German Immigration to Alberta
The map of Europe in the 19th century underwent many changes, and nations’ boundaries were different then from what they are today. As a result, many of the German-speaking immigrants who came to Canada at that time did not specifically come from Germany. German-speaking immigrants to Canada have come from many different countries, including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Eastern European nations. Although each group was culturally unique, their immigration patterns were nearly identical.
Many German speakers began coming to Canada in the 1880s and were encouraged to settle in Alberta. In 1883, the first German settlement was established at Pincher Creek and, six years later, 100 German families settled in Medicine Hat. In 1892, the Calgary-Edmonton Railway was completed and many German speakers began settling in the area around Edmonton, establishing such communities as Leduc and Stony Plain. German-speaking people were high on Sifton’s list of desirable immigrants, partly because of their hard-working nature and partly because their culture was fairly similar to the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture.
The German immigrants were not a homogeneous group. They came from many different countries and were members of a wide variety of churches, including Protestant, Lutheran, and Catholic. Most of the early German settlements were rural and church-oriented, although there were some German-speaking urban workers. Many of the German-speaking people from the Swiss Alps settled in the Canadian Rockies and found work as mountain guides.
Prior to World War I, every tenth person in Alberta was a German-speaker, and German communities tended to be well accepted by other Albertans. However, in 1914, when Canada went to war against Germany, discrimination against Germans became widespread in Alberta. Many workers were dismissed; unnaturalized Germans were put in internment camps; and German-language schools and churches were closed. Many towns also changed their names to more English-sounding names. Calstadt became Alderson and Düsseldorf became Freedom.
In 1923, the Canadian government, which had stopped all German immigration during the war, allowed German speakers to once again enter Canada. In 1925, the Railways Agreement was signed and, by the end of the 1920s, the railway companies had brought more than 12,000 German speakers to Alberta. For the most part, these immigrants were farmers who settled in the north-central area of the province. Many of these German speakers were from Austria, which was suffering economic problems after World War I. Some of these Austrians were artisans, skilled craftspeople, who went to the urban centres looking for work. In 1938, the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria) occurred and political refugees from Austria flooded into Canada. These were mostly educated people from the cities.
During World War II, anti-German sentiment was less than it had been during World War I; however, it was not until five years after the end of World War II, in 1950, that Germans from Germany proper were allowed into Canada. German-speaking post-war immigrants came from refugee camps or fled from countries destroyed by the war. Many of the German speakers who immigrated during the 1940s were sent to work in sugar beet fields in southern Alberta. Those who immigrated to Canada following World War II tended to be well-educated people from urban backgrounds; they therefore settled primarily in Alberta’s cities. German-speaking immigration to Canada began to decline in the late 1950s and by the 1990s, approximately one percent of all immigrants were German.
German-speaking immigrants tended to assimilate quickly into the general Alberta culture and began intermarrying early in their immigration history. Today, there are over 500,000 German-speaking people in Alberta, forming the province’s second-largest ethnic group.
As part of the CKUA's “Heritage Trails” radio series, host Cheryl Croucher discusses German immigration to Alberta and the shame many of these immigrants felt after World War II. (Running Time: 2:47 minutes)
Palmer, Howard. Land of the Second Chance: A History of Ethnic Groups in Southern Alberta. Lethbridge: The Lethbridge Herald, 1972.
Palmer, Howard, and Tamara Palmer, eds. Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.