Arrival and Settlement

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Dutch/Herman Ganzevoort

Dutch immigrants were already present in the Canadian west in the 1880s, when bankers and entrepreneurs in Amsterdam became interested in investment in the Canadian Pacific Railway, in acquiring large blocks of land for speculation, and in cattle ranching. The Dutch did not hesitate to investigate these opportunities and travelled to the west on the newly built railway. As they became financially involved, they began to interest their compatriots, not only in the financial rewards, but also in the possibility of relieving the Netherlands of its surplus agricultural workers. In the spring of 1893 a group of single Frisian agriculturalists arrived in Winnipeg. They were the vanguard of a larger group of Dutch immigrants who had been aided by the Christian Emigration Society to take up homesteads around Yorkton in the North-West Territories (now Saskatchewan). To supplement their income, the men worked on the railway as farmhands and began the arduous process of accumulating capital. Only a small number of this group actually ended up homesteading or working in the Yorkton area; most finally settled in and around Winnipeg, hoping to do better in the more populous districts of Manitoba.

In Winnipeg these immigrants were joined by other single Dutchmen and their families, who had found homesteading an unrewarding venture. Some took up market gardening in the Winnipeg suburbs of Elmwood and East Kildonan, while others looked for urban employment. They soon formed the nucleus of a growing Dutch community. Their correspondence with friends and relatives in the United States and the Netherlands brought others to Canada to try their luck. As the community grew, its clubs, churches, and social organizations became an important focus for new immigrants who did not want to settle on the prairies.

The majority, however, kept their sights upon economic independence. In the spring of 1904 a group settlement was established in southern Alberta by Dutch Americans from Iowa and Montana and by newcomers from the Netherlands. The community at Nobleford was to grow significantly in the coming years as it attracted settlers from the United States and the Netherlands alike. Newspapers in both countries carried accounts of the success of the community. Homesteads and aid were offered to all who would help in the venture. By 1912 the community spawned its own offshoots as some of the earlier settlers sold out and moved north to the Peace River country.

The rapid and successful settlement of the Dutch in southern Alberta encouraged emigrants to examine the opportunities in other parts of the Canadian west. They settled in various places in Manitoba, such as Portage la Prairie, Morden, Argyle, and Rosebank, where they either took up homesteads or worked as farmhands. Many would move to the other western provinces as new areas were opened up. In 1908 a group of Dutch Americans established themselves near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and another took up land near Cramersburg, north of Swift Current, three years later. Dutch settlers were soon spread across the province in such places as Leoville, Morse, Saskatoon, and Edam. Free or cheap land continued to be a lure to the Dutch as it was to emigrants from all parts of Europe and the United States.

The beginnings in Nobleford, Alberta, in 1904 coincided with the movement of other Dutch immigrants to the Calgary and Edmonton areas. A group settlement of Catholics in Strathmore, east of Calgary, in 1908 was paralleled by a Calvinist community at Neerlandia, northwest of Edmonton, four years later. Throughout the west, the Dutch became an important part of the new society. Whether they arrived as single men or in families, they were accepted by fellow immigrants and native-born Canadians alike. The Dutch felt much the same about their new homeland and neighbours.

Immigration to the area east of Winnipeg was negligible compared to that in the prairie provinces. The “golden west” was the land of possibilities and the Canadian government and the CPR made sure that the immigrants understood that there was little hope for economic advancement in the more developed eastern areas of the country. Nevertheless, Dutch immigrants settled in practically every province and major city in Canada during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Their numbers were generally small in the Maritime provinces, Quebec, and Ontario, but Montreal and Toronto each had a few hundred. Those who came before 1914 were trailblazers for a movement that would grow and develop in the following decades.

The overwhelming majority of arrivals in the post– World War I period were single or unaccompanied married men. The Canadian government believed that immigrants unencumbered by family were more likely to seek employment as farmhands or develop the homestead lands of the prairies. The nature of the work and the living quarters provided – shacks, bunkhouses, or farmers’ attics – made the accommodation of a family extremely difficult in any case. Wages were often not high enough to support a single farmhand, much less a family. Unlike those in the more settled regions of the east, many farmers in the west had not yet moved to better accommodation after the pioneer stage had been passed. Even in the east, abandoned log cabins and converted horse barns or chicken coops often served as homes for those families who did come in the 1920s.

Mobility was the hallmark of male immigrants in this period. Unlike those who had arrived prior to World War I, many did not get an opportunity to own their own farm. As hired hands, they were at the mercy of the farmers with regard to length of employment and wages. They worked long hours during the growing and harvesting seasons and were often summarily dismissed without their earnings when winter arrived. Out of necessity, many crowded into the cities in the winter seeking food, shelter, and employment. Some, however, preferred working for room and board and tobacco on the farm to joining the bands of unemployed drifters who made their way from place to place across the country.

For many, the dream of independence on a homestead turned out to be a fleeting one. The settlements established by the pre-war immigrants continued to grow, but there was little cheap land available and accessible homesteads were almost impossible to find. Nobleford and Neerlandia barely had enough suitable land to meet the needs of the sons and daughters of the pioneers. Although there was plenty of farm work, the future did not look hopeful. Lack of land in the south eventually forced the opening up of an undeveloped tract in central Alberta west of Lacombe. This area, in the more humid parkland, was suitable for mixed farming and could support grain, grass, cattle, and hogs. Settlers were specifically recruited in the Netherlands for this settlement, but development was slow and painful because of the difficult terrain.

Those immigrants who failed to find a permanent place in the agricultural life of the prairies as either farmers or farmhands often ended up in Winnipeg and became part of the Dutch community there, which by 1929 numbered almost five thousand. Since housing was more readily available in Winnipeg, many families and single men stayed and found work in that city. It also continued to attract those who had no desire to work in agriculture.

With the decline of the west as a focus of settlement, Dutch immigrants sought new opportunities in the east. The Maritimes, however, held even less appeal than the prairies. Although more heavily settled and with a more temperate climate, the region had not proved successful for earlier Dutch settlers. Poor farm land, lack of markets, and industrial backwardness combined with the absence of any significant urban centres to create a stagnant economy. The most important deterrent was the lack of agricultural jobs. Needing immediate employment because they had no cash reserves, the immigrants were compelled to look elsewhere.

The number of agricultural jobs available in Quebec was only slightly better than in the Maritimes, and those who chose to settle there generally went to the Montreal area. Since most of the immigrants were Protestant, they had more in common with the English community than the French, and as a result, they were isolated from the mainstream French Catholic society. A lack of opportunities in the agricultural sector and a dearth of cheap land merely confirmed their negative opinion of the province.

Given prevailing attitudes and the ready employment in agriculture, it is little wonder that the Dutch turned to Ontario as the best choice. Its heavily industrialized society, based on a secure agricultural foundation, provided a wide range of opportunities. Urbanization during World War I had drawn many farm workers to the cities, and replacements were urgently needed. Among the single men coming to Ontario were those who constituted the “swallow emigration.” Primarily from the Dutch province of Zeeland, they made annual trips to southwestern Ontario for the seasonal labour in the beet and tobacco fields. Like the swallows, they came in the spring and went home in the fall. Such excursions were continued until enough money had been saved to buy or rent land for permanent settlement in the province.

As cities such as Toronto, Hamilton, and Windsor continued to grow, the immigrants sought more lucrative jobs in the industrial and service sectors. Farm work was often regarded as only temporary employment that provided an opportunity to learn the Canadian customs and language, and many men had no intention of making it permanent. Others regarded Canada as a way station to the United States and Canadian citizenship as a means to avoid restrictive American immigration laws.

The Depression of the 1930s not only cut off the flow of immigration, but it also encouraged return to the Netherlands by those who had been unable to establish themselves in secure situations. Dutch consular officials were kept busy helping those who sought repatriation. The Canadian government deported any who had become public charges or who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. The percentage of such returnees was extremely small, and the great majority of immigrants made the best of it in those difficult years. Many who had moved from the farm to the city returned to the countryside. Survival, rather than advancement, became the watchword. One notable success was the resettlement of sixteen Dutch-Canadian families on the Holland Marsh north of Toronto. The combined efforts of Dutch, Canadian, and municipal governments managed to prevent the deportation of these families, who had arrived in the 1920s and had suffered severe financial reverses. Near the end of the thirties, as conditions bettered, new immigrants also settled at Lacombe, Alberta, and in the Bulkley valley in northern British Columbia.

After World War II, the Dutch and Canadian governments depended upon the representatives of various religious organizations to place the immigrants across Canada. These organizations chose areas that they were most familiar with and that they believed offered the greatest opportunity. Ontario and Alberta, the two provinces where Dutch settlement since 1890 had been greatest, received most of the newcomers. Interest subsequently shifted to British Columbia and later to other Canadian provinces. By 1950, as agriculture became less important and industrialization and urbanization expanded rapidly, the Canadian government’s encouragement of other categories of workers opened up new areas of settlement for Dutch immigrants. No longer was theirs a purely agricultural migration, and newcomers began competing for urban jobs with other immigrants and native-born Canadians. They settled in cities and suburbs, but not in any segregated way. Cheap housing alone determined Dutch concentrations in urban and rural areas. In general, the immigrants preferred to live among people other than their compatriots, perhaps a reaction to the overcrowded conditions that they had left in their homeland.

In the 1960s and 1970s the sons and daughters of the immigrants began to find their place in Canadian society. First-generation settlements were regarded as irrelevant to their struggle for upward mobility. Pushed out by increased mechanization on the farm, many struggled alongside other Canadians who were experiencing the same changes. The Dutch have always considered themselves the social and cultural equals of native-born Canadians and have been treated as such. As a result, dispersion and assimilation have been the rule, not the exception.