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Peasant Perceptions and Ukrainian Land Selection

Ukrainian home near Vegreville, Alberta, 1906. Unlike farmers from southern Ontario, the United States and Northern Europe, most Ukrainian peasant immigrants expected to continue practicing semi-subsistence peasant agriculture in Canada. Ukrainian peasants were not motivated by a burning desire to turn a profit but by the need to provide for their families. Most simply hoped to establish an equilibrium between family needs and the drudgery of labour. Consequently they assumed that 30 acres of good land would be enough to satisfy their needs and chose homesteads according to the criteria of a subsistence peasant economy rather than a capitalist market economy.

In a peasant subsistence economy fertile agricultural land was simply one among many necessary resources. Other resources were almost as important. The peasant required woodlands for fuel, building material and fencing. Fruits, berries and mushrooms gathered in the forest added variety to the peasant's diet, and ingredients of folk medicines could also be found in the woods. A marsh or swamp was valued as a source of slough grass, water for cattle, thatched roofing and game birds. Heavy yellow clay deposits were essential for the construction of the traditional peasant dwelling. Stone, sand, willow and juniper were also perceived as valuable building materials.

Ukrainian family wearing their traditional dress in the area of Vegreville, Alberta, ca 1906. Ukrainian peasants prized such resources for at least two other reasons. They realized that they had been reduced to total dependence on their former masters after 1848 because the nobility had appropriated so much of the forest, meadow, pasture and marsh lands. Secondly, since few were well capitalized when they arrived in Canada, they based their appraisal of a prospective homestead site upon the potential for long term economic growth.

Subconscious factors also entered into the selection of land. Sentiment and nostalgia played an important role. Peasants who had suddenly left the district in which they and their families had dwelt for hundreds of years and found themselves in a distant land where the customs and the language were incomprehensible, felt a strong desire for environmental continuity. The peasant's material and popular culture, his songs and folklore, were tightly intertwined with the natural environment of his homeland. Galicia and Bukovyna, it must be stressed, were not steppe lands resembling the Canadian prairie. They were forested regions at the base of the Carpathian mountains. A woodland environment could create the illusion of "at homeness," a comforting sense of continuity that facilitated adjustment to the new land.

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