Celebrate Canada’s 150th by reliving the colonist car experience endured by millions of immigrants
These days, people complain when they have to spend a few hours flying economy class. Imagine what it was like a hundred years ago when waves of immigrants crossed Canada to settle the west, crammed into colonist railway cars for a week while sleeping on wooden benches, having only two shared toilets and a single stove to cook the food that they brought with them.
That was the experience of millions of new Canadians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when shiploads of immigrants from Europe would land in eastern ports like Halifax’s Pier 21. They journeyed across this vast nation to their plots of Prairie land where they endured bitter hardships in order to build new lives.
The population boom was part of a strategy by the federal government to develop western Canada, fueled by the promise of free 160-acre plots of land. To improve the odds of success, Ottawa encouraged newcomers with farming skills to come, which is why so many Ukrainians, Romanians and Hungarians came out west.
Calgary benefitted from that expansion by becoming a regional center that served the growing number of farms and ranches that were being established in the area. People who were unsuccessful at farming gravitated toward the city.
Later waves of immigrants from the United States, Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Scandinavia added to the multicultural mix in and around Calgary as did those who escaped persecution in their homelands; Jews, African Americans, Doukhobors, Mennonites and Mormons.
To commemorate their experience and honour Canada’s 150th anniversary, Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village, in conjunction with primary sponsor BMO Financial Group, is mounting a cross-Canada travelling exhibit that will tell the stories of some of the people who made that journey. Travelling with the exhibit will be a performance written by Alberta playwright Winn Bray, focusing on a cross-section of new Canadians who settled the west. The play will also highlight the story of the Bank of Montreal’s role in the growth of western Canada.
“It was mostly inspired from the actual colonist car we have in our collection,” said Heritage Park Historical Village Interpretation Manager Susan Reckseidler. “It’s been part of Heritage Park for over 50 years, but once you start looking into the story of how it was used to transport thousands of immigrants across Canada, there are a lot of stories that come out of that. As a Canada 150 initiative, we wanted to look at ways of bringing those stories to life.”
Entitled Journey of a Lifetime, and presented by BMO Financial Group, the original idea for the tour was to transport the park’s vintage colonist car from coast to coast so Canadians could see how their ancestors travelled when they first came to this country.
“We couldn’t take a 112 year-old wooden train car across the country, but we wanted to share that story of the settlement of western Canada with all Canadians because it really is a Canadian story,” said Heritage Park Historical Village Communications Specialist Barb Munro. “That is why we created this tour that would go across Canada.”
The colonist car in the park’s collection was built for Canadian Pacific Railway in 1905, the same year Alberta joined Canada, and is one of only two that have survived of the more than 1,000 originally built. A similar number of colonist cars were also built for rival Canadian National Railway and only a handful of those are left. Together, those cars transported more than three million people. Built in Montreal’s Angus Shops, car #1202 is currently undergoing restoration for permanent display at Heritage Park.
Before the cross-Canada tour kicks off in September at Halifax’s Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 on September 14, Calgarians will be able to check it out for themselves at Heritage Park Historical Village from Canada Day on July 1 until July 16. Besides the exhibit and performance visitors will also be able to witness the actual colonist car’s restoration.
“The great opportunity we have here with the play and the exhibit is people can actually see the colonist car as it’s being restored,” said Reckseidler. “We’re offering an open-house experience where staff will talk about the restoration. During the week, people will be able to see our carpenters at work doing a lot of the detail finishing and assembly work of putting this artifact back together. People can also see other related programming by visiting our collection of other rail cars to walk through them and get a sense of what that experience would have been like.”
They will learn about people like former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, an immigrant boy from Scotland who came with his family by colonist car to start a new life in Saskatchewan.
“We have a great photograph of him as a young teenager standing in a wheat field and matching that with a quote where he talked about travelling in this third-class accommodation and how his mum had to pack quilts and blankets because there was no sleeping accommodation for them,” said Reckseidler.
While the exhibit mostly focuses on the European immigrant experience, it also features the stories of Asian newcomers who made journeys via rail to Calgary from western ports, and the challenges Black settlers from the United States faced.
The exhibit also examines the impact these mass immigrations had on Canada’s original First Nations inhabitants.
“We talk about their perspective of when all of these European and eastern Canadians started coming to western Canada and how it affected them” said Munro.
Visitors will also be invited to record their own immigrant experiences or those of their ancestors who might have travelled in a colonist car.
After the show leaves Calgary for Halifax, it will head to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, then the Waterloo Region Museum in Kitchener, the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, and the Visitors’ Centre at the Legislative Assembly in Edmonton before wrapping up its tour in mid-December at the Museum of Vancouver.
“We think it’s timely because immigration is such a hot topic right now,” said Munro. “This is the story of the hopes and dreams and hardships of immigration, then and now. And it’s a tangible reminder of those who migrated across the vast landscapes of a newly connected country, and the challenges they faced in both getting here and settling the western frontier. This was the largest wave of immigration in Canada’s history and we hope it will be an eye-opening experience for visitors.
At Confederation, Canada’s population was a mere 3.4 million, but by 1900 it had jumped to 5.3 million. Just 18 years later, it had risen to 8.3 million, a rate of growth that seems mind-boggling today.
“Besides the First Nations people who were here for thousands of years, we all immigrated to this land at some point. Canada is a cultural mosaic and this exhibit and performance will represent the stories of Canada’s early immigrants, while allowing today’s Canadians to share their own stories.”