Social and Economic Life

The social and economic life of central Alberta has been shaped by the historical eras common to much of the Canadian West: Aboriginal presence, fur trade and mission activity, treaties and expansion of Canada, mass immigration and agricultural settlement, growth of villages and towns and modernization and urbanization. In this section, we will look at one of the developments that initially shaped the social and economic life of the region, a chapter of the region's history centred around the Crossing at the Red Deer River and the early colonization and homesteading of land.

In the 1870s, travel through the region was slow and difficult. The 350 kilometre trip between Calgary and Edmonton took from ten to fifteen days to complete and the Crossing was a favoured stop on the journey. Following the signing of Treaty 6 in 1870, the Canadian government looked to stimulate migration to the Canadian West, including the region. Homesteading and immigration policies were a key element of this and the first surveyors reached central Alberta in the spring of 1880.

By the autumn of 1880, Alexander Sutherland, secretary of the Methodist Missionary Society, led an expedition through the region. Upon his return to Ontario, Sutherland recounted his travels in a publication titled 'A Summer in Prairie-Land.' Impressed by the fertility of the region, he proposed the Methodist Church actively promote settlement and investment opportunities in the region among Ontario Methodists. To this end, Sutherland and a group of Ontario Methodist businessmen and clergy formed a land and colonization company.

The result was the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company (SLHC). The SLHC made a proposal to the Canadian Government for some 200,000 acres in three large blocks in Western Canada, one of these in the area of the Crossing at the Red Deer River. The SLHC obtained some ninety sections of land in the area. The SLHC functioned as the land agent for these tracts of land. By 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railroad had reached Calgary and freighting traffic between Edmonton and Calgary increased dramatically.

However, the anticipated rush of settlers did not occur and the SLHC approached Leonard Gaetz, an SLHC director and Methodist clergyman to settle in the Red Deer area. Gaetz arrived with his family in 1884 and his skill as a farmer and orator helped turn his homestead into a model farm and promote this success to others. By 1885, instability related to the Riel dispute and resistance further deterred settlement activity in the larger region. Lack of land sales resulted in the SLHC being reorganized as a commercial venture, rather than a colonization company intent on creating a profitable Methodist settlement and society in the Canadian West.

By 1887 settlement had steadily increased and by November 1890, the Calgary-Red Deer line of the Calgary and Edmonton Railroad was completed. This development made the region more accessible and was the key economic factor in these early years. The railway ran across the 1200 acre property of Leonard Gaetz, who had offered the rail company a share in his farm. Besides this arrangement, Gaetz wrote promotional articles for the area that were published in the Calgary Herald, made submissions to parliamentary committees and later wrote a pamphlet titled 'Report of Six Years' Experience of a Farmer in the Red Deer District', circulated by the Department of Agriculture to encourage settlers to the region.

With their familiarity with Canadian economic and political institutions, the Ontarians quickly adapted to life in the region and did much to shape it socially, economically and politically. The interpretation of laws, establishment of businesses and social events reflected this perspective. In fact, the impact of the Ontarians in Alberta until the 1920s was so great that the province gained the nickname of "Rural Ontario West."

Fitting comfortably into this mould, British and American migrants also arrived and were part of the early fabric of the region. This presence is reflected in the names of rural districts. For example, a district in the Wetaskiwin area called Usona is reputedly an acronym for 'United States of North American' and other districts carry the names of individual states, such as Nebraska and Dakota. Prior to World War I, most American immigrants worked in agriculture and arrived seeking homesteads in Alberta at that time. American immigrants were largely dry land farmers from the United States and many of them returning to Canada.

Immigration to the region also included people of Icelandic (Markerville), Danish (Dickson), Norwegian (Camrose), Swedish (Wetaskiwin), Finnish and Estonian (Sylvan Lake and Eckville), French (Trochu) and Dutch (Lacombe) ancestry. Later and recent immigration is reflected in a listing of contemporary cultural organizations in the region. Some of these include the Chilean Association, Dutch Canadian Club, Vasa Lodge (Swedish), Central Alberta lndo-Canadian Club, Red Deer and District Ukrainian Club, Danish Canadian Club, Phillippine Canadian Club, Canadian Bosnian Heregovinian Ljiljan Society, Central Alberta Islamic Cultural Association, Norwegian Laft Hus Society and the Red Deer Chinese Society.