By Natasha Eklund
As a Canadian, I am proud of our multicultural country. Because of this, I decided to look into immigration into Western Canada, which was quite popular from the late 1800s till the early 1900s. While we may look at Edmonton and dread the brutal and dismal winters, the prairies were seen as a clean slate ready to be moulded into a new way of living. There were many appealing aspects to immigrate to Western Canada, such as new beginnings, escape from oppression or persecution, economic opportunities, an improved quality of life, and adventure for those willing to make the journey. Being that my family had immigrated in 1916 from Sweden to the prairies, I thought that looking into the some of the experiences shared by the Edmontonians would be an interesting topic.
Three aspects I found that encouraged the increased movement of immigrants include the transcontinental railroad established (allowing for more accessible transportation), the 1872 Dominion Land Act offering new settlers free and fertile land and, lastly, in 1873–our beloved North-West Mounted Police were established which offered a safe place to live. The immigration to Canada was quite the dramatic jump of population. In 1870 there were no cities or highly populated areas in the prairies, but by 1911, there were 13 cities established with over 5,000 residents. Indeed, this increase in population took its toll on the quality of living in Edmonton.
Although the prairies had indeed offered a fresh start as many of the immigrants had helped in developing and building themselves a “new west” (Historica Canada), the increasing population did become a strain for Alberta. Boosterism was a common approach used to promote life in Edmonton in the early 1900s. This technique exaggerated the appealing aspects of prairie living, promoting it to foreigners and encouraging them to chose the prairies for their fresh start. An article from the Edmonton Journal printed in July 1907 heavily romanticizes the fact that many residents of Edmonton were, in fact, living in tents. This article was quick to reassure the reader and heavily imply that many of these residents chose to live in a tent rather than a house, exclaiming that the summer Albertan weather “makes the conditions of outdoor life the most pleasant to be found in Western Canada” (Edmonton Journal, 1907). It continues on saying that there is no finer a spot to enjoy the Edmonton evenings that “…among the foliage that grows luxuriantly on every unoccupied space on the outskirts of the city” (Edmonton Journal, 1907). Lastly, the article states that it is the most enjoyable experience to sleep among the trees and be woken from your peaceful sleep by the birds. This article does depict a beautiful, peaceful and appealing living situation; however, as someone who is born and raised in Edmonton, I can confidently say that Edmonton’s winter would be unbearable and not nearly as pleasant as this article describes without having proper heat or insulated walls. Upon the publishing of this article, there was a recorded 1,098 tents which housed 3,294 individuals strewn about in Edmonton. The reality of so many people living in tents was due to the lack of housing and expensive rent, leaving the tents as a cheap and affordable way of living limiting their expenses to food. While I question how reliable this article is in depicting the tent life, there are records of individuals having pianos or grandfather clocks in their tents among photographs and pictures of their old homes, and many of the tents had rooms sanctioned off; all in all, those living in tents did their best to make it the most comfortable life they could.
Eventually, this tent living was brought to an end with the introduction of a by-law in 1907 stating that no individual is to live in a tent or temporary building that has not been inspected and licensed. In order to continue living in it, the tent or building was to pass the standards put in place by the Public Health Act and the owner was required to pay one dollar. Due to this, many of the tents were removed.
While living year round in Edmonton personally sounds like an unpleasant experience no matter how lovely it was depicted in the Journal, a more alarming camp was established in a much less forgiving environment: the Grierson Dump. This area is located north of the river valley just east of the Hotel MacDonald. The camp information I found was approximately 30 years after the tenting community was dispersed, but the dump was a site established as early as 1894 for its convenient disposal of paper and cardboard, scraps of tin, metal and wood, broken glass, and even manure. In 1912, the first petition circulated objecting to the dump as the residents grew worried and complained of the smell, the effect on public health, and the effects this had on property values. Despite this, little action was done to resolve these issues. In 1933, a second case of the typhoid fever occurring within the dump finally brought some attention to their conditions and, upon investigation, it was decided the residents should be relocated. Once again, little was done as the eviction notice did not come until 1938. I came across archival documents of the investigation of the shacks from 1937 where many were reported to be dirty, lacking running water or toilets and no electricity. The majority of individuals living within these shacks were immigrant men whose ages ranged roughly from 40-60 and most were living on a pension or relief pay. It is noted in the investigation report that, similar to the tents, some of these shacks were tidy, large with a couple of rooms, furnished, and one even had a window. Unlike the tents, the Edmonton Journal did not sugar-coat the conditions of this camp, nor did they encourage it. It had depicted this camp as a “crude and patch-work dwelling” (Edmonton Journal, 1935). It mentioned that the shacks were also made of material scraps such as metal or cardboard. One forgiving aspect of life in the dump was that during the Great Depression, a handful of men were able support themselves by scavenging for scrap metal, mechanical parts, or glass bottles while some others found and refurbished items. Once this camp had been vacated, the homes were destroyed.
Previous to researching this, I was unaware that these camps existed and that this was a common experience in Edmonton. In reality, the appeal was a fresh start to a province still needing to be built and developed so it makes sense that some immigrants lived in conditions such as the tents as so many individuals were coming to Alberta. The tents may have been an exciting and brief experience upon arriving in Alberta, but I do not think the same can be said about the unfortunate conditions of living within a dump. While I am sure there was some favourable aspects and a few fond memories associated with both the tent and dump living, I am personally thankful for the technology, housing quality, and development Edmonton has experienced in these past 100 years!