Berthold Imhoff's experiences
in Western Canada did not necessarily imitate that of other German settlers,
and therefore, the obstacles to his family's settlement were somewhat
different. Imhoff, the classically-trained European painter with the
10-room house and detached studio raised an eyebrow or two in the pioneer
farming community where he lived from 1914 until his death in 1939.
While his neighbors barely coaxed a living from the rugged, forested
land near present day St. Walburg, Berthold Imhoff created works of
art and paid others to look after his farm.
From Pennsylvania, where he learnt of the newly opened regions of Saskatchewan,
he took the train to the very end of the railway - which was in Turtleford
- and then purchased two sections of land approximately 20 km north
of it. His family came after, where they lived off the monies Imhoff
had made in Pennsylvania in his lucrative fresco and decorating business.
After a year he had built a house, had planted wheat, bought a mill
at and raised cattle. Stoney Indians still lived in the area and there
was plenty of fish and game, which he loved to hunt. He had found his
land of peace and quietude.
In contrast to the homesteaders, he had purchased his land outright
and let others run the farm so he could concentrate on his art. His
completed canvases and paintings were taken by horse cart to the railway
and then shipped to their destinations. He truly transported a bit of
European art to the lonely and secluded regions of early Saskatchewan.
But all was not idyllic for the Imhoff family. They were "out-of-sync"
with their community. In the days Mr. Imhoff was producing his best
work, his farming neighbours were trying desperately to feed and clothe
their families. They had little time or interest for "art,"
and were even a little distrustful of his more moneyed ways. Bread and
butter problems were staring them in the face daily, and even church
officials had little inclination to encourage their parishes to invest
in non-essentials, like his artwork.
Some historians say that from an economic and business standpoint, Mr.
Imhoff made a mistake in coming to the far northwest. Imhoff never sold
his works, and continued to paint the churches, paid or not. Slowly
his savings ran out, and he didn't even have enough money to buy a suit
for the ceremony he had when honoured by the Pope, (though he wouldn't
try to sell any of his paintings to do so). When Imhoff died, his wife
swapped paintings for his funeral. However all during his life on the
prairies, he was known to financially help out his neighbors whenever
he could, until his money ran out and "he became as poor as his
This dashing, formal German, always in a suit; hunting; painting, and
able to afford hired men, remained an outsider to the end. During World
War I, which broke out just a few years after he moved to Saskatchewan,
he never quite overcame the unjustified suspicions of some people. They
could not understand why an artist of his stature should have left the
attractions of a busy city to come to the raw pioneer country of northwest
Most German-speaking immigrants in Western Canada, like the Imhoffs,
had to overcome the isolation of the prairies, but in addition, they
suffered the hardships of trying to change the virgin prairie fields
to farmland. The Germans did not fare as well in the Western cities,
and many ended up living in congested slums where thousands of people
lived together in a very small area. There was no running water, poor
nutrition and despair of the human spirit. These slums in Regina, Saskatoon
and Winnipeg were known as ‘German Town'.
While German immigrants in the prairie provinces faced terrible hardships
and poverty, those who traveled as far as British Columbia had the same
success that was found in Ontario. Germans were well received by the
British majority. German culture and language was encouraged and added
to the fledgling province a sense of who they were. The Germans and
British inter-married, and formed the elite of British Columbia society.
Ultimately, it was not the land, weather, disease or even the bugs which
proved to be the greatest obstacle faced by the Germans in Canada. It
was the outbreak of World War I. German nationalism, which added to
the Canadian mosaic prior to the war, was now seen as a threat to Canadian
security. The Federal Government passed the ‘Enemy Alien Act',
which stripped German Canadians of their right to vote, speak their
language in public, and teach their children in German. Over eight thousand
Germans and Austro-Hungarians were stripped of their liberty and interred
for the duration of the war. World War I had a devastating affect upon
the German Community in Canada. The German sense of pride was replaced
by feelings of anxiety and uneasiness. Immigration from Germany ceased
The effects of the war were to end much of what had been German in Canada.
Although German-speaking Canadians would remain the third largest group
in the country, the German language was no longer taught in schools.
Church services were no longer held in German. Signs in towns were no
longer written in German.
The immigration restrictions for Germans was lifted in 1923, and between
1923 and 1929, 18,000 Germans emigrated to Canada per year. By 1930,
over 90,000 had emigrated to Canada. Many of these were Mennonites who
were fleeing Soviet Russia. They were given German papers and emigrated
to Canada. By 1931, there were 473,544 Germans in Canada - nearly 60%
lived in the West.10 During the Great Depression, the door to immigrants
was closed. The next wave of immigrants would not arrive until after
World War II. Unlike the first war, only 85 Germans were interred during
the Second World War. There just wasn't the same bitterness. The German
community once again tried to keep a low profile.