Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: March 2020


A Saskatchewan editorial cartoon predicted that British values would triumph over Germany in the Great War (REGINA LEADER JUNE 8, 1918) /Saskatoon

Trading one identity for another after Great War

The Canadian census is one of the most reliable, and sometimes only, sources of historical information about everyday Canadians.

Collected every five years, the name-specific data provide a wealth of personal information — from age and marital status to religion and ethnicity

In fact, an individual can be followed over time and place through the census.

But there’s something amiss in the 1921 Saskatchewan census data.

In the “place of birth” column, 68,202 people were born in Germany.

That’s a slight decline from the 68,288 for 1911 and a whopping decline from the 77,109 for 1916.

Somehow, the province lost 8,907 German-born people between 1916 and 1921, a five-year period of limited immigration.

The numbers for other ethnic groups, on the other hand, are all significantly higher in 1921 than they were 10 years earlier.

The French-born population, for example, climbed from 23,251 to 42,152; the Scandinavian from 33,991 to 58,382; and the Russian/Ukrainian from 18,413 to 73,440.

Only the German-born population declined over the 10-year period.

What happened?

In early 20th century Saskatchewan, Germans were welcome, even valued, immigrants to the new province.

By 1911, they were the second largest ethnic group in Saskatchewan, making up almost 14 percent of the foreign-born population.

In fact, Regina had a large German population, as evidenced by the name Germantown for the neighbourhood east of the downtown business district.

As one of Europe’s northern groups, Germans were said to share the same sterling qualities as Britons.

Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter Victoria had even married Prince William of Prussia; their son was Kaiser Wilhelm, the German emperor.

But with the outbreak of war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire in August 1914, German immigrants became enemy aliens overnight.

At first, political and community leaders called for public calm and restraint—let the German-born population go quietly about their lives and continue to work at their jobs.

Canada’s quarrel was with the German leadership, not the German people.

But that was before the stories of so-called German atrocities in Belgium became front-page news.

Then, there was the German torpedoing of the ocean liner Lusitania in May 1915.

The Swift Current Sun claimed that the sinking of the ship was “the act of blood-crazed madmen, seemingly bent on the devastation of mankind. Germany has proven herself an outlaw.”

This anti-German sentiment hardened as the Great War’s death toll mounted and more and more Saskatchewan families were scarred by the loss of loved ones.

As part of a national boycott campaign, the Saskatchewan chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire vowed, “From this day until my death, I pledge myself never willingly nor knowingly to buy an article made by the bloody hands that killed our boys.”

By attacking things German, IODE women could feel that they were participating directly in the war.

In a December 1916 provincial plebiscite, meanwhile, temperance supporters made the prohibition referendum a loyalty test — a vote for liquor was equated with a vote for the Kaiser.

Eighty percent, four of every five respondents, voted to shut down the new government dispensaries.

“As the war against Germany became longer and more bitter,” one historian noted, “the war against booze enlisted more and more recruits.”

A year later, the Wartime Elections Act disenfranchised any enemy alien who had been eligible to vote since 1902.

It was widely believed that Germans should not be allowed to participate in the December 1917 general election.

The foreign-language press was also restricted.

English translations had to appear in parallel columns in “enemy alien” language newspapers published in Canada.

The next step was an outright publication ban.

Hostile gangs twice attacked the offices of Der Courier, Regina’s German newspaper, before it suspended operations.

Several Saskatchewan communities changed their names in response to the war.

Prussia, for example, was dropped in favour of Leader, while Kaiser became Peebles and Schultz was renamed Prelate.

By war’s end, the harassment and condemnation proved too much for many Germans and they deliberately abandoned one nationality for another.

The most popular new identity was Scandinavian.

According to census data for the years 1911 and 1921, the number of people in the three prairie provinces who gave their birth place as Germany fell from 18,696 to 13,343 during the 10-year period.

Those born in Sweden, Norway and Holland, on the other hand, increased from 33,826 to 38,925 over the same period.

The increase in the number of Scandinavians almost equalled the decrease in Germans.

It was no coincidence.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix as part of the “Say It Ain’t So” series.

Photo: A Saskatchewan editorial cartoon predicted that British values would triumph over Germany in the Great War (REGINA LEADER JUNE 8, 1918) /Saskatoon

Historian Bill Waiser is author of the forthcoming book, In Search of Almighty Voice. Questions or comments can be sent to bill.waiser@usask.ca.