Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: August 2016

ray hnatyshyn

Saskatchewan’s Year of the Ukrainian unthinkable a century ago

It’s the Year of the Ukrainian in Saskatchewan. A government news release in the early new year declared 2016 to be a time to reflect on and celebrate the contribution of Ukrainian settlers to the province.

It’s not clear, though, how “Ukrainian culture and traditions” are to be recognized. The Wall government has been silent on the matter ever since it made the proclamation.

Maybe people should hug their Ukrainian neighbours? Learn a few words of Ukrainian?  Try their hand at making pysanka?  There’s no shortage of ways to commemorate how Ukrainians, in the premier’s words, “helped build our province.”

Joking aside, the very fact that the provincial government would make such a declaration is nothing short of remarkable given the lowly place of Ukrainian people in early 20th century Saskatchewan.

The Canadian government may have actively recruited Ukrainian immigrants before the Great War, but they were expected to leave their cultural identity behind at the border, like unwanted baggage, and readily assimilate into the dominant Anglo-Canadian way of life.

Even then, Ukrainians were never really welcome. They may have been good farmers, but many Anglo-Canadians openly questioned if they could become good citizens with their unpronounceable last names, pauper-like appearance, and “strange” customs (including eating garlic).

Nor did it matter that the number of Ukrainian settlers was dwarfed by those from Great Britain and the United States. The mere presence of these “foreigners” — as they were called at the best of times — threatened to weaken, perhaps even ruin, the Anglo-Canadian fabric of the province.

Oxford-educated Elizabeth Mitchell, who toured the prairies in 1913, voiced this unease when she asked, “Can Canada … afford to base herself on an ignorant, non-English-speaking peasantry, winning a bare living by unceasing labour? … The immigration of the last few years has been really overwhelming and cannot be met with a careless ‘Everything will come right.’  The need for the moment is for a pause and time to think and rearrange.”

She was not alone in her thinking.

Future Saskatchewan premier J.T.M. Anderson portrayed the “foreign element” as the greatest threat to Canada’s future well being, while George Exton Lloyd, the Anglican bishop for Saskatchewan, maintained that the country was in danger of becoming a “mongrel nation.”

The issue was even debated by academics.

In a paper read before the Royal Society of Canada in May 1926, E.H. Oliver, the first historian appointed at the University of Saskatchewan, reviewed the contribution of continental Europeans to Saskatchewan society.

“We need the artist, the poet, the thinker, the musician, and composer quite as much as the sewer-digger and the track-layer,” he concluded, “It is high time we encouraged these people to bring their best to us. Some of them possess rare genius.”

What Oliver did not seem to appreciate was that there were poets, thinkers, and musicians among the people who had decided to make the new province their home, but that they faced outright prejudice in their adopted province.

It was not until after the Second World War, after the province had survived the crucible of depression and then war, that immigrant children and their children were widely accepted as part of provincial society and made the kinds of contributions that Oliver had been talking about.

In other words, whereas continental Europeans were once seen as a blight on Saskatchewan, they were an essential part of the province’s future by the middle of the 20th century.

Perhaps the real turning point came when surgeon and decorated war hero Stephen Worobetz was appointed lieutenant-governor in 1970.

Two decades later, Ukrainians figured prominently in the public life of the province and Canada at large. Saskatchewan gave Canada its first governor general of Ukrainian descent, Ray Hnatyshyn, in 1990. One year later, another Saskatoon child of Ukrainian immigrants, Roy Romanow, was elected premier. He was sworn into office by lieutenant-governor Sylvia Fedoruk. The Saskatchewan chief justice at the time was Edward Bayda.

In retrospect, Saskatchewan’s Year of the Ukrainian represents the distance that the province has come in embracing non-British immigrants as part of its history and identity.

There is still some distance to go, though. Recent newcomers struggle to find a meaningful place in provincial society. Then, there is the role of indigenous peoples in Saskatchewan today.

More than government declarations is needed.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:University of Saskatchewan student Ray Hnatyshyn, a member of the Vigorous College Nine (c. 1956), would be appointed Governor General in 1990.

Photo Source: University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections A-2502-1

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Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Vanguard’s perfect storm

Bob Burns of Vanguard is an Environment Canada weather watcher.  The 71-year-old retired farmer is one of several hundred volunteers, from all walks of life, who monitor and report on the weather in their home communities.

Today, many weather watchers collect their data from small boxed-in weather stations in their backyards. But in 2000, Burns had only a V-shaped, plastic rain gauge that he picked up at the Swift Current Co-op and a 1-800 telephone number that would put him in immediate contact with Environment Canada meteorologists in Winnipeg. Neither would be of much help to him on Monday, July 3.

Vanguard was just getting over a high school reunion that holiday weekend when menacing thunderheads started to build in the early afternoon.  The wind came up and thunder rumbled overhead. Burns watched the sky while the clouds circled as if zeroing in on the community in southwestern Saskatchewan.

Little did he know that a complex of thunderstorms, known as a mesoscale convective system, had formed over Vanguard and was being held in place by the northerly wind. In other words, there was the potential for a “weather event” — in this case, lots of rainfall over several hours.

The heavens opened around 4:30 p.m. and for the next eight hours, the rain came down in torrents. Burns likened it to someone turning on the tap and walking away.

Throughout the storm, Burns faithfully made his way out to his rain gauge — a trip he made five times to read the level and dump out the water.  It was an unnerving experience, not simply because of the intensity of the rain but the constant boom of thunder and flashes of lightning. His three calls to Environment Canada that evening were met with the assurance that it would soon be over.

When the storm finally lifted, leaving behind an eerie silence except for the sound of rushing water, Burns calculated that at least 333 millimetres (13 inches) of rain had fallen in Vanguard.

Water was everywhere, flooding homes, businesses, and fields. Local roads and the railway were submerged, while stranded townspeople and farm families had to be rescued by boat. Cattle, deer, and antelope were found drowned.

What made things worse was that Vanguard sits in a slight depression and water rolled down the hills in small waves into the community.

“It was like a wall of water,” recalled Mayor Dorothy Saunderson at the time. Notukeu Creek, normally a sluggish stream, was turned into a fast-moving river one and a half kilometres wide in places.

It took several months for Vanguard to get back on its feet. One of the ironies is that the torrential rain had damaged the water and sewage system, and bottled water had to be brought in.

One of the most poignant comments was provided by a Western Producer reporter. As the water level dropped in pastures, exposing the tops of fence posts, Sean Pratt observed, “Clumps of soggy grass hang from the first few strands of barbed wire like rows of tattered socks on a clothesline.”

Once the precipitation data was collected and analyzed, Environment Canada determined that 375 millimetres of rain had fallen on July 3. That amount of rain translated into the largest documented storm of that duration in the history of the Canadian prairies.

The normal annual amount of precipitation for Vanguard, one of the driest regions in the province, is about 385 millimetres — roughly the same amount that fell on July 3.

The “perfect storm,” as it has been dubbed, also produced more lightning strikes in those eight hours than normally experienced in the region in a two-year period.

Finally, the water from the storm — a third of a billion cubic metres — did not simply disappear. Only about 40 per cent found its way into Notukeu Creek. Sixty per cent of the rain was retained on the ground.

Scientists analyzed the impact of the storm on the area’s wetlands and made a surprising discovery.

Herbicides were expected to be in the water from local agricultural activity, but not certain pesticides. It turns out that the weather system had picked up these chemical products in parts of the United States and then carried them into Canada. Among them was a pesticide used on Texas cotton crops.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The Vanguard thunderstorm was one for the record books.

Photo By: Bill Waiser

Questions or comments?

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Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Ethel Catherwood 1928 Olympic Games High Jump

Saskatoon’s Ethel Catherwood scissor-kicked her way to Olympic gold

In the spring of 1926, the results of the Saskatoon high school track and field championship were listed in summary format in a local newspaper.

One outstanding achievement might have gone unnoticed if not for Joe Griffiths, longtime director of Athletics at the University of Saskatchewan. When he read that Ethel Catherwood had cleared 5′ in the senior girls’ high jump, he was incredulous. That was the Canadian women’s high jump record at the time.

Ethel Hannah Catherwood was born in North Dakota in April 1908, but raised on the family’s homestead near Scott, Sask., about one hundred miles west of Saskatoon. One of nine children, Ethel was a natural athlete. She played baseball, basketball, and even hockey.
With her father’s encouragement, Ethel began to high jump before she was ten. Soon she was jumping heights that rivalled those cleared by any other woman in the world at the time.

In 1925, the Catherwood family moved to the Caswell Hill district in Saskatoon, where Ethel enrolled in her last year of high school at Bedford Road Collegiate. After she won the high jump at the city championship the following spring, Joe Griffiths made a visit to the Catherwood home. There, he watched in amazement as Ethel cleared the high-jump bar with ease in the cramped backyard.

Ethel immediately began training with Griffiths, and within weeks was regularly jumping 5′ 2″. Griffiths tried to teach Ethel to do the western roll, but she remained more comfortable with the traditional scissor kick. Later that fall, at the 1926 provincial championship in Regina, the 18-year-old set a world record with a jump height of 5′ 2 7/16″.

The following summer, Ethel visited Toronto under the sponsorship of the Saskatoon Elks Club and jumped before 15,000 spectators at the Canadian National Exhibition. Reporters started calling her “the Saskatoon Lily.”

In February 1928, the Canadian Olympic Committee invited Ethel to Toronto to try out for the upcoming games in Amsterdam. It would be the first time women were allowed to compete in track and field events. At the Canadian qualifying meet in Halifax on July 2, 1928, she set a new world record with a height of 5′ 3″.  It would remain the Canadian record for the next quarter century.

Ethel participated in the ninth Olympic Games as a member of the six-woman Canadian track team. Known as “the matchless six,” Jane Bell, Ethel Catherwood, Myrtle Cook, Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld, Ethel Smith, and Jean Thompson would win the team championship — an ironic outcome, since Canada was one of the countries initially opposed to female participation.

Ethel competed on Saturday, Aug. 5, the last day of the track and field events. The women’s high jump was one of the most anticipated showdowns. Less than three weeks after Ethel’s record-breaking jump in Halifax, Carolina “Lien” Gisolf of the Dutch team had beaten her record. The pair was now expected to compete for the gold medal.

The cold windy weather quickly whittled the competition down. Ethel cleared the bar at 5′ 2 9/16″.  When two other jumpers failed on their third attempts, the spectators rushed onto the field and lifted Ethel to their shoulders.

Ethel returned to Saskatoon an international sensation. Sept. 26, 1928 was declared a civic holiday, Ethel Catherwood Day.

But then, her world began to fall apart. She failed to qualify for the Canadian team for the 1932 Olympics because of a nagging injury.

There were also all kinds of ugly rumours about her private life, including a secret marriage and hasty divorce.

A bitter Ethel turned her back on Canada and her sport and moved to the United States, where she died in relative obscurity in 1987.

Other Canadian women have excelled in the high jump. Debbie Brill was just 16 when she became the first woman in North America to clear 6′.

There have also been other Saskatchewan women in Olympic field events, among them Marg Tosh in the javelin at the 1956 Melbourne games.

But Ethel Catherwood is the only Canadian woman to win a gold medal in an individual track and field event at the Olympics.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Ethel Catherwood was the most photographed athlete at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam.

Photo Source: Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.