Review of Book on Russian Labour Migration to Canada Around 1900

Vadim Kukushkin, From Peasants to Labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration From the Russian Empire to Canada. Montreal et al.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7735-3267-0
Our images of East European immigrants to Canada in the decades before the First World War are shaped by Clifford Sifton’s description of them as “stalwart peasants in sheepskin coats” settling the newly opened prairies, by the stories of Mennonites, Jews, and Doukhobors fleeing religious persecution, and by revolutionaries escaping the tsar’s police. These images, however, tell only part of history. The vast majority of Russian immigrants during the 1890s and early 1900s were not homesteaders or refugees. Most of the Russians who came to Canada between 1896 and 1914, Vadim Kukushkin argues in From Peasants to Labourers, were economic migrants. They were labourers who planned to temporarily work in Canada’s mining, logging, agricultural, or industrial sectors, and then return home to their families and communities. They were joining a large industrial labour system in the North Atlantic that stretched from the western regions of Siberia westward across Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and North America to Canada’s Pacific coast. They were among three million immigrants that Canada received during this time period.
The industrial workers who migrated within this North Atlantic labour migration system came from Belarus and Ukraine west of the Dnieper river, but after decades of Russification, they often identified as Russian. This fluctuation of ethnic identity is one of the reasons that Canadian immigration historian have overlooked these migrants. Based on 2,800 personal files from the Russian imperial consulate in Canada, Kukushkin paints a picture of the migrants as young, married men trying to accumulate starting capital to build a life on the land in Russia. Overpopulation, landlessness, the beginning industrialization, a population boom were pushed the migrants away from their home. They were pulled by the images of “America” that had been created by immigration agents, advice literature, and pioneering migrants who sent letters home. The hurdles they had to overcome were significant. Anti-emigration legislation forced many to cross borders without documents. The immigrant labourers worked on Canada’s resource extraction frontier, in mining, lumbering, railway construction, and farming. During the winter months, they moved into industrial work in the urban centres, especially Montreal. Others worked in urban industry year-round.
Theirs was the familiar experience of sojourning, working in unskilled and dangerous jobs, living in cramped quarters in camps or ethnic neighbourhoods. Drinking, gambling, fighting, and sex dominated their spare time. Neither the Russian Orthodox Church nor various Protestant churches (especially Baptists) were successful at bringing the itinerant male workers into their fold. Socialist and social democratic organizations and parties were similarly unsuccessful. They maintained connections to family and homeland through letters and remittances. Sojourning also often meant that dreams of returning home remained unfulfilled. The First World War worsened the situation. While some returned to fight in the Russian army, others joined the Canadian forces or stayed to work in the arms industry. Many, Kukushkin points out, never saw their families again.
From Peasants to Labourers is a solidly researched and convincingly argued study that takes to heart Frank Thistlethwaite’s decades-old but still too often neglected call to look behind the salt-water curtain and study the homelands and origins of migrants as much as their experiences in North America. It is also informed by migration systems theory that goes beyond a listing of push and pull factors and takes into consideration migrant networks as well as local conditions. From Peasants to Labourers will work well in graduate seminars on migration history and will add to every immigration historian’s library.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg