Colonist Car exhibit coming to Manitoba Museum is a reminder of Winnipeg’s role in settling the west

Winnipeg played a pivotal role in the settlement of western Canada when millions of immigrants came to start a new life on the Prairies in the late 19th and early 20th century. Part of that story is told in an exciting travelling exhibit coming to the Manitoba Museum in late October that shows what life was like on the colonist railway cars that transported new Canadians to their final destinations.

The original idea for the exhibit Journey of a Lifetime, presented by BMO Financial Group, was to transport a vintage colonist car owned by Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village from coast to coast, so Canadians could see how their ancestors travelled when they first came to this country. The exhibit stops in Winnipeg from October 28 to November 5.

“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,” said Heritage Park Historical Village Interpretation Manager Susan Reckseidler.

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“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,” added Heritage Park Historical Village Communications Specialist Barb Munro. “That is why we created this tour that would go across Canada.”

The tour features a recreation of the colonist car that 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. As many as 60 to 70 immigrants would have crammed into these railway cars for the week-long journey while sleeping on wooden benches, having only two shared toilets and a single stove to cook the food that they brought with them.

The population boom of the late 19th and early 20th century 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 settled there.

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“Winnipeg was certainly a major center of immigration until the First World War, but of course many people travelled further on. There were so many opportunities out west,” said Dr. Roland Sawatzky, the history curator at the Manitoba Museum.

“The ones who couldn’t make a living farming, either because they weren’t skilled or didn’t know anything about the Canadian prairies and its harsh environment, they often migrated into cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg.”

Travelling with the exhibit will be a theatre troupe performing a play 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.

“The Bank of Montreal financed the Canadian Pacific Railway to open the west for settlement and they helped a lot of the settlers coming out there with land purchases. They are also celebrating their 200th anniversary this year,” added Munro.

At one time, in a location not far from where the Manitoba Museum sits today, there were immigration halls where newcomers would stay for several days before continuing their journey westward. While those buildings have since been demolished, downtown’s historic Exchange District is an excellent reminder of that time.

“The Exchange District is a national historic site that was built during that boom time in the 1880s and 1890s and is a reminder of that period of immigration and expansion,” said Sawatzky. “There are a lot of really wonderful buildings and warehouses that had all the equipment and supplies that the settlers needed. That was all here and then went with the railway further west to supply all those hundreds of thousands of people and that was one of the reasons for the boom in Winnipeg.”

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The exhibit and the play ran this summer at Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary and has since had stops at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau and the Waterloo Region Museum in Kitchener. It’s been a hit everywhere it has stopped.

“We had 6,000 people visit on Canada Day and we actually had to turn some of them away. People were lined up to get in and the venue was not huge. We have never had to turn people away from a performance before,” said Heritage Park Historical Village’s Munro.

“When I watched the play, I was in the auditorium with adults and children and it held everybody’s attention. It was informative; it was engaging; it was entertaining. I think everyone really enjoyed it,” she said.

While the exhibit mostly focuses on the European immigrant experience, it also features the stories of Asian newcomers who made journeys via rail to the prairies 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.

“The nature of agricultural colonialism, in this case particularly British colonialism, is tied to land treaties and the people that were here first and I think that is something that Canadians shouldn’t lose sight of,” said Sawatzky. “The treaties were signed between 1871 and 1876 here in Manitoba and after that the railways came in and there was further tension in Batoche with the Métis resistance in 1885. It was right after that that you had the colonist cars starting to come across Canada.”

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“Three million people settling over a period of about 30 years across Canada; that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This was the last large colonial migration of people in the world,” he said.

Visitors to the exhibit will also be invited to record their own immigrant experiences or those of their ancestors who might have travelled in a colonist car. Munro says they selected some powerful stories from visitors at each of the exhibit’s stops for people to watch.

“We captured a wide range of immigration stories, including one dating back to 1792,” she said. “We had children; we had senior citizens; we had lots of millennials all of whom were really excited to be able to share their stories,”

After the show leaves Winnipeg, it will head to 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.”

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