Cornelius J. Jaenen. Promoters, Planters, and Pioneers: The Course and Context of Belgian Settlement in Western Canada. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011. xii + 348 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-55238-258-5.
Reviewed by Myron Momryk (Independent Researcher)
Published on H-Canada (March, 2012)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth
Cornelius J. Jaenen, emeritus professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa, has written extensively on Canadian ethnocultural and religious history and, in this study, he draws on his impressive knowledge and experience in these fields to write a history of Belgian settlement in western Canada. This history is part of The West Series on western Canadian life and experiences and is a rare study on the Belgians in Canada. In the introduction, he mentions that this project was originally conceived in the late 1970s as part of the Generations Series of ethnocultural groups’ histories. He describes his personal involvement in this history as a descendent of Flemish and Walloon Belgian immigrants who settled in rural Saskatchewan and later, in Manitoba. He was a witness to the trials and tribulations of immigrants and settlers during the Depression years and their efforts to survive. He describes these events in the context of attempts at nation-building and promotion of Anglo-conformity by politicians and educators from the dominant Anglo-Celtic host society in western Canada. Later, as a teacher at all levels of the educational system across Canada, Jaenen was involved in many issues and projects that enabled him to acquire a detailed knowledge of diverse immigrant and ethnocultural groups’ experiences and concerns, and to develop a profound understanding of Canadian multiculturalism.
Jaenen begins his study with the examination of the process of emigration from Belgium. He was fortunate that the Belgium government took an active interest in the fate of its citizens in foreign countries and, in this case, in western Canada. A series of laws, rules, and regulations were legislated and implemented by the Belgian government regarding recruitment of immigrants, ship travel, and control of immigration agents. These regulations were intended to prevent irregularities and fraud and to give priority to the safety and security of its citizens who left as emigrants. Provision was even made to assist recent emigrants who chose to return to Belgium. Visits by consular officials to western Canada dated as early the 1860s. In addition, inspectors and government agents were sent to western Canada on “fact-finding” missions to report on social and economic conditions and also, on the progress of the Belgian immigrants. These reports and observations now form a rich source of historical material in the archives of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels that has provided Jaenen with rare and original historical information.
In many ways, Belgian immigration was unique in Canadian history. In contrast to the many other immigrant groups from Europe (especially eastern Europe) who were fleeing various forms of persecution in the years prior to the First World War, the Belgians were considered by the Canadian government as “preferred” immigrants and arrived in Canada primarily as “economic” immigrants. Among the “push factors” was their search to improve their economic condition and to build a new life as individuals and families. Therefore, their role acquires a primary importance in this history. The themes in this history deal with migration, integration, social conflict, self-image, and group solidarity. While many other immigrants groups during this period were also economic immigrants, they were for all practical purposes refugees and political and religious exiles and acted accordingly. They sought to preserve and develop their persecuted language, religion, and culture in Canada. Compared to these immigrants, the Belgians were not fleeing from their country or government for these reasons Most economic immigrants from Europe saw the United States as the land of hope and opportunity; Canada was often viewed as a secondary and distant destination. As a result, the Canadian government at the end of the nineteenth century welcomed Mennonites, Jews, Doukhobors, Ukrainians, Poles and other stateless people to populate the prairies. Lacking support and sympathetic contacts with the governments of their countries of origin, these groups then sought to create organizations and institutions to build and maintain aspects of their language, religion, and culture that they felt were threatened in Europe. And, at the same time, they were faced with the challenge of integrating and adapting to the host society. This experience and subsequent negotiations regarding their evolving Canadian identity contributed to the early development of Canadian multiculturalism.
Among the Belgian immigrants, there was no apparent need to establish national organizations and institutions to represent their issues and concerns, especially with the Canadian government. The presence of Belgian consular officials and easy contact with the home government in Belgium from the early beginnings of Belgian settlement in Canada answered the need for any representation on behalf of the Belgian immigrants in Canada. The Walloon immigrants spoke French and the Flemish quickly learned English so there was no need for Belgian organizations to act as spokesmen and intermediaries with the larger Canadian society and the Canadian government. Also, during most of this period, those dissatisfied with their fate in Canada could immigrate to the United States or return to Belgium.
The lack of national organizations means the absence of large archival collections that could provide an additional source of historical information on the Belgian experience in Canada. Nevertheless, Jaenen was able to glean from local and community sources useful historical information that, together with information from Belgian and Canadian archives, enabled him to write this story of Belgian contributions to the development of western Canada. Of special interest is his use of family histories to provide details and historical context.
Jaenen presents the history of the Belgians in Canada in three main periods: the first covers the years between the 1890s and 1914; the second, the post-WWI years through 1939 (but mainly to 1931); and the third, 1945 to the 1980s. The focus of this history is on the first two periods.
In the initial chapters, Jaenen describes Belgian perceptions of Canada, Canadian immigration policies, migration patterns and processes, the activities of sojourners and settlers, and examples of chain migration. Jaenen chooses to begin the story with the first phase of Belgian settlement in St. Boniface, Manitoba, where there were enough Belgians in this urban area to create a neighborhood called the Belgian Town. In the rural areas, these immigrants became involved in dairy farming, the sugar beet industry, and market gardening. Small agricultural settlements emerged in various localities and parishes were established with Belgian clergy.
Subsequent chapters describe the movement to the second phase, Belgian settlement on the open prairie. This form of farming required special farming skills and techniques. The Depression of the 1930s proved to be a major disaster due to the dust bowl conditions and the collapse of the agricultural economy. Jaenen describes this ordeal among the Belgian farmers, who in some cases, seriously considered returning to Belgium. The spread of Belgian settlement to the foothills of western Alberta comprised the third phase, where the settlers became involved in ranching, horse breeding, and the sugar beet industry. This movement included entrepreneurs, investors, and representatives of financial institutions from Belgium. Among this number were members of Belgian noble families. Belgians settled in British Columbia, including Vancouver Island where they found employment in the mines. The primitive working conditions and the absence of safety measures on the industrial frontier prompted some Belgian miners with previous experience in the mines of Belgium to become active in the union movements and, in some cases, in radical politics.
The Walloons quickly integrated into the local French Canadian communities and identified with their issues regarding the Roman Catholic Church, education, and the overwhelming influence of the English language. However, they were also well integrated into the local economy and, as businessmen and entrepreneurs, made the necessary adjustments. There are examples of Belgian immigrants and their descendants who became involved in community activities before seeking local and provincial political office. In the religious field, Belgian clergy served not only their Roman Catholic community but occasionally Hungarian and Ukrainian immigrants as well.
Jaenen also mentions Belgian contributions to local sports and cultural activities that, in many cases, were adopted by the larger community and integrated into local activities. Where possible, he also mentions the role of women in all aspects of the Belgian experience in western Canada.
In conclusion, Jaenen states that the Belgians integrated well into the host Canadian society. Thanks to educational and economic opportunities especially in the years after the Second World War, descendants of the early Belgian pioneers joined the massive migration to urban areas across Canada. Within a few generations, they became almost indistinguishable from other Canadians, except for the retention of family names and a sentimental attachment to the land of their ancestors.
Jaenen includes a comprehensive bibliography with a list of archival sources both in Belgium and in Canada. The bibliography of published material includes government publications, articles from numerous historical journals, and relevant theses and dissertations also from Belgium and Canada. This history was written with Canadians of Belgian origin in mind and especially, students and scholars of Canadian ethnocultural history. This is an important history on the Belgians in western Canada and will remain the standard for many years to come.
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Myron Momryk. Review of Jaenen, Cornelius J., Promoters, Planters, and Pioneers: The Course and Context of Belgian Settlement in Western Canada.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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