Scarlet fever — tragedy strikes Ukrainian settlers who just arrived to homestead in Manitoba

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

One of the great tragedies of the early European settlement in Manitoba was the death of 42 children and three adult women just after their arrival in the province. The settlers from Western Ukraine had come to Manitoba eight years after the first Ukrainian immigrants — Ivan Pillipiw and Wasyl Eleniak — arrived at the Winnipeg CPR Station on September 10, 1891. The two men were the first of the tens of thousands of Ukrainian who settled in the province and Western Canada, beginning 125 years ago. The “first wave” of Ukrainian settlement is used to refer to the immigration to Canada between 1891 and 1914.

While Eleniak (also sometimes spelled Elyniak) would first settle near Gretna, Pillipiw returned to Ukraine to spread the message of land and freedom available in Canada. He returned to Canada three years later and settled in what is now Alberta.

What is surprising about the 1899 tragedy is that little at the time was written about the plight of the settlers. Winnipeg dailies published only a few paragraphs about their sufferings, which contained scant information about the high numbers of deaths from disease. Even the nature of the disease claiming the lives of the settlers was then a matter of speculation and was variously attributed in the dailies to an outbreak of scarlet fever or measles. Eventually, the cause was narrowed down to scarlet fever.

On the other hand, reports from rural newspapers in the vicinity of the tragedy, such as the Shoal Lake Star, contained more information that stressed the magnitude of the plight of the settlers, but even that weekly didn’t reveal the exact death toll. Ultimately, the death toll was gleaned from reports by government officials.

At the time, the settlers from today’s Ukraine were initially referred to as Galicians, after the province of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from where they primarily came, while other original settler groups were from the province of Bukovina.

The immigrants destined to settle in the Patterson Lake (then called Burnett’s Lake), just south of today’s Riding Mountain National Park, between the communities of Olha and Oakburn, arrived in Halifax aboard the SS Palatia on April 26, 1899. On the ship, which had sailed from Hamburg, German, to Canada, were 356 adults, 210 children and 64 babies under one year old.

By all accounts, they were a relatively healthy lot with high expectations of a better life in Canada. They could not have imagined that the very act of stepping onto Canadian soil had placed their lives in eminent peril.

But until their arrival in Winnipeg on the morning of May 8, such concerns would have been furthest from their minds. Instead, they would have anticipated a new beginning on a quarter section of land they could claim as their own — a dream that for the vast majority was unattainable in their home country.

“Here you are paupers; there landowners,” Pillipiw told the villagers of Nebilow, Galicia, when he returned to Ukraine to attract settlers for Canada.

In Western Ukraine, most people were subjected to enforced servitude to large landowners. What allotments of land some possessed diminished when divided to accommodate each new generation. In addition, they were denied education beyond elementary school. Taxes were harsh, wood to heat their homes and cook their meals was scarce and expensive, and they were required to undertake three years of compulsory service in the Austrian army. It’s no wonder that the stories about free land and freedom in Canada related by men such as Pillipiw were so attractive to people, who, essentially, had nothing to lose by making the voyage to the New World.

In preparation of receiving a new contingent that federal Interior Minister Clifford Sifton called his “peasants in sheepskin-coats,” colonization agent C.W. Speers toured the Riding Mountains district in April 1899. His April 21 report deemed the region to be favourable to settlement.

Speers undertook another inspection with “four Galician delegates” — Iwan Bukstezuk, Fedir Burtnyk, Sylvester Wasylyniuk and Wasyl Kostnyiuk. Also in the party was interpreter, John Bodrug.

According to the May 3 report they submitted, “Generally speaking we are well pleased with the districts we have seen and think a large colony of people can be placed here.”

Thus, the stage was set to actually bring people to the “districts” to clear land for homesteads and build new communities in what was then the wilderness of Manitoba.

When the Ukrainians arrived in Winnipeg, they were housed temporarily in Dufferin School before going west to their new homesteads. The Canadian Pacific Railway had promised W.F. McCreary, the commissioner of immigration, that two passenger cars would be on hand for the immigrants. But, they cars were late and women and children were forced to wait on the grass alongside the tracks until the cars arrived (Shoal Lake Crossroads article by Edward Kowalchuk, May 8, 1989). The settlers’ children were exposed to cold and damp weather as they waited for the train. As a result, some of the children developed colds and sore throats — the medical conditions needed for an outbreak of the more serious disease, scarlet fever.

A May 11, 1899, letter from McCreary to James A. Smart, the federal deputy-minister of the interior based in Ottawa, stated that, “we shipped about 400 Galicians to Straithclair (now spelled Strathclair) last Tuesday morning (May 9).”

Four cars of Ukrainians, who had been temporarily housed in Selkirk, were added to the train carrying the two cars of immigrants who had been housed in the school.

It was at least a five-hour trip from Winnipeg to Strathclair, but stopovers lengthened the journey as did tragedy. Three children, who had been housed in Dufferin School, had died between Portage la Prairie and Minnedosa (the first newspaper reports said two children). When they died, the train was stopped and the children were buried adjacent to the railway tracks.

The deaths distressed Speers, who travelled with the immigrants on the train. In his later correspondence with government officials, he showed compassion for those under his care and a strong desire to alleviate their plight.

In a May 30, 1899, Manitoba Free Press article, McCreary said that the scarlet fever was contracted by the children in Winnipeg and carried to Straithclair.

“The scarlet fever outbreak at Straithclair, I am certain was the result of the contact the fifty Galicians, who were quartered for a time at the Dufferin school, had with people here. They were perfectly well at Selkirk, and walked from there to Winnipeg. They stayed at the Dufferin school for some days, and when they reached Straithclair scarlet fever broke out and a number of deaths resulted. I am prepared to prove that every case of contagion was contracted after reaching here,” emphasized McCreary.

(Next week: part 2)