrant community interactions and interconnections, which characterized life on the Canadian prairies between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It begins with the working hypothesis that intercultural relations were creative of altogether more multifaceted consequences, including entirely novel ways of living, working and thinking. Drawing on an interdisciplinary perspective, this three-year study will examine changing material culture traditions across a range of migrant settlement landscapes. Ultimately the project seeks to understand the nature and uniqueness of local interactions and the consequences these exchanges had for social and cultural change.

Our principal questions are:

  • How did living next to neighbours, who were potentially cultural ‘others’, influence the reproduction of values systems and new communities of practice?
  • How did this local phenomena vary across time and space?

And since the broader influences of capitalism and scientific ‘improvement’ are known to have shaped agrarian lifestyles in the Canadian west at this time, additional questions include:

  • How did ‘modernity’, in its various guises, feed back into and help to rework local scale social and cultural entanglements?
  • How are such interactions expressed through the landscapes, material culture and practices of place, which served to give the region its diverse character in the first place?

For more information about the project, please follow us at:

Image: The fieldstone house of Icelandic immigrants Jonas and Sigridur Helgason. Built in 1906 near Argyle, Manitoba, the dwelling was constructed by the Scottish stonemason Bob Thyne under the supervision of Icelandic carpenter, Byring Hallgrimsson (Photo Credit: Agusta Edwald)

Settlement Case Studies

The project is designed to assess social and cultural variation across three separate settlement areas known to have been settled by different migrant groups. These areas all have a history of ethnic block settlements with a varying degree of separateness from other groups. The settlements were, furthermore, established from the 1870s (New Iceland) through the 1930s (Clandonald) and in different parts of the Canadian Prairie, providing us with a temporal and geographical variety for comparison. All the immigrant groups are known to have produced more or less 'stable' settlements over a period of at least a decade or longer, though each developed particular ways of living and working that facilitated interaction with others or presented obstacles to integration. Currently we are focusing on the following communities, though as our research progresses, we may include other groups as well. 

New Iceland & the Interlake, Manitoba

Approximately 20,000 Icelanders emigrated from Iceland to North America in the years from 1874-1914. The Canadian government reserved a tract of land on the west coast of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba for the exclusive settlement of Icelanders in 1875. The area became known as New Iceland and was closed to all other nationalities. Then in 1897, the New Iceland‘s borders were opened and the remaining homesteads were mostly claimed by people from the Ukraine. In fact, it is estimated that in the first decades of the 20th century there were more people of Ukrainian descent than of Icelandic descent lving in the former colony.

Previous research in the area (Edwald 2012), focussing on the Icelandic settlement, has shed light on some of the intercultural relations between the Icelanders, Ukrainians and First Nation groups in the Interlake region. Further work, which aims to examine contexts that may have brought people together, will build on these findings and highlight new social and cultural formations, which arose in these ethnically-diverse areas of settlement.

The Killarney Crofter Colony, Manitoba

In the spring months of 1888 and 1889 just over thirty families emigrated from the Western Isles of Scotland, Lewis and Harris, to Manitoba, Canada. They settled in two adjacent areas in the south western part of the province. The Lewis settlers, who arrived first, homesteaded just north of the town of Killarney, while the Harris settlers, settled farms further north and east in the district of Argyle. Together these settlements are referred to as the Killarney crofter colony, distinguishing it from other late nineteenth century Hebridean crofter and cottar colonies on the Canadian prairie, notably at New Benbecula and Saltcoats.

The families in the Killarney colony were supported by the Imperial Colonization Board, which organized the emigration and communicated with the Canadian authorities and land companies on behalf of the settlers. The ICB was established after recommendations of the Napier commission, which investigated the grievances that had caused the crofters’ war in 1883. Its aim was to alleviate overcrowding and to prevent further political unrest on the islands.

These Gaelic speaking Scots settled in an area that was partially settled by people of primarily English, or Anglo-Canadian bacgrounds but other ethnic groups such as Icelanders are known to have settled in the area as well.

Clandonald, Alberta

In the 1926 another Hebridean colony was established on the Prairies. This time in northern Alberta in the district of Vermilion. This scheme was initiated by Reverend Andrew MacDonald after whom the colony was named Clandonald. One hundred prefabricated cottages and barns were built for the anticipated emigrants who were recruited principally from the Hebridies but also from other areas in Scotland, Ireland and England.

The Clandonald area was fairly isolated but other groups known to have settled in this part of Alberta are Ukrainians. Further research on the colony will shed light on how the different British groups who made up the initial settlement interacted amongst each other as well as how they may have forged ties and relationships with other groups in the area.


The project is funded by the The Leverhulme Trust.

The trust was established in 1925 under the Will of the first Viscount Leverhulme. It is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £60 million every year.

For further information about the schemes that the Leverhulme Trust fund visit their website.
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Publications and Further Reading
    • Edwald, Á. 2012. Fishing for Modernity: How Material Relationships can Mediate Tensions in an Immigrant Community, The Case of the Icelandic Emigration to Canada in the late Nineteenth Century. International Journal of Historical Archaeology16(3): 529-546.
    • Oliver, J. and Edwald, A. (2014) European Cultural Landscapes in Manitoba – an Interethnic Perspective. Invited paper delivered at the Society of Historical Archaeology conference, Quebec City, Canada.
    • Oliver, J. & Edwald, Á. (2015). 'Between islands of ethnicity and shared landscapes: rethinking settler society, cultural landscapes and the study of the Canadian west'. Cultural Geographies[ONLINE] DOI: DOI: 10.1177/1474474014561576

    • For more information about the project, please follow us at: