Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Early Ukrainian settlers taught establishment a lesson in perseverance

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FOLKS in the Stuartburn-Piney area of Manitoba can't be too surprised they still don't have adequate cellphone service.

After all, they were also the last in southern Manitoba to get highways, telephone service, postal service and electricity (not until 1954!), according to this new academic-press book.

The province's first Ukrainian pioneers in Manitoba, who settled in the southeast, also got just about the poorest land imaginable -- swamp, peat, poplar forest and stony fields that were often beyond being cultivated.

John Lehr, a University of Winnipeg geography professor, has written an excellent "historical geography" of how that Ukrainian settlement endured. While the book's title sounds about as exciting as a government white paper, the contents make for a thoroughly entertaining but still scholarly read.

Lehr writes that the British Canadian establishment turned up its nose from the moment the Ukrainian pioneers arrived in Manitoba in 1896. The Winnipeg Telegram called the new pioneers "the scum of Europe," "moral lepers," and "the sweepings of European gaols." The establishment at the time wanted to maintain racial purity by accepting only British Protestant immigrants.

The land the first Ukrainians tried to farm was "mixed woodland with some prairie openings." The newcomers actually passed on better, open prairie because the land around Stuartburn -- established in 1879 by Stuart Miller, who, in all humility, named it after himself -- was land on which a person could work at subsistence farming.

It had water, a little bit of open prairie for crops and for livestock to graze, and forests for timber for homes, fences and firewood.

The Ukrainians took advantage of what the land had to offer. They dug up Seneca root (used to treat colds) and sold it to the New York market. There were plenty of frogs in that swamp land so they harvested them in the 1920s. The frogs were shipped live to Minneapolis, processed, and the canned frog legs sold to France.

The first Ukrainians in Western Canada arrived in Alberta in 1891. The U.S. closed its frontier to new pioneers in 1893, so more started to look to Canada. The Ukrainian migration to Manitoba lasted from 1896 to 1914, the start of the First World War. Ukrainians filled 1,500 homesteads in the Stuartburn area.

In many ways, Lehr saves the most entertaining for last: the Ukrainian penchant for making homebrew. "Penchant" may be too weak a noun. Train conductors reportedly could smell the homebrew from the train stations.

The settlers made whisky from potatoes or grain. And if they weren't consuming homebrew, they were imbibing Hoffman's Tonic, made up of alcohol and codeine. The cough syrup was initially purchased by the bottle, and later by the pail.

If there's a criticism of this book it's that the settling of Stuartburn is not put in the broader context of the Ukrainian settlement in Manitoba, particularly Dauphin, or in the context of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. Lehr focuses strictly on the southeast. Also, it's an academic work, first and foremost, so the inclusion of some parts is required and may not appeal to the lay reader.

But that's small beer. There are all kinds of books about pioneering: first-person accounts from the actual pioneers; self-published works by local people with a love of an area's history; and professional writers blending anecdote with existing research.

Lehr provides both fresh and aggregated research, lightly mixed with anecdote. It's a great addition to the canon of history and cultural books on Manitoba.

Bill Redekop is the Free Press's rural reporter. His latest book, Made in Manitoba, is a collection of his Open Road stories.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2012 J9

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