In the latter part of the 1800’s the vast expanse of British North America was known as Rupert’s Land — home to the Metis and Native people. In 1870 Prime Minister John A. Macdonald negotiated the transfer of Ruperts Land to Canada.
In 1896 the Federal Liberals swept to power on a promise to populate the West. The government viewed this rich agricultural area as the potential bread basket of the nation. The Honorable Clifford Sifton, Minister of Interior, visited the Bucovina area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and encouraged Bucovinians to migrate to Canada.
The government’s prescription for immigration was “A stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born of the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for generations with a stout wife and half a dozen children is good quality”. This message went out to Europe, Scandinavian countries and the Balkan states. Our Romanian pioneers fit this description well, and they were overwhelmed with the prospect of owning land. And so they came.
Subsequently Government surveyors marked out townships down to quarter sections of 160 acres. For a $10.00 registration fee any adult male could apply for a free quarter of land. Title would be granted after three years residence and improvements.
The first identified and recorded Romanians who came to Canada settled in Saskatchewan from 1896 to 1900. The first settlers to Alberta from Boian, Bucovina came in early 1898. They were Ichim Yurko and Elie Ravliuk. They settled in an area in Alberta that they named Boian after their home town in Bucovina.
The Boian area was rich in grass, lakes, creeks, and forests. All these resources were wonderful for homes, fuel for fires, and raising grain and livestock. Yurko and Ravliuk were very much attracted to this new land for it was very similar to their homeland in Bucovina.
In their letters to relatives in Boian, Bucovina Yurko and Ravliuk encouraged their former townsmen to join them in this wonderful area later named Alberta. Subsequently some 30 Bukovian Romanian families organized themselves for the journey to Canada. In the spring of 1899 two groups of Romanian immigrants packed their belongings, travelled by cart to the railhead, then by train to Hamburg, by boat to Halifax, and finally by train to Edmonton. Then they hired teams of horses and wagons and journeyed northeastward of Edmonton to land where they made their new homes.
The Romanian families who arrived from Boian, Bucovina, prior to 1900 and who formed the nucleus of the settlement of Boian, Alberta were (alphabetically) the Cuchurean, Cozub, Feica, Gorda, Harasym, Hauca, Hutzcal, Iftodi, Isac, Kelba, Moscoliuc, Murariu, Mihalchan, Matei, Porozni, Petruniuk, Ravliuk, Romanko, Surca, Soprovici, Svecla, Toma, Yurko and Zaharichuk families. They were joined by other Romanian families and by January, 1901 approximately 100 Romanian families were settled in the Boian district. Smaller groups of Romanian settlers settled in rural Alberta districts such as Ispas, Shepenge, Midway, Malin, Hamlin, Desjarlais, Shalka, Borowich, Zhoda, Soda Lake and Smoky Lake.
In the spring of 1909 the Calgary Albertan reported about a party of Romanian immigrants at a C.P.R. depot.
“None of the party can speak English, but they were apparently enjoying themselves and in the best spirits, when visited by an Albertan reporter and a C.P.R. policeman. The new arrivals are of exceptionally fine physique and altogether appear to be a desirable class of immigrants.” The emigration continued to 1921.
Many Romanian emigrants who came to Canada as pre-school children were unable to obtain even a basic education. By the time schools were built in Canada they, especially the young ladies, were grown and married, and had children of their own.
The first shelters were very primitive, built of logs with sod roofs and dirt floors and maybe a tiny window or two to let in the light. The violent forces of nature brought bitter cold, long and lonely winters, a situation more often to be endured rather than enjoyed.
In 1918 when the Spanish flu epidemic swept the globe our pioneers were helpless against the forces of this virus. Medical help was far away, and there were no doctors, nurses or medicines. They resorted to garlic, whiskey and what other folklore medicine they could think of. Some became deathly ill and others had multiple deaths of infant children. They buried their dead and prayed.
These difficult times were followed by prosperity and better times. Mechanized equipment and tractors were becoming the new trend in farming and the heavy work became easier. By 1929 they faced another crisis The Depression Years. The prices of agricultural products fell to an unbelievable low. A prime marketable hog was sold for about $3.50 and a 60-bushel wagon box of wheat fetched about the same amount. The people on the land had enough food but it was extremely difficult to clothe a large family with this kind of income. These people did not concede defeat. They summoned their energies and survived. Another period of contentment, prosperity, advancement of farming technology followed.
In 1939 when World War II broke out the community of Boian and surrounding districts experienced a mass exodus of adult people. Some volunteered and others were called for military duty. Others left for Eastern Canada to work in mines, and factories that produced for the war effort. Some people from each family were allowed to remain and farm the land.
As the war escalated in Europe, and every news hour was bombarded with war casualties, the parents listened and the mothers wept silently and prayed for the safe return of their children. The war came to an end and most returned safely but only for a brief period to embrace their loved ones, and then they were off to urban centers to take construction jobs, government and professional jobs, to attend universities, to become teachers and entrepreneurs. But their roots were always in Boian.
The original pioneer immigrants became pensioners and senior citizens and held their grandchildren on their knee, with stories of the hard times and the good times.
One hundred years later if we travel to Boian and at the crossroads of Boian Center we will see the museum, which is developing and growing yearly. As we ascend the long hill we approach St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, steeped in history and standing magnificently as a stately sentinel overlooking the long valley below. We cannot help marveling at the genius of our pioneers for choosing this site for the church. As we let our eyes sweep the landscape – from the foot of Eagle Tail Hill southward to the village of Hairy Hill we envision the progress and the work of our pioneers. The Province declared the church and graveyard a “classified Historic Site”. We walk southward through the cemetery which is neatly kept and groomed by the loving hands of volunteers, we walk among the crosses to find the eternal resting place of “The Stalwart Peasant in a Sheepskin coat” and along side the Stout wife who brought forth and nurtured a large family of children.
The Romanian immigrants maintained many elements of their eastern European folk culture. They cooperated and assisted one another to build familiar institutions which lessened the shock of their transition to the new land of Alberta. In 1921, during the first Alberta census year, a detailed breakdown listed a total of 2,017 people of Romanian descent in Alberta. Since 1921 the Romanian heritage presence in Alberta has multiplied manyfold. Some of the Romanian families who migrated to Alberta prior to 1900 have multiplied into six generations and some into seven generations. The time has come for these many past, present and future generations to honor and remember our ancestors who gave us historical, emotional, linguistic, spiritual and economic brilliance as Canadians.
Vasile (Bill) Yurko Steve Axani