A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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THE FULLNESS OF TIME: Ukrainian Stories from Alberta
Homesteading

Ukrainian immigrants like Alexander Szpak came to Canada hungry for land. All the land in the Ukraine was controlled by landlords and divvied up into small lots among a large population. Canada, however, had an open West that was almost totally unsettled. According to government advertising, this land was practically being given away for next to nothing. This is what attracted so many immigrants to Canada at the turn of the century: the land rush and the opportunities of homesteading.

Under the Dominion Lands Policy, homesteading immigrants received one hundred and sixty acres of land for the price of only $10(1). But that was only the beginning. Immediately after Alexander Szpak arrived in Alberta in 1900, he set out on years of grueling work. As a homesteader he had to break and clear a certain amount of land every year and get it into production in order to keep his homestead. The homesteaders' specified areas of land had to be cultivated within three years, which meant never-ending and back-breaking labour(2).

The homesteader had to build a house, often of log or sod construction. Wide spruce logs, maybe four to a wall, would be cut from nearby. And then sod or clay mixed with straw to hold it together would be slapped on to keep the harsh weather out. The more refined houses would have a basic whitewash applied over top of the clay. A new homesteader had only the basic agricultural implements to cut through their land, covered with bush and scrub spruce. They'd start clearing the land by hand, with an axe and then turn to the help of a team of oxen, since horses would have been far too expensive. A fireguard to protect farm buildings also had to be ploughed and a vegetable garden planted and game hunted to supplement the food supply. If the water supply was poor, homesteaders had to collect rainwater or melt snow. Many poor or late-coming homesteaders were forced to settle far away from markets and towns because much of the better land had been reserved for the Hudson's Bay Company or railways that were beginning to run through(3).

The railways, however, often provided a much needed source of work and second income for homesteaders. Alexander Szpak, like many homesteaders, was also forced to work a job to get enough money to buy the necessary farm equipment and keep the family and farm going. Alexander went to Barkerville and worked in the gold mines. After Alexander had earned some money and got his farm going, he began to breed horses, draught horses, which he used on the farm and sold to neighbouring farmers.

The land was the fruit of the homesteaders' labour. They put a lot of blood, sweat and tear into it and sometimes it was generous in return. Other times it took its toll on people. Homesteaders and their families were often separated from friends and relatives and many suffered years of hardship and loneliness(4).



For Alexander Szpak and his family, life was tough in those first years on the homestead. Sometimes food was scarce. Winter clothing was hard to come by. They had no overshoes or winter boots so strips of gunny sack were rolled around their feet and tied with binder twine. One winter there was a shortage of feed for the livestock. The horses were so hungry that they came and stood on their hind legs and ate the straw thatch from the roof of the farmhouse. Conditions were so harsh that the Szpaks tragically lost a son and daughter to tuberculosis.

Minor farm accidents often resulted in permanent injury or even death since doctors were rarely located nearby. One of the greatest difficulties was the absence of roads and bridges. Most trails were impassable when wet. In the autumn homesteaders waited until the ground was frozen before transporting their produce to the railhead(5).

Drought ruined the homesteaders who settled int he arid Palliser Triangle. For many the price of homesteading was too high. They canceled their claims and moved away(6).

Adversities, however, also bound homesteaders together. Prejudices were lessened as people helped one another. Doors were kept unlatched and lanterns hung at night to guide travelers. And as communities developed, there were sport days, country fairs and a variety of entertainment at community halls(7).

There was something a special bond that was created between the immigrants that came here, opened up the West and farmed it. There was almost a spiritual bond among themselves, and with the earth.

Endnotes:
1-7 - The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1998).


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