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Settlement and Economic Life

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

In 1872 the year the Canadian Parliament passed the Dominion Lands Act, New Brunswick’s Free Grants Act guaranteed all immigrants over the age of eighteen one hundred acres of free land, provided that they clear a certain portion and live there for three years. Both the province and the railways wanted European settlers, particularly farmers, to populate inland areas and make the province self-sufficient in food. To attract immigrants the surveyor general, Benjamin R. Stevenson, prepared A New Brunswick Pamphlet on Immigration, which was translated into Scandinavian and other languages, and distributed by steamship lines. Stevenson parcelled out lots in the heavily forested area east of the Salmon River in Victoria County for a Danish settlement, and Captain S.S. Heller gathered about thirty Danes, who in June 1872 arrived at the junction of the Salmon and the St John. A specially built Emigrant House housed them while they got established in New Denmark – the earliest permanent Scandinavian settlement in Canada.

In the early twentieth century Danes from the United States founded four colonies in the western Canadian prairies. In 1903 some members of the United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church (UDELC) congregation in Omaha, Nebraska, primarily craftsmen and workers who had immigrated from Denmark during the 1890s, settled near Innisfail, in the future province of Alberta, at the recommendation of a CPR agent. Despite an earlier reconnaissance trip, they found the land almost impossible to farm. Arrivals after 1910 possessed farming experience, and by the mid-1920s there were about forty families living in the Dickson area and about seven in nearby Kevisville.

In 1908 Jens Rasmussen from Iowa went to Dickson to look at land; the following year a CPR agent recommended to him land about twenty-four kilometres north of Gleichen, east of Calgary, and the railway agreed to set aside 6,800 hectares if enough Danes purchased there by the end of the summer. Settlement began in 1910, and by the mid-1920s there were about one thousand Danes living in the Standard area.

In 1917 the Dansk Folkesamfund (Danish People’s Society, or DF), an arm of the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church (DELC) in the United States, purchased 8,000 hectares from the CPR in what is now Dalum, near Wayne, Alberta. The same year the first settlers – mostly bachelors with little farming experience – arrived, and by 1920 all the land was taken. Population totalled around two hundred in the mid-1920s.

Dannevirke in southeastern Saskatchewan was founded by the legendary Simon Hjortnæs, a farmer who in the early 1890s had settled in South Dakota. In 1901 some of Simon’s horses went astray, and he set out after them. He found them near Redvers/Alida, in present-day Saskatchewan, liked the look of the land, and bought a homestead there before returning home. One year later he started his farm, and then he purchased quarter-sections for his father and three brothers. Hjortnæs became well-to-do and encouraged Danes to settle in Dannevirke. Apparently Pastor Niels Damskov in Winnipeg sent him Danish immigrants whom he had met on the trains. A rumour circulating among some of the settlers in the area had it that Hjortnæs received twenty-five dollars from the CPR for every immigrant he got. As time went on he became known as king of the Danes. He travelled back to Denmark, lecturing and promoting immigration. Though many settlers moved to other places, there were about three hundred in Dannevirke in the mid-1920s.

Between the world wars the UDELC set up three rural colonies on land acquired from the railways – Pass Lake, Ontario, Ostenfeld, Manitoba, and Tilley, Alberta. Pass Lake, near Thunder Bay, was founded in 1924 after the government of Ontario and the Canadian National Railways (CNR) had set aside land for Danes for homesteading. By 1926 about fifty Danes had settled there, the majority of them bachelors, and this number gradually increased; most had not previously farmed.

In 1926 Pastor Niels Damskov arranged with the government of Manitoba to have a tract of land some forty-eight kilometres southeast of Winnipeg set aside for purchase by seventeen Danes. Damskov would meet immigrant trains in Winnipeg and help Danes find work or get established further west, often in Dannevirke, but eventually he founded his own colony. Ostenfeld (named after a Danish bishop) was just past the edge of the Red River valley, in a rocky, heavily wooded area. Getting started was difficult, and only two of the original settlers still lived there in 1939.

A more recent Danish colony is about sixteen kilometres west of Tilley, Alberta. The CPR was selling land that it had irrigated in southern Alberta and had sent agents to, among other places, the United States. In August 1929 three Danish immigrants from Hardy, Nebraska, accompanied by a CPR agent, went to investigate, and two bought farms on the spot. Terms of purchase included a loan of $1,000 from the CPR to set up buildings and fences. Since most of the Danes in drought-stricken Hardy were renting land, a number decided to move north and formed a congregation, headed by Pastor A.N. Skanderup, who secured a block of land from the CPR and became their agent. In 1930 about thirty people made the eight-day drive to Tilley. In an abandoned house on one of the farms purchased the previous summer, they lived together until they built their own dwellings.

By the mid-1920s, concentrations of Danes were located in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, and in Alberta, especially around Holden, Olds, and Ponoka. As well, there was a small group of bachelors near Gem, Alberta. Once or twice a month congregations were ministered to by pastors from Dalum, Dickson, and Edmonton. There were also Danish communities, and some congregations, in Swan River, Manitoba; Canwood, Saskatchewan; and Edgewater, British Columbia.

At least two attempts at forming Danish colonies failed. Cape Scott on the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, at the edge of the Pacific rain forest, started in 1897, but remoteness, the province’s unwillingness to build roads, and the lack of suitable harbours doomed the endeavour, which was abandoned in 1907. A colony begun in 1926 near Wallace, Nova Scotia, was devastated by the Great Depression, and by the 1950s most of the Danes had left.

Farming was, of course, the major occupation of Danes in rural settlements. Many prairie farmers, particularly in Dalum, Dannevirke, and Standard, Alberta, grew wheat, especially before the Depression. In other western settlements, such as Dickson, Danish-style mixed farming was the rule. Further east, in Pass Lake, many Danes worked in logging on the side or fished commercially in Lake Superior, as well as doing mixed farming and growing strawberries. In New Denmark, dairy farming gave way to potato farming after the turn of the century.

In Canadian urban areas, most Danes did not congregate together, and many assimilated quickly. In 1893 in Pottersburg, just outside London, Ontario, a packing plant was established to export pork products to Britain, which was still importing most of its pork from Denmark. Since Danes were renowned as pork producers, forty-two Danish butchers and sausage makers were brought to work in the plant, as well as manager Johan H. Ginge, a Dane from Slesvig. Later two more processing plants were set up, but all three were dissolved in 1915.

On the east coast, Danes settled in St John’s, Halifax, and Saint John. Many Danish immigrants arrived in Saint John in the 1920s and got jobs as tradesmen. In 1936 they formed their own church, which functioned as an informal community centre. By 1956 most of their descendants had left for Ontario or the United States. The current Danish presence in the city (595 in 1991) is a result of post-1945 immigration and an influx from rural New Denmark.

In Quebec a few Danes did settle in French-speaking areas, and their francophone descendants carry Danish family names, such as Hansen and Rasmussen. Frairie Viking du Fjord Saguenay in the Saguenay region unites people of Scandinavian descent. Most of Quebec’s Danes, however, live in Montreal, where a sizeable community formed a club in 1922 and a church in 1927. The census of 1991 found 2,065 Danes in the city and 3,100 in the province.

In southern Ontario, Danes live in several cities, especially Toronto (10,475). Ottawa’s first known Dane was a tailor, Christian Madsen, in the mid-1860s. In the 1880s others arrived, such as Carl Conrad Meyer, who set up Canada’s first Danish-language newspaper.

Before World War I Danes in Winnipeg established a congregation and a branch of the Danish Brotherhood of America (DBA). The city had several Danish businesses and organizations to house and assist newcomers in transit west. The community shrank considerably during the 1930s and did not really recover until after 1945. Today Danish Canadians number over 4,000 in Winnipeg.

In 1991 Regina had 1,550 Danish Canadians, Saskatoon 1,660, Edmonton nearly 10,000, and Calgary almost 11,000. Edmonton had Danish settlers before 1900. Their numbers increased during the 1920s, and in 1930 a Danish church was founded. During the 1920s Calgary attracted large numbers of Danish farm workers, who formed a Danish congregation and at one time two folkehøjskoler (folk high schools). After World War II immigration increased.

Vancouver has more Danes (17,955) than any other city in Canada. Danes had arrived in the area in the 1880s, and their numbers steadily increased, with a Danish church being built in the 1930s. The greatest influx came after 1945, from Denmark and other parts of Canada.