Friday, January 27, 2023

The Growth of Winnipeg Suburbs - North Kildonan

Print 5: The Growth of Winnipeg Suburbs - North Kildonan    (On exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until May 21, 2023).

'Rurban Village in North Kildonan'

As mentioned in the previous post, it struck me how similar the living conditions and poverty appear to have been in both communities - Rooster Town and North Kildonan: that is the simple two-room houses, getting water from pumps every day, and muddy streets. I use the image of the same simple house in both prints, with the more affluent neighbourhoods either encroaching or being within an easy distance. The digitally printed background in this print is a sketch map of the early Mennonite village in North Kildonan from 1930.

The Mennonite settlement on the outskirts of Winnipeg started in 1928. These were Mennonites from which came in a later migration wave from Russia as a result of the turbulences following WWI I believe.

Two Mennonite land agents searched for land in the vicinity of Winnipeg and listed the following ad in the Mennonitischen Rundschau 1928:

“Garden Village Near Winnipeg! Four miles from the centre of the city we have reserved a piece of land for Mennonites, which will be given to them in plots of 3 acres ... Each family receives a house and wood for a barn. For every 4 families there is a well with good drinking water ... The land is deep, black soil ... The yield is excellent. It is situated in what is recognized as the best vegetable district in Winnipeg …”

Leo Driedger further elaborates (At the Forks – Mennonites in Winnipeg, 2010): Mennonites arriving in 1928 had to clear the land. Pictures show the area to be bleak and desolate ... Two Mennonite land agents ... [found a 20-acre piece of land] near Winnipeg where Mennonites could operate small farms to supply the city with garden and dairy produce ... Eight chicken barns went up on what is now Edison Avenue ... Mennonites who moved to Edison, were not well-to do. [The DeFehr family] turned the original [chicken barn] into a small woodworking factory, which became the largest plant of its kind in Canada, Palliser furniture.”

Most of my information sources for this piece I found at the Mennonite Heritage Archives, where I also came across these personal anecdotes of early settlers, such as the following excerpt by Irmgard Dyck Regehr: “My parents ... arrived in Canada in February 1930 ... Quite a few of our Mennonite people had already settled in North Kildonan. [Dad] was thankful that he could find work in the vegetable gardens owned by the Dutch people who had settled here earlier ... He often worked up to ten hours a day at a dollar a day, but it was something ... At that time the area of North Kildonan was just being opened up. There were a few streets leading off Henderson Highway. My dad bought a little lot on McKay ... There were stumps in the mud road ... In spring the road was such gumbo ... [My dad] got this little lot ... A little shell, a two-room shell, was put up. Actually that's all it was, a shell. My dad built it ... [W]e were surrounded by much bush ... We were all pioneers at that time and we were all very poor ... [T]hese early years there wasn't any electricity. That came a few years later … My mother said what a great relief it was, too, when the electricity came and they could buy an old kind of washing machine ... So that was a great help, really a progressive thing, you know. That was a good thing.”

Olga Dyck Regehr adds that ... [M]y father built a little house on Edison. Actually, it was a house with a barn attached. They started raising chickens ... [W]e had chickens on one side of our house. We were very poor.”

John H. Unruh writes for the 50th anniversay of the the Mennonite Settlement in North Kildonan, 1978: Fifty years have gone by since the first Mennonite settlers came to North Kildonan ... [W]ith undaunted hope, with diligence, and, last but not least, with a strong trust in God difficulties were overcome, hard times outlived, and advantage was taken of opportunities that happened to come along the way ...”

Also for the 50th anniversary of the Mennonite Settlement in North Kildonan, 1978, came the congratulations by the then Premier of Manitoba, Sterling Lyon: “... I am pleased to have the opportunity ... to extend my greetings and good wishes to the Mennonite people of North Kildonan ... Arriving in Winnipeg without any kind of worldly possessions, they applied hard work and thrift, their widely recognized characteristics, to their market gardens, chicken farms and other ventures. In time these were expanded and became thriving industries ... Their contribution to the Canadian way of life has been, and will continue to be, of great value.”

As we can see, while the Mennonite settlers emerged as a thriving community, the Métis community remained impoverished and was eventually demolished. Through the narratives and the prints, I suggest that racism shaped these different developments. The Mennonite immigrants were able to buy land and were given materials to build their first dwellings. Although poor, they were privileged right from the start. The white settlers also received municipal amenities such as electricity and running water that helped them grow and build their homes and businesses. The Métis residents of Rooster Town did not receive such amenities despite pleas for the city to do so, which exacerbated their precarious living conditions throughout the decades. 

For digital access to the book please click here. 

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